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Pinterest, Etc.: How to Tell a Shiny Object from Real Food

 Pinterest’s spectacular ascendancy into the upper strata of social services has prompted a rash of warnings to beware the shiny object.

The notion of the shiny object (and the syndrome that bears its name) has its origins in fishing. In addition to bait and flies, lures are one way to catch a fish. A lure—adorned with feathers and other acoutrements, shaped to look like the kind of fish your prey feeds on, or just a naked hunk of metal—spins through the water as it’s dragged behind a boat or reeled in from shore. Since it’s not far from the surface, it catches the light, attracting fish who think they’re seeing food flash by. A fish that strikes on a lure succumbs to shiny object syndrome.

In our world, the lure is a recently-launched social site that suddenly gets a lot of attention, attracting enough glowing referrals and gushy commentary to lead marketers to think it’s someplace they just have to be. Even savvy marketers break out in a sweat. Should they take this one seriously? If they wait, will competitors beat them to the punch and grab up first-mover advantage? How long should they wait?

The challenge for marketers, as it is for fish, is to figure out how to distinguish shiny objects from food.

Fish have tiny brains and little impulse control, so lures work well when used properly. PR practitioners, marketers, communicators and others seeking to optimize their social media investments can be more discerning. Unlike the bass or walleye that just instinctively reacts to that flash of light, we can establish criteria to help us figure out if a hot new property will feed us or kill us.

Here are some signs that a site is more than a shiny object (using Pinterest as a common denominator):

Outside the fishbowl

Most of the buzz that erupts around a shiny object comes from inside the tech/geek/marketing fishbowl. Diaspora and Unthink both got a lot of attention as potential Facebook killers, since both were designed to address the “walled garden” argument and put control and privacy back in users’ hands. Diaspora is a ghost town and Unthink, launched a mere six months ago, is gone.

Their demise was easily predicted, since nobody talked about them outside the fishbowl. Similarly, nobody’s talking about or any number of other sites that launched with much fanfare.

Pinterest? For all the talk about it here in the fishbowl, I hear even more on the other side of the glass. The woman who does my wife’s nails is talking about it. My daughter is planning her wedding on it. Ask someone you know who fits into the less-than-tech-savvy category; odds are, she’s heard of Pinterest. She may even be using it.

Time suck

I’m still trying to figure out Every couple weeks, I’ll drop by, scroll through stuff, then leave. Even when I’m determined to understand its potential, I don’t spend more than a couple minutes there. Nothing grabs me, nothing compels me, nothing screams at me to click more, explore, get sucked in.

Pinterest, on the other hand, is a hard-core time suck. When Stephanie Rosenbloom interviewed me for a New York Times story on “virtual-closet web sites” like Pinterest, she confessed that the site has cost her more time than she ever expected. Following a lead from someone she had interviewed, she would look at the board, then click, then click, then look up at the clock to see that two hours had gone by.

Admit it. You know how she feels.

The more time people spend on a site, the more likely they are to return, to get more engaged, to make it a routine stop. Among the statistics emerging from Pinterest is a ridiculously high volume of return visits.

Drop dead easy

I haven’t heard a single person complain that Pinterest is too complex to figure out. No complaints about clutter, options, settings or the usual litany of issues that put people off a site. In fact, it takes two minutes to see what it does and another two to figure out how to use it. Other sites with huge uptake have shared the simple-to-comprehend and easy-to-use characteristics.


When I interviewed him maybe 15 years ago, usability expert Jared Spool told me technology can only do three things: solve a problem, improve a process or enable something completely new you’ve never before been able to do.

Diaspora and Unthink didn’t do any of these things (unless you’re part of the incredibly small minority that is so freaked out by privacy issues that you must escape the evil clutches of Facebook—and I mean actually flee, not just grumble about it—and I can’t figure out how does, either.

Pinterest, on the other hand, does all three:

  • Solve problems—There are dozens of bridal registry pinboards, where couples-to-be can pin images of items they want, then send the link on their invitations. More often than not, the images link to an ecommerce store, a few short clicks from a purchase. But wait, there’s more—and just for weddings! As the time approaches for my daughter to send out a “save the date” card, I wondered if there were any examples on Pinterest. I queried “save the date,” and was taken to hundreds upon hundreds of cards people have sent out, sparking more than a few ideas.

  • Improve a process—Getting sweet faces of the dogs and cats available for adoption in front of potential adoptees has always been a problem for humane organizations, but the Humane Society of New York posts them under three boards on Pinterest, one for dogs, one for cats, and one showing animals recently adopted. They also share a board of photos taken in the homes of adopted pets along with one about projects and events, among others. Now dog and cat lovers can share the pics on their own boards, email them to friends looking for a pet and employ other approaches to drawing attention to your next potential fuzzy friend. Pinterest is loaded with examples of people and organizations who have found the site makes it easier to do something they were already doing, from planning trips to collectinig craft patterns.

  • Do something new—Both people and brands are using Pinterest to do things they’ve never been able to do before. Marketers are using Pinterest to create product bundles that would appeal to niche audiences, something budgets and resources precluded in the past. Or there’s this idea, shared by Kelly Crane on Lockergnome: “Marin Wren from Seattle owns a cake decoration business called I Make Cake and uses Pinterest to curate cake decoration ideas for small business. Her board on Pinterest, Let them Eat Cake, helps her find inspiration for her clients. Other business owners, such as photographers like Kendall Shea-Nielsen, uses Pinterest to create “Look Books” for potential clients.”

Inspires innovation

The best social media sites inspire people to come up with new uses. It’s doubtful that Mark Zuckerberg, in Facebook’s early days, ever thought the social network would become a focal point for revolutions. Most of the shiny objects don’t grab people by the lapels, shake them and shout, “There are so many ways you could use this!”

Pinterest does. There are teachers using pinboards as a supplemental resource for students in their classes. Ragan Communications, which offers professional development for communicators, has set up boards on areas it covers (like social media), is collecting infographics and even has a board displaying restaurants and attractions in Chicago, location of the group’s upcoming Corporate Communicators Conference.

Culture and etiquette

When enough people use a site enough times, communities take root and, along with them, cultures are established and rules of etiquette emerge; both have to do with appropriate and effective behaviors within the community. Given the flurry of comparisons of Pinterest to scrapbooking, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that a scrapbooking kind of culture has swept Pinterest.

Etiquette is definitely forming, well beyond that listed by Pinterest itself. Brian Honigman, for example, suggests it’s agood etiquette to share images and videos from other industry-related user’s boards, becuase that will “keep your profile community-based and not just a promotion center for your assets and products. Repin and like other content that suits your community, which will help strengthen your reach in the long-term.” Gartner is among those that have written a complete post dedicated to Pinterest etiquette.

Mainstream media starts using it

I’m not talking about mainstream media covering a tool, but actually using it. Newspapers have adopted Cover It Live, which those in the know understand is a viable business with staying power. The Washington Post has already embedded a Storify story it was unable to cover with its own staff’s activities. And now, The Wall Street Journal is of Fashion Week in New York. As one blogger put it, “While being able to follow Fashion Week coverage via tweets and live videos is a social media girl’s dream, there’s still nothing like seeing everything through photography.” She noted she was follower number 889 on the board. The Journal has 20 boards. Multiple publications have reported that Pinterest is driving more traffic to their sites than Facebook.

Source of comparison

When a niche social network emerges, you can bet people will call it “Facebook for cat lovers” or “Twitter for speed dating.” We’re already hearing Pinterest put to this use. is Pinterest for video. Gentlemint is Pinterest for men. When a site becomes part of the day-to-day vernacular, you know you’re on to something.

More signs a site will last?

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a site that featured these characteristics, yet crashed and burned anyway. None come to mind. But there may be elements of services built to last that I’ve missed. What else suggests that a site won’t be found next year on the scrapheap of social media fizzles?

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