Last updated: June 6, 2014 6:39 pm

Pinterest sights set on the big picture

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Mini hot air balloons – crafted from beach balls – bob above the office floor at Pinterest’s headquarters, where a former US Marine Platoon commander is busy trying to turn the scrapbooking site into a business.

Don Faul, Pinterest’s head of operations, is charged with opening up the site – best known as a home for craft enthusiasts – to marketers. This week he launched a self-serve advertising platform, after recently announcing partnerships with large brands just days before the still revenue-less company’s valuation hit $5bn.

This may not be his biggest battle. Retailers and consumer goods companies have already flocked to the site, using Pinterest to showcase products in imaginative ways. Target partnered with influential pinners to design products, while Caribou coffee installed a giant pinboard in the largest mall in America to collect inspiration for a new flavour.

Mr Faul, who also helped Facebook roll out advertising after his years in the military, said Pinterest is about “discovery”: finding what you did not know you were looking for. With the new pins, advertisers can buy keywords and categories in a way that is more like Google than other social sites that focus on targeting individual users by demographics.

“We believe Pinterest is about discovery which transcends gender, region, language, market,” he said. “It is about connecting people with things.”

Pinterest, unlike rivals Facebook and Twitter, has become a site where people go to pore over products, looking for the shoes they want to buy, or compiling boards of trips they want to take in the future. The company hopes its new Promoted Pins can sit more naturally on the site than traditional ads that push themselves into people’s conversations with their friends and family.

Joanne Bradford, head of partnerships and one of Mr Faul’s key hires, said it is a “chief marketing officer’s dream” not to have to “wedge” the brand into a site like Pinterest, but show up naturally.

“The market is really excited and ready,” she said. “They have been waiting for us for a long time to embark on monetisation.”

The Pinterest Effect

How being discovered by Pinterest users helped one photobook start-up grow into a multi-million dollar business

The site launched by Ben Silbermann, chief executive, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra in 2010 has about 55m monthly users, according to research firm ComScore, and is still a minnow in the social networking pond. Facebook is 23 times larger, Twitter almost five times bigger and Instagram nearly four times larger.

But its users are shoppers. The majority are women with above-average purchasing power and families to buy for, according to Ahalogy, a content marketing network. More than three quarters now use the site on their mobile, the new frontier for marketers.

“We deliver a lot of traffic, really really high quality, even benchmarked against some of the big platforms,” Mr Faul said.

Ms Bradford, whose long career includes Microsoft, Yahoo and the San Francisco Chronicle, is trying to build strong relationships with big brands by introducing the adverts slowly with partners, with every promoted pin reviewed by Pinterest. Calling it an “educate and activate” model, her team is criss-crossing the country holding seminars for the likes of General Mills and workshops for smaller beauty brands. In the biggest workshop of them all, Mr Silbermann is delivering a keynote at the Cannes Lions, the advertising festival later this month.

Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at Altimeter Group, said the company was approaching advertising “very, very cautiously” and it has the money to take its time. Pinterest raised the most money from venture capitalists of any technology company last year, according to research firm PrivCo.

“Pinterest, much like Twitter and Instagram, is rolling out advertising products very very slowly and deliberately. There’s this well known Silicon Valley adage to fail often and fail fast but that does not seem to apply to these very high profile companies with a lot of funding,” she said.

Aside from being led by a former military commander - a rarity in Silicon Valley where college dropout is a more common badge of honour - the Pinterest team includes other unlikely hires including a former retail analyst from Goldman Sachs and a veteran of L’Oréal and Walmart. It has also broken the mould by opening sales offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as New York, to underline the importance of the mid-western consumer conglomerates and the entertainment industry.

While still a hub for pictures of wedding fancies and instructions on how to do crafts like those that fill the Pinterest office, Pinterest is also becoming a home for publishers. One in ten pins is an article and Pinterest is the second biggest driver of traffic, after Facebook, to the social-focused news site Buzzfeed, more than Twitter and all the other social sites combined.

The company is starting with a basic ad unit but is intent on exploring other options such as video, which is especially popular with advertisers. It is expanding into the UK, France and Japan but not showing adverts there yet.

“People have asked us for everything from commerce to rich media,” Ms Bradford said. “Gosh, we’d like to do them all.”

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