Five years ago, as Facebook was establishing global dominance and Twitter was showing promise as The Next Big Thing, there was little doubt that both would become hugely profitable. Today, after years of awkwardly placed ads, Promoted Tweets, privacy concerns, and struggling stock values, the wisdom has started to swing the other way. Being popular and ubiquitous, we've learned, is not the same as having a long-term revenue model.
The reality is that most revenue on the internet comes from either advertising or selling a service, and both are perceived as intrusions in the conversational environment of social media. Facebook and Twitter, designed for communicating and sharing personal stories, naturally put people in a social mindset. And in that context, commerce will always feel inappropriate.
This helps explain the recent surge in attention for Pinterest. After a year of relative obscurity, the visual bookmarking site rose to prominence in late 2011, growing from 1M to 10M unique monthly visitors in under six months. That's still a fraction of Facebook's global base, but Pinterest's users are unusually engaged: ask nearly any of them and you'll hear, at some level, that they're hooked. Moreover, a large fraction also report having made a purchase specifically because they discovered the item on Pinterest.
The keys to this aren't just functional features. Yes, Pinterest does a good job of providing a seamless path between visual browsing and retail sites, but this wouldn't matter if people didn't adopt a purchasing mindset while browsing. The fact is that millions of them do, because Pinterest is designed from the ground up to create an online experience that triggers the same emotional high as real-life shopping.
To understand how, it's useful to employ a metaphor. When designers analyze a user experience to see how it works, or begin planning how to craft one for a client, metaphor is often our most powerful tool. Looking at Pinterest, one metaphor in particular explains why it's so good at driving engagement and commerce. It's essentially a bazaar.
With roots going back thousands of years, the sprawling bazaars of South Asia and the Middle East are icons of flourishing commerce. They seduce visitors with their abundance and intimacy, and imbue shopping with the excitement of discovery. The fact that a lot of goods change hands in them has as much to do with heady experience as household economics. The same can be said of Pinterest, which takes design cues from the bazaar to make browsing images and links a richer experience, and to set itself apart from other social networks or shopping sites.
Most visibly, Pinterest is endlessly explorable, presenting browsers with multiple avenues to venture down next. Clicking on a Pinterest "pin" gives you several options for related content revealed by an enlarged view: you might pursue other pins from the same board, other boards from the same user, items pinned by like-minded users, and so on. Like the bazaar, Pinterest has no dead ends, but reveals new pathways with every additional step.
Along the way, visitors can engage with the stocks of different kinds of curators. Pinterest affords access to two kinds of collection: content assembled by people a user knows, and content assembled by strangers with a shared interest. This is in contrast to networks like Facebook, which is only about the former, or special-interest sites that focus on the latter. Together, these modes allow users to sample personality and expertise to their liking, making forays beyond their circle of comfort and lowering resistance to novel offerings. This also mimics the duality of an active bazaar, which is both familiar and challenging, social and serious — a place where one forms relationships with reliable sellers, but also hopes to encounter the exotic.
Third, Pinterest values relevant stock over speedy transaction. In the bazaar, the most successful stalls aren't the ones with sellers hawking deals to maximize turnover, but those inviting browsers to step in, examine the goods, and develop a desire for them, even if it means coming back later to buy. Pinterest's version of this is allowing groups (of friends or strangers) to build collections together. Time-shifting the act of curation defuses the sense of urgency that permeates most social media — again, enabling a user to move into a purchasing mindset. Where Facebook pushes, Pinterest pulls.
The net effect is that Pinterest users do not react to commercial nudges with the resentment that they are being manipulated or abused. They feel in control, because the purpose of their visit is aligned with the experience of the site. They came to Pinterest with expectations similar to those they would have entering the bazaar. They didn't venture in to catch up with friends and then awkwardly find themselves looking at an ad — they arrived looking for things to collect, and open to the possibility that they might eventually want to buy.
Svpply.com, an eBay-owned social shopping site often considered Pinterest's main competition, offers a good counter-example. Its selection is curated by strangers and promoted by mass popularity; two of its three sorting options ("popular today" and "recently added") are entirely now-based; and while it can be searched and filtered, it lacks the social/expert duality that makes Pinterest so engrossing and relevant. Despite a six-month head start, it's struggled to attract even a fraction of the traffic.
Engaging with customers socially is simple necessity in the modern commercial landscape. And while Facebook and Twitter are excellent venues for building awareness, testing ideas, and gathering feedback, companies that attempt to convert those social communities into increased sales are often disappointed.
As Pinterest rolls out a widening array of tools for linking browsers with retailers, other companies can benefit by watching how they achieve what other networks still find challenging. In particular, they have crafted an online experience that gives customers a sense of control and multiple paths for discovery. They let their users discover and collect at their own pace, and co-curate with friends and like-minded strangers.
More generally, by choosing to build a bazaar instead of, say, a bar or boutique, they are seizing upon a precious design tool — an apt metaphor — and making it their own.