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Companies scramble to use Pinterest

Businesses still uncertain how to make most of latest social networking phenomenon

For America’s Test Kitchen, there was no way to avoid Pinterest, the fast-growing, photo-sharing social network.

Late last year, Pinterest was eagerly embraced by food bloggers - exactly the people America’s Test Kitchen, a Brookline publisher of cookbooks and food magazines, wanted to reach. But many of the recipes that the foodies were sharing, or “pinning,’’ were not up to its standards. How could it interact with users without endorsing recipes of lower quality?

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America’s Test Kitchen is still figuring out how best to use Pinterest, but one step it took was to set up a board on the site just for users trying out its recipes. “That gives us the best of both worlds. We can link to other people, but the recipes are ours,’’ said Steph Yiu, the publisher’s new media strategist.

And now, Pinterest generates almost as much traffic for the company as Twitter or Facebook.

Just as many businesses have finally figured out how to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Google Plus, here comes yet another social media obligation that’s too popular to ignore. Traffic on Silicon Valley-based Pinterest, which was founded in 2010, shot up from 418,000 to 11.7 million unique visitors per month in the eight months ended in January, according to Internet measurement firm comScore.

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“It just took off - bam!’’ said Mike Schneider, senior vice president at Watertown advertising agency Allen & Gerritsen - astounding for a site still in beta that can’t be joined without an invitation.

One of the keys to Pinterest’s success is its disarmingly simple design, based on a “virtual pinboard’’ - something like an online scrapbook. Users “pin’’ up images of products and items they like, often related to hobbies or other personal passions. The images can link to actual products online, and be organized on pinboards shared with other fans.

“It’s about finding something that’s interesting to you and sharing it,’’ said David Gerzof Richard, a professor of social media and marketing at Emerson College and a user himself. “It’s stupid simple to use. You don’t have to write anything. It’s essentially eye candy.’’

That seems to make Pinterest suited for companies with photogenic products like shoes or recipes that can feature glamorous pictures of fabulous meals. But what about businesses like Cambridge online marketing company HubSpot Inc. that do not normally produce glitzy photos that devotees will share?

HubSpot has leaped on to the social network even though it hasn’t quite finished crafting a Pinterest strategy. “It was growing so fast, we felt we had to look into it,’’ said Pamela Vaughan, inbound marketing blog manager for HubSpot. “Marketers are still trying to figure it out, honestly.’’

But by jumping aboard early, and promoting the network to clients through Twitter and other means, HubSpot could potentially establish itself as a Pinterest authority. One strategy it has tried is to pin cover images of marketing e-books, including a free one from HubSpot itself called “Pinterest for Business.’’

HubSpot also pinned marketing-oriented infographics, a growing category on the Web, and created a pinboard called “Fun Orange Things,’’ a homage to the color of the company’s logo. “We are going to see how Pinterest evolves,’’ Vaughan said. “Then we’ll find ways to use it, leverage it, and track it.’’

Despite such scattershot, hit-or-miss efforts, Hubspot’s Pinterest posts have generated better traffic than the company expected. In February, Vaughan said, the company generated comparatively more leads from Pinterest than it did from Google Plus, the struggling social network launched by search giant Google Inc. last year.

Yet Pinterest is “still a challenge,’’ Vaughan admitted. “Eventually, they have to monetize the service and start adding tools for marketers.’’

Pinterest itself has had growing pains. Some technology publications have questioned whether its millions of users have the legal rights to the images they post. And the network recently caught heat for not disclosing that it attached so-called affiliate links into product images posted there, allowing it to collect payments from purchases made by users who clicked on the pictures. The company subsequently stated that the affiliate links were a test, not an essential part of its business model.

Pinterest, which has a staff of 21, declined to comment further, saying it is trying “to focus on its product this quarter,’’ and not doing interviews.

Allen & Gerritsen’s Schneider said his agency is advising its clients to experiment with the service. “People on Pinterest are already showing their interest in a topic, whether it’s fashion or beer,’’ Schneider said. “Companies in those spaces can use Pinterest to engage with those potential customers.’’

Yet Darika Ahrens, an interactive marketing analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, advises caution, pointing out that many social sites, including Yelp, Tagged.com, and Yahoo Answers, still attract substantially more traffic than Pinterest.

“Pinterest is well known for having a demographic of 18-34-year-old, upper-income women from the Midwest - if that’s not who you sell to, then Pinterest may not be for you,’’ she said. “I’d ask, can you afford to be playing with pretty pictures when there are other, more urgent, interactive marketing priorities?’’

Yale Appliance and Lighting in Dorchester has been on Pinterest for a month, mostly because chief executive Steve Sheinkopf finds it “fiercely addictive.’’

Sheinkopf said Pinterest allows him to indulge his appetite for lighting, kitchen design, and appliances, as opposed to being part of a marketing strategy.

Last Friday, when Sheinkopf woke up unusually early, he spent a few minutes on the site pinning images of odd colored kitchen ranges and vintage stoves that were not from his store. “I use it as a digital scrapbook, to show what’s possible,’’ he said.

“It’s too soon to tell whether it will add up to anything from a business point of view, but I really like it, personally.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.
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