Inside Pinterest: The Coming Ad Colossus That Could Dwarf Twitter And Facebook

Originally published on Forbes on October 15, 2014 By Jeff Bercovici.
This story appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of Forbes.
Pinterest Ben Silberman and Evan Sharp

Pinterest cofounders Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp in their company’s San Francisco offices. Credit: Jamel Toppin for FORBES.

The Cannes Lions advertising festival has become as big among the Madison Avenue crowd as the Riviera town’s iconic film event is for Hollywood. So as Steve Stoute nursed a drink with a friend at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the balmy June evening that opened this year’s boozing and schmoozing, the Cannes Lions veteran braced himself for an onslaught of media and technology executives. Stoute’s ad agency, Translation LLC, has clients like Anheuser-Busch, State Farm and McDonald’s – the kinds of whales that would have him fending off supplicants left and right.
But the roles of supplicant and master reversed when Stoute spotted Ben Silbermann walking into the bar. The soft-spoken Pinterest CEO was attending Cannes for the first time. Silbermann, 32, had just checked into his hotel and was planning to have a quick drink with his team before turning in to prep for his keynote speech the following morning. A few weeks earlier his social media service, especially popular with women and hobbyists, began experimenting with selling ads to show to its 70 million users. With more demand than it could satisfy, Pinterest had limited its test to a mere dozen sponsors, wringing commitments of more than $1 million from each.
Stoute was desperate to get his newest client, discount shoe store chain DSW, into the program (fashion is the third-most-popular type of content on Pinterest). “I didn’t want this thing to go by without us getting in front of it,” he says. Fortunately he had an in: Stoute’s drinking buddy that night was Ben Horowitz, whose venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, had just participated in the $200 million funding round that had propelled Pinterest’s on-paper valuation to $5 billion. Horowitz called Silbermann over, and Stoute ordered rosé for everyone, raised his glass toward his new acquaintance and offered up a paean of praise and blessings: Rise above, be great, stay great.
After accepting Stoute’s flattery, Silbermann agreed to take his money, too. An hour into his Riviera debut, the new prince of Cannes had already bagged his first deal, just by showing up.
That’s pretty much how things have been going for Pinterest lately. A visual social network where people create and share image collections of recipes, hairstyles, baby furniture and just about anything else on their phones or computers, Pinterest isn’t yet five years old, but among women, who make up over 80% of its users, it’s already more popular than Twitter, which has a market capitalization of more than $30 billion. Pinterest’s U.S. user base is projected to top 40 million this year, putting it in a league with both Twitter and Instagram domestically, and it’s moving fast to catch up with them overseas, opening offices in London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo over the past year. International users now make up nearly half of new sign-ups, according to the research firm Semiocast. Pinterest even doubled the number of active male users in the past year.
To date, Pinterest’s users have created more than 750 million boards made up of more than 30 billion individual pins, with 54 million new ones added each day. During the 2013 holiday season Pinterest accounted for nearly a quarter of all social sharing activity. Among social networks, only Facebook, with its 1.3 billion users, drives more traffic to Web publishers.
All that activity sounds big, but it understates the moneymaking opportunity in front of Pinterest, which will ultimately be judged by how much revenue it can wrest from its users. While it’s the earliest of days still, many analysts and observers believe that, on the basis of average revenue per user, it’s only a matter of time before Pinterest blows past Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social pack. “They’re going to bring in billions of dollars a year,” says Dave Weinberg, founder of the social marketing company Loop88.
To marketers, Pinterest represents a unique proposition, a new medium of a sort that’s never existed before. One difference is temporal. As Silbermann explains it, Facebook “is about your connections, your past events, your memories.” Users on Facebook volunteer a staggering amount of retrospective information such as birthplace, alma mater and vacations, data the company can use to power its highly targeted ad offerings. Twitter can’t offer that level of detail, which is why its revenue per user, at around $3.50, is only half that of Facebook’s. Twitter’s value remains stuck in the now, promising advertisers a presence in real-time conversations about the World Cup, a presidential election or Orange Is the New Black.
If Facebook is selling the past and Twitter the present, Pinterest is offering the future. “It’s about what you aspire to do, what you want to do down the line,” says Silbermann. And the future is where marketers want to live. When a user pins an image of a wedding dress or a coffee table to one of her boards, she’s sending up a signal flare to the merchandiser who might want to sell her that wedding dress or coffee table. “There’s intent around a pin,” says Joanne Bradford, Pinterest’s head of partnerships. “It says, ‘I’m organizing this into a place in my life,’ like when people tear out a page of a magazine.”
The idea of being able to locate consumers at that delicate moment when browsing becomes shopping has marketers intrigued. “One of the things we’re trying to figure out strategically is how to tap into consumers earlier in the inspiration or planning phase,” says David Doctorow, senior vice president of global marketing at Expedia, one of Pinterest’s charter advertisers. “We don’t have great ways to identify consumers in that part of the journey.”
For now advertising is Pinterest’s only revenue line. But it requires only the tiniest leap to conjure a scenario in which the company acts as middleman for the hundreds of thousands of retailers already showcasing their wares on its platform. “The next step will be how do we make it really easy for you to go out and buy that ring or take that trip,” says Silbermann. This is Amazon’s turf, but Facebook and Twitter have been making incursions, with both companies conducting tests of “Buy” buttons for frictionless shopping. Pinterest, though, has natural advantages in e-commerce, with independent research showing its users are more likely to share product links and make big purchases than users of other social platforms.
If Pinterest is going to lay claim to the future, it will have to knock off a pretty formidable incumbent, Google, which is also in the business of harvesting signals of intent and selling them to marketers. That’s the basis of its search advertising, the engine that drives roughly two-thirds of the company’s $55 billion in annual revenue.
Silbermann, who spent two years as a product specialist in Google’s advertising operation, knows what he’s up against. For all his midwestern diffidence (he was raised in Des Moines), he’s not shying away from the confrontation. In his Cannes keynote Silbermann dismissed Google as “the ultimate card catalog,” an outdated technology useful only if you already know what you’re looking for. Evan Sharp, Silbermann’s cofounder, puts a finer point on it. Pinterest, he says, “exposes people to possibilities they never would have known existed.”
Pinterest people talk of this open-ended form of search as discovery, and figuring out how to do it right “is the biggest business opportunity in the last 10 to 20 years for an online business,” says Tim Kendall, Pinterest’s product head. The choice of time frame is not accidental: As Facebook’s director of monetization from 2006 through 2010, he shaped the strategy that turned that company into the $200 billion force it has become. He says Pinterest will be bigger–bigger than Facebook and, yes, bigger than Google. “That’s why I joined.”