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How Pinterest became the only place on the internet where people want ads

By Amrita Khalid

It’s hard to tell the difference between what’s an ad and what’s not these days on Pinterest. A search for “women’s hiking pants” on the platform yields hundreds of vivid, pleasant images of the outdoors—very few of which don’t lead to a checkout page on a retailer’s site. You’ll see a mix of promoted Pins from popular athletic gear retailers like Fabletics and Athleta, as well as “Shoppable Pins” and “Shop the Look” pins from retailers. The platform classifies the latter two as “non-ads,” even though clicking on either will direct users to a link for purchase.

Shoppable Pins display the current price of the item, and clicking on them takes you directly to the retailer’s site, where users can purchase the item itself. Brands upload Shoppable Pins to Pinterest, and then users share them organically. Similarly, with “Shop the Look” pins, retailers and influencers can tag any products for sale in photos.

On Pinterest, the line between what’s an ad and what’s real is very blurry. Pinterest’s head of engineering Jeremy King, who joined the platform from Walmart back in March, acknowledges that it can be hard for users to tell the difference between organic pins and ads. “Most of the time [users] don’t even know they’re ads,” King told Quartz. “In fact, sometimes they think pins are ads and they’re not. And sometimes that ads are pins and they’re not.

Pinterest, once a simple curation tool for ideas you found on the internet, such as DIY infinity scarves or recipes for mug cake, is growing into something bigger. The social media platform is is now a power tool for online shopping. Since the launch of the current iteration of Shoppable Pins last October, the number of clicks to retail sites have tripled, a company representative told Quartz. Earlier this week, Pinterest announced that users could fine-tune the algorithms that powered their Home Feeds, offering users a degree of control over how they’re profiled—not to mention the ads that target them. The platform unveiled shopping tools last year that directed users to where they could buy certain items in a Pin, and back in March, Pinterest invited retailers to upload their entire product catalogs on Pinterest for free.

The company works with thousands of retailers around the world to create ad experiences, including big names like Target, Walmart, Ikea, Ulta, and Levi’s. Last month, the platform upgraded its visual search technology to be able to effectively identify 2.5 billion objects from home furnishings to clothing and integrated it with Shoppable Pins. For example, if you like the color of paint on a certain wall, you can snap a photo of it and it will direct you to where you can purchase the color on Home Depot’s website.

The nine-year old app isn’t just making it easier to shop, it’s also become a powerful platform for people to tell others where to shop. While it’s highly unlikely you’d ever see someone sharing an ad they saw on Facebook or Twitter with a friend, that’s the equivalent of what many of Pinterest’s more than 300 million users—two-thirds of them female—do on a regular basis. Pinterest users are organically curating brand-produced Pins onto their personal Boards, where they’ll pop up in the feeds of other like-minded users. You might notice that a friend from high school just pinned a pair of pair of charcoal Allbirds to her “Shoes” board, and if you love her style, you can have them shipped to you in a few taps. “Shoppable Pins” and “Shop the Look” pins don’t have the tell-tale “Promoted by” disclaimer that accompanies ads on Pinterest. But in the sense that they alert a captive audience to a product, how much it costs, and where they can buy it, it effectively serves the same purpose.

King described a conversation he had with a Pinterest employee, who said, “If you took all of the ads off of Facebook, nobody would care. And that’s not true with Pinterest.” The platform’s embrace of advertisers perhaps isn’t too shocking, considering many of its users are looking to buy something, or plan for something when they use the app. That stands in contrast to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, which are primarily used to to stay connected to with friends or follow daily conversation on the news. Pinterest is where users go when they’re remodeling their home, planning a wedding, or even a nautical-themed baby shower. The platform can come up with a physical product that matches your abstract idea, and now gives you a way to shop it as well.

Just under half of Pinterest users go to the platform to shop or find products, according to a Cowen and Company study cited by eMarketer in January. Meanwhile, on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, shopping is the primary goal for a very small percentage of users. Which may well be why, after a year of many failed or unimpressive tech IPOs, Pinterest is still trading above its IPO price.

But until recently, Pinterest hasn’t reaped the profits of playing such a vital role in people’s purchasing decisions. Pinterest earned $700 million from ad sales last year, a 50% increase from 2017, but still below other platforms less-suited to shopping. For comparison, Twitter, which has about 320 million active users, reported $791 million in advertising revenue for 2018.

King envisions a future where every single item on Pinterest—from a pin of a recipe for chicken Tikka Masala to or one of Halloween makeup ideas—is shoppable. “I want to identify every single item on Pinterest and show where you can get every one of them,” King said.

Pinterest isn’t the only social platform that is directing users where to shop. TikTok unveiled shoppable ads this year, and back in March, Instagram introduced Checkout, which allows users to make purchases without leaving the app. But while most social media platforms can judge what products their users will like based on traits like age, gender, region and other factors, Pinterest doesn’t have to guess. A Pinterest user’s board is a literal list of products in which they’re interested. Such data is a dream for advertisers, and it’s hard to imagine they won’t take advantage.

Additional reporting by Hanna Kozlowska. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Pinterest had 265 million users. The platform currently has more than 300 million users.