Nonprofits Make Sure Friends Find Them ‘Pinteresting’

May 1, 2012       Zach Halper      

Lindsay Nichols admitted that she was just experimenting when she created the Pinterest account for GuideStar, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that publishes organizational Form 990s and other sector data.

She said that she was just “sticking her toe into the water.” The public relations and social media manager soon found out that the site offered something that was previously missing in GuideStar’s social media strategy.

“We’re always trying to better engage with supporters, and we found that visuals are a great way to tell their stories,” she explained. “We felt we were really missing that aspect before Pinterest. You can talk about how you saved an acre of land but when you can show it, it makes it that much more effective.”

This concept is what has made Pinterest an online phenomenon. The popular social media site allows users to post images to various pin boards that reflect their interests. These images, which can either be found from a specific site or uploaded from a supporter’s computer, can then be linked to a website. Pins can be found by other users by searching for terms included in the pin’s description. They will also appear in the Pinterest news feed if an individual is following that particular account.

In terms of similarities to other social media sites, it has less in common with Twitter or Facebook and more with Tumblr, another site focused on pictures and images.

Pinterest was launched in March 2010 by Ben Silbermann and had 11.7 million unique visitors by this past January. It is the fastest site to break the 10-million user mark, according to the Internet marketing research firm comScore. Yet, it wasn’t until the past several months that Pinterest experienced the user flurry.

“I think that it picked up much more interest around the same time that Facebook started prioritizing this type of content,” said Amy Sample Ward, membership director at the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), based in Portland, Ore. Ward is referring to the release of the Facebook Timeline. The Timeline replaced the popular “wall” and allowed users to tell the story of their lives through pictures. People are becoming more interested in integrating content that has video and images, which makes a site like Pinterest very attractive to users and advocates.

Ward said that she has seen a trend among nonprofits using Pinterest: Organizations are using it as a graphical way of looking at their own content. The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) in Washington, D.C., created a board called “Products We Love,” which showcases unique products from the group’s online store as well as items from other sites that sell pet products. Using Pintrest’s “Gifts” feature, the price of each item is displayed in the pin.

Carie Lewis, director of emerging media at HSUS, said the organization decided to join Pinterest when staff saw how many people were already pinning HSUS images. In particular, she was surprised at the number of pins they had for their advocacy alerts.

“People are pinning your stuff whether you are there or not,” she said. “All that it takes is a really good image.” She urged technology managers at organizations to add “pin it” buttons to their websites, as HSUS has already done with a new advocacy campaigns, even if the nonprofit is not added to Pinterest.

Pinterest provided another opportunity for HSUS to reach people who weren’t already on its list. For the month of March, the percentage of new visitors to the HSUS site from Pinterest was 81.89 percent. “We decide to try new sites if we are able to tie them to our goals: Advocacy, fundraising, web traffic, and sales. Pinterest hit all of these,” she explained.

Erin Maher, social media guru at The Peaks Foundation in Atlanta, Ga., uses Pinterest to share images from the group’s trekking expeditions for women. Since creating the account in early December, Maher said she has received positive feedback through other platforms. “We’ve heard from a lot of people on Twitter saying that they love what we are doing on Pinterest, and that we are one of their favorite boards to follow,” she said.

Pinterest is a natural fit for an organization like the Peaks Foundation as the site has a strong appeal to women. “We thought it would be a good idea to start using (Pinterest) to reach the demographic of people who would be interested in us,” Maher explained. In addition to the photos of the trips, the group created a board called “Girls Are the Answer,” which contains inspirational images for women.

GuideStar has also taken this approach. “Since Pinterest is so popular with women, we are trying to pin about causes that are important to them,” said Nichols. She pointed to a board they created for Valentine’s Day called “Oh Nonprofits, How Do We Love Thee?” It contained Valentine’s themed pictures that linked to sites where people could donate during Valentine’s Day.

Krisleigh Hoermann, community manager of the American Heart Association (AHA) in Dallas, Texas, also joined Pinterest to reach a certain demographic: Its current supporters.

“We’ve been really watching it the last six months, and we felt that it was a really good place for us,” she said of Pinterest. “Some of our consumers had already been pinning our stuff, so we felt it was a good time to get started.”

AHA created its Pinterest account two months ago and has used it as just one more way to promote its mission. This includes pinning recipes for heart healthy meals, related infographics, product offerings, and public service announcements.

Yet, as Hoermann concedes, nonprofits have to walk a fine line when promoting their brands. This was a big concern for some Pinterest users, as the site’s Terms of Service explicitly stated that users should not engage in self-promotion. This was recently removed and users were instead encouraged to be “authentic” to themselves. Nonprofits might not have to worry about getting kicked off the site, but they should still try to find the right balance. To Hoermann, it all starts with your supporters.

“You really have to see what your community is looking for. They will stop following you if you’re being overly promotional.” Hoermann keeps an eye on the number of followers AHA has, and whether that number is growing or shrinking.

Nichols agreed, saying that people are savvy enough to know the difference between telling a story with pictures and being blatantly promotional. GuideStar was actually considering making a product board similar to AHA’s, but ultimately decided it didn’t fit with the theme for its Pinterest.

A nonprofit can avoid being labeled as being overly promotional by sharing other people’s pins, according to NTEN’s Ward. “So much of the Pinterest activity is moving one pin to your board, and someone moving that pin to theirs,” she explained. This process is known as re-pinning. AHA constantly re-pins anything that relates to heart health, and it has led them to more followers.

In terms of overall impact, Pinterest hasn’t yet led to significantly more traffic for the organizations. Nichols said that traffic to GuideStar’s web site from Pinterest was less than 1 percent. Traffic to AHA wasn’t much better, though Hoermann said the numbers picked up each month, hitting 349 visits in February 2012.

HSUS saw Pinterest climb into its top 10 referring websites for the month of March. Still, Lewis said that it’s too early to tell if the site is generating significant sales, and she cautioned, “tracking methods are not great this early in the game.”

“I love it, but as of yet it has been hard to gauge its value,” said Laura Hartstone, executive director of the Peaks Foundation. Hartstone added, “It is a wonderful platform for us to use, as we can showcase our photos of each trip we offer and also keep the social networking value add-in.”

The numbers these nonprofits are reporting sound underwhelming, but there is overwhelming enthusiasm about what the future may hold for Pinterest with nonprofits. Ward spoke of the ability to pin things that aren’t just images, which has already come to fruition with a recent feature that allows the embedding of videos.

“I think the sky is the limit,” said Nichols. “Social media is an integral part of our awareness strategy, and we’ve seen good results from our uses of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. As Pinterest gains in popularity, and as we get better at using the site to promote our brand, there’s no telling where our traffic numbers can go.” NPT

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