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Is the Future of E-Commerce Search Marketing Visual? Pinterest Thinks So.

When was the last time you bought something without seeing it first?  

We humans are visual creatures. This trait evolved from our primitive beginnings as hunter-gatherers searching for food. And it guides shoppers hunting new products today.

It’s fitting, then, that Pinterest is hoping to lever its highly visual experience to capture a slice of the massive search advertising pie. Here’s a look at Pinterest’s newest bet: Pinterest search ads.

Pinterest Search Ads Explained

In case you missed it, let’s review the full scoop on Pinterest search ads.

Last month, Pinterest formally unveiled search ads. Pinterest search ads will appear after a Pinner (aka a Pinterest user) seeks out inspiring ideas or products using Pinterest’s search tool.

The ads appear atop the other pins that surface for that search. Pinterest search ads will also feature a price and link to the product’s page on the retailer’s site.

The announcement included an example of a Pinterest search ad:

Pinterest Search Ads example

Appearance-wise, Pinterest search ads aren’t too different from promoted pins and buyable pins. Pinterest search ads mirror other entries in Pinners’ digital scrapbooks in size, look, and layout, with a few key additions, like price.

The biggest difference between Pinterest search ads and other Pinterest ads will likely be setup and delivery. Pinterest search ads will use a product feed and Pinterest’s proprietary search algorithms to deliver relevant ads to Pinners. As Google Shopping has demonstrated, the feed-based approach is more scalable for e-commerce advertisers with large catalogs.

For now, Pinterest search ads are available only to select retailers, who must purchase them directly from its sales team. In the future, however, Pinterest will sell its search ad inventory via a pay-per-click auction, which advertisers can access via a self-serve portal, much like AdWords.

Pinterest fields more than 2 billion searches monthly from its 150 million active users. While this pales next to the user bases and activity volumes of Google and Facebook, it’s still a healthy foundation. Besides, Pinterest delivers an experience unlike that of its competitors.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Pinterest search ads are an exciting development for e-commerce marketers. Here are the biggest potential benefits of the newest kid on the search advertising block:

• Highly Visual: In Pinterest’s words, “When people go shopping in a store, visual cues steer them to the right products. Pinterest uses visual content to replicate this browsing process digitally.” We couldn’t agree more …

We’ve seen this dynamic play out in the evolution of paid search on Google: E-commerce marketers are devoting more of their budgets to visual-centric Shopping ads over text ads.

• Built for Discovery: Pinterest is a destination for inspiration. For those moments where you don’t know what you want until you see it, Pinterest offers endless possibilities. Underscoring this dynamic is Pinterest’s finding that 97% of its top searches are for non-branded items. This could mean serious opportunity for lesser-known brands.

Pinners Plan: By the company’s own estimates, more than 40 million Pinners count on the platform to plan their weddings every year. They save ideas for clothing, decor, food, and more. Pinners rely on the platform for more than just weddings, turning to it for birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc. These milestones often lead to new purchases.

• Pinners Purchase: 87% of Pinners have purchased an item because of Pinterest. This sets it apart from other social networks, where users go to connect or unwind, rather than learn about potential new buys.   

Seeing Is Believing

Pinterest is betting that the advantages listed above will combine to lure a portion of e-commerce marketers’ search dollars away from Google and Bing.

Overall paid search spend topped $16 billion in the first half of 2016. So peeling off even a sliver of the yearly sum would equate to big revenue for Pinterest.

In the minds of Pinterest’s top brass, the visual experience of Pinterest will truly set it apart.

Compared to other platforms, “The visual nature of Pinterest allows users to digest products and services at a more personal level,” figures Michael Akkerman, head of marketing partnerships at Pinterest.

But this selling point might be a double-edged sword for Pinterest search ads, for a few reasons:

• More Data, More Problems: The primacy of visuals on Pinterest could scare away some advertisers, especially those smaller retailers it hopes to attract by touting the prevalence of non-branded searches. That’s because feed-based, product-level search marketing is tough. Like, really tough.

On Google Shopping — another feed-based, product-level channel — individual item KPIs hold the key to efficient, profitable campaigns. The only problem? A catalog spanning thousands of SKUs equates to millions of data points to analyze. Pinterest’s visual format will require retailers to process these KPIs — PLUS new types of visual data, which are currently less defined than traditional PPC metrics. 

• Consumer Behavior: If the returns are there, retailers will find strategies or technologies to master Pinterest search ads, whatever the cost, just as they have with Google Shopping. The bigger obstacle to widespread adoption by retailers will be whether or not Pinners begin turning to Pinterest as a shopping destination.

Pinners do buy items based on their engagement with the network. But it’s unclear if Pinterest is their first destination in the shopping process or whether it’s an early discovery tool. That is, a user could get inspiration from Pinterest, then fire up Google Shopping or Amazon when it comes time to buy a few days later. To deliver serious returns to retailers, Pinterest must change consumers’ perceptions of it from a repository of pretty pictures to a starting point for an end-to-end product purchase.

Picture This …

Even with these potential obstacles, the future of Pinterest search ads looks promising.

For one thing, Pinterest users are engaged. Pinners have added 75 billion pins to the network since its start. Meanwhile, Pinterest’s utility as a planning resource for life milestones keeps attracting new Pinners to join the service. It grew by 50% last year.

And Pinterest is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the innate human love of visuals.

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye (bad pun intended) on Pinterest search ads as they continue to evolve. No doubt plenty of e-commerce retailers will, too.

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