Picture Martha Stewart in her heyday as domestic goddess. Add in the self-expression of personal blogs and the viral connectivity of Facebook, and you have the Internet's hottest new social media darling.
It is called Pinterest, an online bulletin board with Midwestern roots that is attracting millions of new members each month.
Dreamed up by Iowan and Yale University graduate Ben Silbermann two years ago, Pinterest has been attracting women in droves with its eye-candy photos of do-it-yourself crafts, fanciful recipes, dream kitchens and wedding inspirations. The site is in essence an idea factory, where individuals create their own set of virtual display boards, "pin" photos of things that inspire them and share them with friends and followers.
"I have moved away from other social media so I can spend more time on Pinterest," said Deb Thompson, 42, a mom from Cadillac, Mich. "They have the golden ticket on that. For me, I love all the creativity that is there. It's a little escape."
Thompson, who runs the blog Just Short of Crazy, caught the Pinterest bug last month when she pinned a photo of a martini glass with a chalkboard base that allowed guests to write their names on their glasses and erase them when the party is over. Anyone who clicked on the image arrived at her blog where they found directions on how to create the party goblet.
This isn't your typical Silicon Valley startup. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which first gained traction among young adult men living on the U.S. coasts, Pinterest found its first followers in the heartland. The biggest fans initially were middle-age moms living in cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago, eager to swap recipes and share tips on decorating their homes and raising their children.
"Many of the first people to try the site (pinners) were from my hometown, Des Moines," said Silbermann, 29, reached by email at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. "As they invited their friends and family, more and more people from the Midwest joined."
After moving to California to work for Google, Silbermann decided to build a website that would allow people to put their collections online. He started the company in November 2009 out of his apartment and quietly launched the site in March 2010, inviting people in his personal network to join.
Pinterest went unnoticed for almost a year. Then it caught fire.
By December 2011, the number of U.S. unique visitors to Pinterest soared to 7.5 million, up from 418,000 in May, according to comScore Inc., a Chicago-based Internet research firm. That is a steeper ascent in traffic than the early days of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, said comScore analyst Andrew Lipsman.
"There is something about the site that's so inherently viral," said Lipsman. "That's why it's growing so quickly."
Pinterest has been a boon in particular to the mommy blog community and to the artisan shopping website Etsy.com, helping bloggers and designers find a wider audience.
Since joining Pinterest in April, Amy Clark, 34, has seen the number of unique visitors to her blog, Mom Advice, jump by 100,000 page views a month.
"I really think this has changed the ballgame for us, because it brought in people who haven't been reading blogs before," said Clark, who is raising a family in Granger, Ind.
Contrary to the unattainable perfection that surrounded Martha Stewart's early days of homemaking advice, Pinterest is filled with suggestions for moms short on time and eager for some collective humor.
Stephanie Precourt, a mother of four from Valparaiso, Ind., links her blog, Adventures in Baby Wearing, to her Pinterest account, where she has created boards with names such as "In My Belly" (food) and "Pinsanity" (outrageous images repinned from other boards such as toilet paper origami and a string of Christmas lights made from tampons).
Precourt routinely searches for knitting patterns on Pinterest and found the inspiration for her latest haircut on the site.
"It's the first place I go to when I want a new recipe," Precourt said. "I'll find beautiful photos but the recipe is usually pretty simple and really quick to make."
Pinterest is also catching on beyond the Internet.
Nicole White, a 21-year-old newlywed in Loganville, Ga., is hosting her first Pinterest party -- asking 10 girlfriends to make a dish from a recipe on Pinterest and to work on a craft project that they found on the site. White, a graphic designer, added a "Pinterest Party" invitation to her line of party stationery and is selling it on her Etsy website.
"It's a great way for businesses to get their ideas out there because it goes very viral, very fast," said White. "That's the coolest thing to me."
Silbermann declined to discuss how he anticipates making money from Pinterest. But it is clear the website has potential to drive business to big retailers as well.
National retail chains from Gap to West Elm have started to experiment with Pinterest, testing how to connect with this prime group of potential shoppers: women in their 30s and 40s who make a lot of the purchasing decisions for their households.
Whole Foods Market has rallied more than 11,000 followers since joining Pinterest in July. In a nod to how quickly followers could get turned off by outright product promotions, the supermarket chain eschews photos of brand names and instead concentrates on topics that interest its customers: fitness, the environment, kitchen gadgets and, of course, food.
"When we started, we were repinning images from other websites and from blogs," said Michael Bepko, global online community manager at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods. "We slowly started to realize this is a great way to drive people to our recipe database."
Nordstrom, which has more than 8,000 followers, looks to its most popular Pinterest pins to get a read on what customers like, said Colin Johnson, a spokesman for the Seattle-based specialty department store. For example, an $86 hugs-and-kisses pendant necklace made from gold-plated "x" and "o" charms has had more than 90 pins in the run-up to Valentine's Day, he said.
Like on Facebook, some users are worried Pinterest will lose its folksy charm as big brands move onto the site. Silbermann isn't discussing the role retailers will play in the company's future, but there is at least one sign that the merchants are here to stay.
Pinterest just debuted a red "Pin it" button that makes it easier for members to pin images from online catalogs to their boards. The button is starting to appear on shopping sites alongside Twitter's "Tweet" and Facebook's "Like" buttons.
Bergdorf Goodman, the New York luxury department store, is one of the first retailers to put the "Pin it" button on its home page. Pinterest has become the retailer's "preferred platform for communicating trends," said Cannon Hodge, social media manager at Bergdorf, a unit of Neiman Marcus Group.
Pinterest raised $27 million last October in venture capital from a group of investors led by Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley firm run by Netscape Web-browser pioneers Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz.
Pinterest's biggest challenge now is to manage its rapid-fire growth. Too many websites have built a fast but fickle following that fades once members get bored, said Puneet Manchanda, marketing professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. To continue growing, Pinterest will have to make sure it keeps its existing users engaged.
"This site is a very satisfying outlet for your creativity," Manchanda said. "The acid test is when the pin button becomes ubiquitous. That will be a good indicator that the site is going to last."
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