If you’ve been reading this week’s headlines, maybe the headline of this column threw you off. After all, isn’t this the week that Pinterest – after several years of pinning digital images with no revenue to show for it – unveiled its first ad product?
Well, yes, it is indeed the very same week. All of the usual tech blog suspects yesterday outlined Pinterest’s plan for – wait for it – “Promoted Pins,” which will be incorporated into some category feeds and searches, clearly marked as such. In other words, it’s a model we’ve seen before. Promoted Tweets, anyone?
Is this good for Pinterest? It should be, as the company has had precious little revenue to date and the platform is a few years in. But the way the news was conveyed lays bare that the company is also suffering from Fear of Advertising, a disease that’s endemic to social platforms. It’s an illness that doesn’t do social media – or the consumers who will see the ads – a whole lot of good.
Listen to how tentatively founder/CEO Ben Silbermann describes Promoted Pins on the company blog, and ask yourself -- does he really want to be in this dirty advertising business at all? He says: “ … it’s so important that Pinterest is a service that will be here to stay. To help make sure it does, we’re going to start experimenting with promoting certain pins from a select group of businesses.”
In other words, advertising is primarily here to keep Pinterest alive, not to provide user benefit; we’ll try to make it so unobtrusive that you won’t even know it’s there! In fact, when Silbermann lists the four characteristics of these pins, “Relevant” is no. 3, right behind “Tasteful” and “Transparent."
Of course, we all know why Silbermann, like his fellow social media chieftains, is so cautious about the “a” word: a fear even deeper than advertising, and that’s the fear of alienating users. But it’s one thing to be concerned about user experience, another to be so ambivalent about advertising that the actual word never makes it into your post about … advertising. (The word “ads” makes it into the post twice, but only in a negative context, i.e. “I know some of you may be thinking, “Oh great…here come the banner ads.”)
Would people who engage in social media think really think that? There are no banner ads on Facebook, or Twitter, or LinkedIn. Do people really think that Pinterest would suddenly turn into a Museum of Flash?
And isn’t Pinterest, even more so than Google, the perfect place for relevant, engaging advertising? It’s a social platform built on users extremely visual wants; like a customized September issue of Vogue, only not limited to fashion. Pinterest, don’t be so afraid of advertising, for Christ’s sake!
But fear of advertising among social platforms is as rampant -- and sometimes as hard to detect -- as Lyme disease. Social platforms don’t think they’re suffering from it, but if you look closely, they are. Facebook’s tiptoeing into video ads is another example. Its caution is so great that it sends an unintended message to its users: primarily, advertising is something to be wary about.
Yes, to a certain extent, I’m contradicting myself. At times, I’ve praised the slow and steady approach social platforms to introducing advertising. And not jumping with both feet is often warranted. Still, the overall attitude is starting to rankle. At what point do social platforms embrace advertising rather than holding their nose with one hand while they cash checks from advertisers with the other?
Not at any point soon, it seems.