This year was a banner year for Pinterest. Not only did the company gain popularity with brands for features such as rich pins and native analytics, it also won praise for driving what is often a brand’s number one priority: sales. A study from social marketing firm Piquora released in November showed that sales driven by Pinterest increased 25% in 2013 compared to the year before.

There’s no doubt that the addictive, visual nature of the browsing and collecting site is what allows it to produce such results. Pinterest accounts for nearly 4% of all referral traffic, second only to Facebook, which drives more than 10%. The former number is up 66% year-over-year, according to a recent study by Shareholic. Although the platform’s referrals are growing faster than any other social site’s, what marketers are really noticing is how often Pinterest’s click-throughs convert to sales. The Piquora study indicates that today, on average, one pin generates 78 cents in sales.

For many businesses, a targeted Pinterest strategy produced notable sales results in 2013. We chatted with Julia Gifford, who manages content marketing for BeHappy, a site that allows people to create beautiful motivational quotes and add them to everything from T-shirts to posters to mugs. We also chatted with Jonathan Pirc, the founder of marketing research firm Lab42, about a recent study that examined how Pinterest behavior changes around the busiest shopping time of the year: the holidays.

Pinterest as a Traffic Driver

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As mentioned above, one of Pinterest’s greatest assets for brand websites is its ability to refer traffic. This is particularly useful for e-commerce companies that often find users landing on product pages looking for more information and an opportunity to buy.

According to Gifford, the BeHappy team originally thought its 24,000 Facebook fans would be more valuable than its 4,500 Pinterest followers. “After having a glance at our Google Analytics, we discovered that, of all of our social networks where we’re present, Pinterest was driving the most traffic and was easily resulting in the most purchases,” she said. “The platform itself is much more conducive to a buying-friendly audience.”

The difference in results is largely due to what users expect from each platform. Gifford says her brand’s Facebook fans are more interested in consuming and sharing motivational quotes than in making purchases. Pinterest users, on the other hand, are more interested in getting ideas for real life. For example, pinners are more likely to be looking for the perfect quote to hang in a library, or a mug that expresses the extent of one’s coffee addiction. As such, Pinterest users are primed to take action, while Facebook users are more interested in passive consumption.

Tools for Tracking

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To judge the success of her social marketing campaigns, Gifford keeps a close eye on which channels are driving the most traffic and conversions. One of the most important tools in her belt is Google Analytics, which gives her a way to track users’ origins, demographics and actions. Setting and tracking goals is a useful tool that helps marketers track how often certain events — such as purchases — take place.

But when it comes to Pinterest, it’s not just the brand’s activity that can lead to sales. Since anyone can add pins to the platform, every pinner is in some ways also a brand evangelist. The platform’s built-in tools are fairly basic, but they provide valuable data about who is pinning what. Under the Analytics tab, page owners can see the most recent, most repinned and most clicked images from their sites. To look at all pins from a particular site, all a user has to do is add the site URL to the end of this line: www.pinterest.com/source/.

“What I’ve’ve actually noticed is it’s just a few specific quotes that have gone viral for no apparent reason,” Gifford says. Being able to track which ones are being repinned most furiously and correlating to sales data has helped Gifford understand the relationship between the popularity of a particular pin and its rate of conversion.

Focus on Inspiration

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“Pinterest is a great equalizer for small companies,” Pirc said. With the right strategy and effort behind it, even small businesses are able to create audiences as effectively as large businesses. To do so, however, social media marketers need to understand how individuals use Pinterest, particularly around the holidays, when shopping activity is at an annual high.

A recent Lab42 survey of 500 Pinterest users aged 18 and up revealed that 83% of pinners use the platform to find recipe ideas, while 74% are on the hunt for gift ideas during the holidays. Site activity also goes up at this time, with 54% using Pinterest more frequently during November and December, and 52% spending more time on the site. Notably, the survey revealed that 19% of participants reported spending more during the holidays because of something they saw on Pinterest, while 59% said that they purchased an item as a result of seeing it on the platform.

That said, Pirc emphasizes the behavior of Pinterest users, who are usually seeking inspiration rather than advertisements. “Pinterest users are not bandwagon followers, they’re free, creative thinkers,” Pirc said. According to him, brands should avoid blatantly advertising their products in favor of showcasing other people’s use of their products or even ideas related to their product category.

“People go to Pinterest to get ideas and not to be outright sold to,” Pirc said. Whereas other platforms like Twitter or Facebook are good for advertising sales and promotions, on Pinterest it is important to contribute to the pool of inspiration and gently guide users toward integrating your products into their lives.

[Image credit: mkhmarketingEsparta Palma, Lachlan Donald, Adam Sporka]