The Pinterest Conundrum

Like so many commercial photographers, I’m always looking for new ways to market my work. We’re browbeaten constantly by the knowledge that we must use whatever technological advantages we can to reach out to new customers and engage with an audience that may be interested in paying for our work. New methods for marketing spring up like weeds; it can be difficult to keep up.

When I first learned about the website Pinterest last year, I was intrigued by the opportunity to use the service as a way to see great photographs. Instead of the text-based status updates of Twitter and Facebook, Pinterest allows users to "pin" photographs to virtual pinboards. The users are mostly female, and the preponderance of pins are about fashion, hairstyles, food, home décor and crafts—meaning most pinboards are filled with great fashion photography, food images and architectural interiors.

I must admit, though, that I didn’t immediately connect the dots and realize that Pinterest offers an opportunity to promote my own photography to an audience of friends and potential clients. Some photographers are smarter than me, however—like Amie Reinholz, who has only been shooting professionally for a year.

"I’m a newbie," Reinholz says. "When I first started using Pinterest, I used it mainly for inspiration. Eventually, I started a pinboard of my work pinned straight from my blog, so when you click on a picture it takes you straight there. I also caption each picture with my name and the kind of session it was, like ‘Bridal Portraits,’ so if someone searches for a certain kind of photo, mine will hopefully show up. I have actually gotten two jobs from Pinterest."

Pet photographer Julie Clegg has also found Pinterest to be a useful cog in her marketing machine. She, too, started as a casual user before tapping the site’s business potential.

"I kept seeing all of these beautiful and fun things," Clegg says, "and thought I should have a board for some of the awesome pets I get to photograph. I also created another board for the cover shots I have had, and one is planned for tearsheets of my editorial work. I think it’s a great avenue for all sorts of marketing and selling. I’m always interested in learning new ways to market my work, and Pinterest has been a great addition without being overly complicated. I think the genius of it is its simplicity."

Simple though it may be, the details do get complicated. For instance, there was another early realization about Pinterest that should have been obvious to me: Legally speaking, the site is a giant collection of copyright infringements. People who haven’t licensed photographs are freely sharing images in a public forum online. Some for fun, others for profit, but in either case, without permission, the act of pinning is infringement.

It’s this infringement that has divided photographers. Some feel Pinterest’s terms of service (which recently were revised in order to assuage photographers’ concerns) are so egregious that they have quit the site, while others make use of code (provided by Pinterest) to block their photographs from being pinned. But other photographers embrace the service, infringement and all, in hopes that their work will be spread far and wide, bringing them a new audience of potential paying customers.

It’s hard to argue the reality that we’re living in Facebook’s world, where sharing and openness are valued above all else. Lamenting that fact won’t change it, and with young photographers playing by new rules, the pressure is great for established photographers who are often more sensitive to copyright concerns. They must decide whether to stand on the sidelines or play a game in which the rules seem fundamentally unfair.

Zach Prez is a web expert who advises photographers with various online tactics to grow their businesses, and he says that sharing photos online is simply the cost of doing business in the 21st century. It’s a choice: Photographers either can embrace services such as Pinterest for marketing or consider any unlicensed sharing to be a direct threat to the value of their work—and to photography, in general.

"There are a lot of people questioning the ethics of pinning," Prez says. "I’m not concerned about these issues and don’t want my business to fall behind when everyone else continues to pin, pin, pin. As a web marketer, I tend to let the Internet dictate the rules as a free-market economy would. If there’s a legal issue with Pinterest, then Pinterest will be brought down as a result. Until then, quality content builds reputation and trust, which will pay you back in new business later.

"Wedding and portrait photographers will see the bigger gains from Pinterest than editorial or commercial photographers because Pinterest users seek inspiration and ideas, not necessarily photos," says Prez. "Brides are active on Pinterest when planning weddings, as are mothers who are planning family activities, so boards relating to weddings and families will gain more traction than stories about general photography or news that has other outlets better suited toward delivering that content."

Allen Murabayashi, chairman of PhotoShelter and photography marketing expert, cites the commoditization of photographs as the reason why Pinterest isn’t high on his list of recommended tools. Copyright issues aside, he believes there are better ways to market photography.

"I continue to be a bit skeptical about the utility of Pinterest to help photographers build their businesses, for a few reasons," Murabayashi says. "For one, the photo is the product. Retailers have found a lot of success on Pinterest because they use photos as a depiction of their product. An attractive photo of shoes might encourage a user to click through to a retail site and spur a purchase. But for photographers, the photo is the product. Does repinning the photo and increasing eyeballs generate demand? Unless you’re looking for a photographer
[versus a product], I’m not convinced seeing a photo in the context of a virtual pinboard is beneficial.""

It may work for some photographers, Murabayashi says, but on the whole, he hasn’t found the meaningful success stories he’s looking for.

"Outlier success is a terrible barometer for the average photographer," he says. "The wedding photographers I’ve spoken to aren’t using Pinterest for presales marketing, but rather as a mood board after a contract is signed. Other photographers are trying to establish themselves as ‘taste makers’ through their Pinterest curation, but I’d like to see some hard evidence that this has led to increased sales. I just haven’t seen it.

"Also," he adds, "driving traffic to a website isn’t the same as conversion. You can have a lot of unqualified traffic that’s disinterested in buying photos or hiring you for a service. I think you’re better off building word of mouth in conjunction with your Facebook presence."

For photographers in search of long-lasting editorial, corporate and advertising clients, there are likely better methods of engagement than Pinterest. For wedding shooters, family photographers and specialists who target new moms, however, the site simply may be in its infancy as an invaluable tool for marketing and branding, if not direct sales.

Family photographer Amy Hoogstad hasn’t been able to attribute sales directly to her use of Pinterest, but she still believes it’s a useful tool. She experienced firsthand how a blog post showcasing her work could take on new life and reach a new audience.

"My experience with Pinterest is simply as a way to increase traffic to my website," she says. "Before Pinterest was even a thing, I wrote a post showing canvases I created of my children. They
were unique. Someone pinned it and it spread around, and since then, it has been pinned many times. I haven’t gained clients directly from Pinterest, but increased traffic helps my SEO, which in turn helps me get new clients."

Search engine optimization is a very real concern. Pinterest, as the fastest-growing social network in history, certainly seems to offer SEO benefits by providing links back to a photographer’s own website or blog. The more you’re pinned, the more relevant Google deems you to be.

Perhaps the biggest challenge when using Pinterest is to balance the site’s unspoken etiquette—not to use the service for blatant self-promotion—with the legal realities of sharing another photographer’s work without permission. Etiquette in the blog-osphere has long dictated that bloggers link photographs directly to the creator and/or license holder, another strained place where etiquette and the letter of the law collide. Pinterest, unlike millions of independent blogs, offers a single point of focus in what may be an inevitable copyright battle—much like Napster more than a decade ago.

While it remains to be seen how well Pinterest will weather a potential legal challenge to its service (the site’s terms make individual users responsible for any copyright violations), its marketing potential is on equally unsteady ground. It’s sure to become increasingly useful, allowing wedding and family photographers to interact with customers, plan shoots and potentially even garner new business. But for advertising and editorial photographers—those whose clients are creative directors and art buyers—Pinterest simply may be the place where buyers occasionally stumble upon photographs they appreciate—whether those images were uploaded by the photographer who made them or not.

The conundrum each photographer must wrestle with is whether consenting to our work being shared via Pinterest ultimately may be in the best interest of our businesses or if the site is best treated as a threat to our copyrights and the value of photography, in general. It’s a decision that’s sure to be different for every photographer.

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