Pinterest, we’ve got a business model for you

Pinterest, and sites like it, are valuable for driving traffic to retail sites. No doubt about it. However, the big value proposition that retailers and Pinterest may initially overlook is the underlying user data. Information from Facebook on user “interests” is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the kind of interest and affinity data that could be mined from Pinterest. And although mining this data may require some investment on the part of Pinterest and perhaps retailers, the potential to aggregate, analyze, and then deploy it is huge.
In my experience as chief technology officer of Baynote, a provider of personalized customer experience solutions, I’ve seen a big shift among retailers, who are now using analytics to study the customer experience. In today’s era of big data, retailers are looking at massive data sets of seemingly incongruous information about customers, products, and purchases to find patterns that can be used to deliver more relevant content and experiences that increase revenues. GigaOM’s own Derrick Harris recently pointed out new insights that retailers can gain from big data analysis in his article on what Orbitz has learned about consumer preferences. The curated content revolution, driven by Pinterest and sites like it, should excite retailers because of the rich “affinity” data they have made possible. Affinity data reveals valuable relationships between consumer behaviors, products and content that can then be used to create more targeted marketing.
The concept of mining affinity data — or “affinity modeling” — isn’t new. Online businesses have been using this technique for years to power personalized content and product recommendations on their sites. As highlighted in the recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” retailers can use affinity modeling to find connections that are counter intuitive yet highly profitable.
This thinking is not so different from how retailers should approach Pinterest. Consumers are expressing affinity for products by pinning, repinning and creating their own boards by topic. Surfacing these affinities is one way that Pinterest could monetize their data for retailers and marketers.
Let’s examine the kinds of affinity data that Pinterest could monetize.

Product to theme

Perhaps the most obvious affinity is the connection that curated content naturally makes between products and themes. Retailers organize products by categories such as running shoes and hiking shoes. When consumers pin the same items, however, they may choose new themes to group them in, such as “killer hikes” or “my wedding outfit.” This type of affinity data provides retailers with new insights into how consumers view their products, and gives retailers new ideas for ways to market their products.

Cluster to theme

Individual pinning choices are interesting, but there is an even greater opportunity to analyze segments of people who express an affinity for a product or category in aggregate. The connections between groups of people based on defined dimensions, such as gender and location, is very useful to marketers using segment based techniques. Drawing segmentation connections from curated data allows marketers to create new segments or map existing segments to categories, brands or products that they could use for more accurate and targeting. Similar to Facebook, Pinterest could tally the number of users who fit a targeting criteria. For example, Pinterest could determine based on clustered affinity data that 30,000 women in San Francisco are more likely to prefer Seven Jeans to other brands. And, more importantly, Pinterest would know who they are.

Product to product

Another way Pinterest’s affinity data is useful is that consumers also group different brands together under the same themes. For example, products from J.Crew and Urban Outfitters grouped in the same theme might help retailers decide on which complementary products to develop, potential partnerships to form, inventory to stock, and opportunities for up-sell or cross-sell. Retailers may not have connected these items on their own because they are in different product lines, or suit different purposes. With this affinity data retailers gain new information about how their products are related to other products from the consumer perspective.
Similar to the open graph in Facebook, Pinterest has an opportunity to monetize affinity data. This data could greatly help advertisers and retailers figure out how to target ads, content, and products to consumers. It could also prove to be the missing link between what we know today from Facebook and what we wished we knew about what people are truly interested in.
Scott Brave is a founder and chief technology officer at Baynote, a provider of personalization solutions for online retailers. Previously, he served as lab manager for the CHIMe (Communication between Humans and Interactive Media) Lab at Stanford University. 
Image courtesy of Flickr user wayne’s eye view.