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In the past few weeks, Pinterest.com has become the darling of the Internet world.

The social networking website, where users pin pretty images to online bulletin boards, has been called a photo sharing site, an inspiration board, a website for online scrapbooking, or Google+ for women.

Internet-savvy businesses in Sonoma County are beginning to capitalize on the site, where users create aspirational bulletin boards to plan weddings, daydream about vacation destinations, salivate over red velvet cupcake photos and "pin" images of virtually anything they like.

"I think it's a great opportunity for brands to showcase their personality ... because it is so visual," said Shana Ray, a social media consultant in Sonoma County. "It's basically just a giant binder of all the stuff that matters to you that you want to remember. It's an inspiration board. And that's my favorite part about it."

Just like Twitter or Facebook, Pinterest users follow each other and share content. They pin images that they find on Pinterest or other websites, and curate themed bulletin boards of scenic vistas, designer handbags and food art with a generally positive, pretty vibe.

Though Pinterest has been around since 2010, its explosive growth in the past few months has drawn attention to the rise of social media platforms where users can create content with the push of a button.

Pinterest reached 11.7 million unique monthly U.S. visitors in January, according to analytics firm ComScore, surpassing the 10 million mark faster than any other standalone website in history.

Even more important is the amount of time those users spend on the site. Visitors spent an average of 98 minutes on Pinterest in January. When compared to top social media sites, that puts Pinterest in third place after Facebook and tumblr. That's more than the average time spent on Google+, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn combined.

More than 80 percent of Pinterest's users are women. And many use their pin boards to plan weddings, pinning photos of bridesmaid dresses, jewelry options, reception venues and honeymoon ideas.

The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau knows that, and has created 22 Pinterest boards with more than 200 pins in the last few weeks, said Ariane Hiltebrand, the bureau's interactive media manager.

"People start dreaming when they see pictures," Hiltebrand said. "And at some point, if they keep seeing pictures of Sonoma County, they will want to come visit."

The bureau also added a Pinterest button to its blog, inside-sonoma.com, to encourage readers to follow its boards. After Hiltebrand spent just 10 hours pinning photos to create a presence, Sonoma County attracted nearly 100 followers on Pinterest.

Hiltebrand has pinned photos and videos originally posted on other websites featuring local hotspots like Kendall-Jackson Vineyards, Lagunitas Brewery, the restaurant Zazu and Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

Jordan Winery was one of the first in Sonoma County to create a significant presence on Pinterest with boards featuring dinner party suggestions, wine pairing ideas, and videos that teach followers about the art and science of winemaking.

"Since Pinterest was so new, there wasn't a winery that did a &‘Wine 101' yet, so I created one," said Lisa Mattson, communications director at Jordan Vineyard & Winery. "I put strategic effort into what we pin, so it doesn't look forced, because I think that's the downside of companies trying to do social media, is trying too hard."

At this point, Mattson said she's not likely to pin images of individual wine bottles, as some pinners have. But Pinterest enables users to easily tag items with price tags, and embedded in each pinned photo is a link to the source of the pin, making it easy to shop online as a result of spending time on the website.

"With Pinterest you can pin things that you think are great, or present your own brand, and that's acceptable on that platform," said James Marshall Berry, a consultant who counts many Sonoma County wineries as clients. He recently encouraged the Sonoma County Vintners to consider developing a presence on the site.

Reading the statistics, it seems the retail industry couldn't have invented a better driver for online sales. Pinterest is generating more referral traffic than Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn combined, according to a study by Shareaholic, a Cambridge, Mass., company that makes tools for online content sharing.

And it makes sense. The site enables even the most cash-strapped fashion lover to feel like the editor of her own personal fashion magazine, pinning dozens of images of fabulous heels, handbags or head-to-toe looks to her page in a matter of minutes. It doesn't matter if five-inch stilettos would make you teeter in real life — you can wear them on your Pinterest wall.

Designers at Athleta, the women's activewear retailer based in Petaluma, have long used Pinterest as a board for gathering and sharing design ideas, said Tess Roering, vice president of marketing at Athleta. And the company began creating its own boards on Pinterest within the last six to nine months, Roering said.

"It's something we are just starting to create," Roering said. "We're interested in seeing what we can do with it."

But widespread use of Pinterest has yet to take off among smaller retailers in Sonoma County.

"People are saying, &‘This is a trend, I don't need to be part of Pinterest,'" Ray said. "It's not just a trend. It's showing how important visual is to social media, and the Internet, and life in general. ... It's all about being able to personalize your Internet experience. And that's why Pinterest isn't going away."

The National Retail Federation suggests that retailers — especially home improvement, bridal, or fashion apparel merchants — should get on Pinterest and create boards, citing the simple power of visual imagery as the force behind the social networking site.

But the emphasis on beauty and simplicity of re-pinning creates a conundrum for photographers, whose images are often re-pinned without credit lines. Local photographer Megan Rhodes, who is based in Santa Rosa and has an online storefront at Etsy.com, was surprised to find her photos on Pinterest this week after images she created for a winery's website were pinned by random Pinterest users.

"I don't even know what Pinterest is," Rhodes said. "That's a common problem online for photographers in general, that you can take a screen shot, and you can do whatever you want with it online."

Pinterest's policy, according to its website, is to respect intellectual property rights, and it reserves the right to disable or terminate accounts of users who repeatedly infringe copyrights.

As Pinterest has grown, questions have arisen about how the website makes money. Pinterest declined repeated interview requests through a public relations firm. On its website, the company says it has tested approaches to making money such as "affiliate links," where Pinterest takes a share of a retailer's sale when users click through a pin to make a purchase. When reports of that practice surfaced, some Pinterest proponents balked.

"Throwing their own code on other people's links — that's kind of under-handed," Berry said.

Even so, Berry is convinced the buzz around Pinterest is here to stay.

"You don't create these things, they just occur," Berry said of the company's meteoric rise. "Someone who isn't really technically savvy can get on Pinterest. You don't have to be a tech geek to figure it out. You just have to click on something."

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