Pinterest’s Dirty Little Secret

by Travis Ketchum · 12 comments

Hot Startup Pinterest

Merchants, listen up. There is a good chance that traffic blip you are getting from Pinterest isn’t just “free user generated” traffic like you were so excited about.

You are actually paying for it without ever authorizing Pinterest as an affiliate, here’s how.

The hot new startup Pinterest is getting tons of press, and rightfully so.

After reports of generating more referral traffic than LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube combined, and recently surpassing 10 million visits they are a force to be reckoned with.

Much like Tumblr and others, the velocity of this growth has to do with the repin function just as the reblog and the retweet were big contributors to the growth of Tumblr and Twitter.

These platforms allow different sizes and types of content to move sideways, and quickly.

More To The Story

Let me be very clear, I have no problem with companies making money and profit is not a dirty word, so long as everyone is on the same page.

Creating a beautiful product that people actually respect and enjoy is incredibly hard work the needs to be compensated.

But where do you draw the line between generating revenue and transparency?

I’ve been saying for years in private conversations, that consumers have been left in the dark when it comes to affiliate marketing.

Shouldn’t there be some upfront communication when dollars are changing hands? The U.S. Government sure seems to thinks so.

What’s Going On

It appears as though Pinterest is actually modifying the links of images to merchant based websites.

When a user Pins something from a website, Pinterest automatically makes the page which the image came from the link people go to when they click on the picture. This makes for lots of referral traffic, and the analytics support exactly that.

But what’s happening here stems from a relationship that Pinterest has with SkimLinks, which is technology that turns regular merchant links into affiliate links.

SkimLinks pays the publisher a healthy share of the commission and keeps a bit for themselves. It’s generally a win/win scenario for smaller publishers who don’t want to sign-up for a million affiliate accounts and go through all their content to update to something new.

The only issue with this particular implementation is that it just plain feels dirty that they are doing this without any user education. Just ask Dave Morin, CEO of Path how things go when users feel betrayed.

In full disclosure, I have developed similar technology that has not yet been implemented for my charity oriented service called MyBigGive, but someday that might come to market.

A Proposed Solution

I’m one of the first people to tell you that a business has to make money.

Whenever Facebook does a redesign of their user experience in order to maximize the metrics that are important to them, and users inevitably make a bunch of noise I can’t help but laugh.

What price did Facebook charge you again to use their service?

That’s right, absolutely nothing.

But I can’t help but think that this oversight will come to bite Pinterest right in the tail as they continue to grow and build themselves into a full blown, legitimate business.

Even if you are a free service like @Pinterest, you must keep the trust of users or you’re sunk. [Tweet This]

My unsolicited two cents is quite clear and easy, be honest with the users.

Pinterest doesn’t even really have to stop this practice if they don’t want to, but people should know that the sharing site is profiting from the hard work of user generated content.

However, if they really wanted to cut out the questionable linking practices they could axe it all together and just offer a “promoted pin” section where advertisers (read: merchants) could pay to have user generated content float to the top.

This would be more in line with the industry accepted sponsorship practices and help keep the trust with their user base.

Why This Matters For Your Business

We can all walk away from this though enlightened, because this will eventually get out to the masses.

It always does, and people seem to think things are a certain way even long after they have changed.

So what does that mean for us though? A few things.

First, regardless of how much we charge our customers or how we generate revenue we must always be open with our audience about why and how we do the things we do.

Secondly, there is almost always a better way to generate cashflow without trashing the trust relationship you have with your audience if you are just willing to be upfront with them about it.

What do you think of Pinterest turning your links into affiliate links? Does it change what you think of them, or how you plan on interacting with the service?

About Travis Ketchum
A smart ass marketer who doesn't take no for an answer and always questions the status quo. Connect with me on Google+. Convinced yet? Get more tips and great content 100% free.

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Building a sustainable business is all about how well you can gather and maintain an audience. An email list is still one of the most viable ways to do just that.

We wanted to find a way to build an email incredibly fast, in a way that people actually find interesting, engaging and well - cool. It took a lot of testing to weed-whack through all the hype and find something that really worked.

The result? We ended up building our own solution, focused around the idea of contests and rewarding people for taking the actions that ultimately led to more leads on our email list. Everyone wins (and some literally do!), because as it turns out people love contests regardless of their market place.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Katie T. February 9, 2012 at 5:07 PM

I knew it was too good to be true!! I’m addicted to pinning useless info, and probably won’t be able to stop at the rate. So maybe they could just add it to their about section/terms of service etc. Admit to what a cash cow they have!


Travis Ketchum February 9, 2012 at 11:51 PM

Most people won’t stop, which only rewards bad behavior. However, adding something to their about or TOS would go a long way.


marisel February 10, 2012 at 8:53 AM

in my opinion, the fact that they are linking images to the actual brand is great. As a user of Pinterest, i feel that if i like an image/ product and i would like to check out the price, what better way than clicking on the image to get the information, similar to


Travis Ketchum February 10, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Marisel, I totally agree that linking direct to the product is awesome.

My issue came from the fact that they are recoding that link to give them a commission without informing their users.


Chris Guthrie February 10, 2012 at 10:14 AM

I disagree, people are still going to end up clicking the links to visit those merchants so why not convert them into affiliate links?

I don’t think the public really cares much that Pinterest is making money in this way because they are too busy looking at pretty pictures, repinning things etc it’s not like Pinterest is trying to change a consumers mind. They are just profiting off what people are going to click anyway.


Travis Ketchum February 10, 2012 at 11:11 AM

I don’t think it’s going to change user behavior either (especially given the percentage of females vs males on the site). But you really don’t think they owe it to their users to be transparent about them changing the links?

It was obviously an easy move for them, and I’m sure is making them some decent money – and if users aren’t going to leave in droves, then why not just be up front?


Chris Guthrie February 10, 2012 at 3:43 PM

Hmmm, I’m more of the mindset that they built it they can run it however they want. I’m more annoyed that they werent making money sooner than they did to be honest. They lost out on a lot of money.


Travis Ketchum February 11, 2012 at 12:16 PM

Spoken like a true marketer! πŸ™‚

I just prefer complete transparency I guess, but if they were going to go this route you’re right… they should have been doing it since day one.


Josh @ Live Well Simply February 15, 2012 at 9:53 AM

Sounds like Pinterest is building their niche the same way all the other ‘social media’ out there is building theirs. Nothing wrong with that. πŸ™‚


Travis Ketchum February 15, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Nothing wrong with that, they even managed to do something few other networks have done. REALLY understand the female market and corner it, that is going to be insanely profitable.


Lisa June 11, 2012 at 1:42 PM

I don’t see a date on this article, which might be a helpful addition to your articles, particularly if they become out of date, as this one has. Pinterest has since dropped skimlinks.


Travis Ketchum June 13, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Lisa, you are totally correct. After this post came out Pinterest did in fact drop Skimlinks. I’ll consider adding dates to show up on my posts πŸ™‚


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