Think Pinterest is just for people to post pictures of lovely lounges, crocheted owls or ice cream? Think again. While it can be lovely – not to mention incredibly distracting – to spend an hour browsing through “pins” of log cabins (I did warn you), the site also has numerous benefits for a small business.

The social media site, which was founded in 2010, has more than 70m users worldwide and is planning to turn some of the vast amounts of behavioural data it’s been collecting into advertising opportunities.

Pinterest launched its Promoted Pins service in December 2014, which allows advertisers to target messages to users. In the coming year this should become a lot more streamlined and detailed, so if you’re promoting your business and developing brand awareness, Pinterest has a ready and willing audience of users (mainly female) prepared to look at what you’ve got.

Dani Booth, a digital marketing specialist at Jelf Group, plc, says businesses that don’t pin are missing out. “Pinterest is one of life’s great equalisers. In varying degrees, everyone from Baby Boomers to Millennials is pinning,” he explains. “The online world is an increasingly visual environment so if your brand is a good fit and currently isn’t using Pinterest, then you’re potentially missing a huge opportunity.”

Attention spans online are short, adds Booth, but “with such a strong mobile/device interface, it’s essentially your brand in their pocket”.

Some brands fit readily into Pinterest’s visual mould. Chefs use it successfully and for travel companies it’s an obvious choice. “These are brands than have designed an approach that is slap-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of ‘building brand awareness’ and ‘satisfying customer desire’,” says Booth.

“Retailers, for example, use Pinterest to seed their product images into search results, placing them alongside maybe more famous brands and generating traffic to their site.”

He’s right. Search for a simple term such as ‘brogues’ and you’ll be presented with hundreds of portals to different shops selling the product of your dreams. This approach, says Booth, “coupled with an engaging approach to communicating with your customers/followers and nurturing the popularity of your pins, will set you on the road for success”.

Sue Westwood-Ruttledge runs animal photography business, Horse Photographer UK. She began using Pinterest in 2012 to put inspiration boards together for forthcoming shoots.

Westwood-Ruttledge has 348 followers and says that though it doesn’t seem much, it’s not her main source of promotion. It is, however, a valuable productivity tool: “I use it to collaborate with the stylist and hair/make up girls to make sure we know what look we are going for.”

“Secret boards are a way of connecting people in businesses and making sure they are all on the same page with any project,” Westwood-Ruttledge adds. “Also, using tags, web addresses and watermarks to identify the source of an image is really helpful. There’s nothing worse than liking something but you can’t find where it originates from.” She also displays her work on the site and, for example, if you’re a horse-lover and you type in the words “black, Welsh stallion” to the Pinterest search bar, up pops one of her pictures with a link to her business. This sort of exposure is not to be whinnied at.

Pinterest has its uses as an administrative device. Hayley Brown runs Edinburgh-based GlamCandy, a hair and makeup school.

“I have been on Pinterest for a while, using it for photoshoots, fashion and home decor inspiration. I used it a couple of times to show students, photographers, stylists and artists my research,” she says. “It then occurred to me that it was the perfect accessible app for makeup artists and students to get inspiration and research old and new trends. So in January 2014 it was introduced into GlamCandy as our students’ homework and research tracker.”

The company also uses Pinterest with its partners to research promotional shoots. Brown explains: “We recently used it as part of our photoshoot brief for our 2015 bridal campaign and we shared a private board with our team so they could combine ideas and inspiration.” Brown is now developing some (currently top secret) ideas about how the company will monetise its Pinterest site in the coming year.

She could take some tips from London-based estate and lettings agency Paramount. Like everyone else, they started using Twitter a couple of years ago but last December started looking into ways they could use Pinterest to boost business.

Marketing manager Carla Bradman says: “It’s been a very successful medium for us in two ways. Firstly, it’s fantastic for us as an estate agency because we can share and repin home and lifestyle-related images.” Even better, in December the company launched its #WhampPlanet campaign, using the new Pinterest map feature.

Bradman explains: “The #WhampPlanet campaign involved distributing tote bags with an illustrated West Hampstead map on them throughout the local area. Bag holders were then encouraged to take a little bit of West Hampstead with them around the world, sending us photos of the bag in iconic locations to upload to our Pinterest map.”

To date the #WhampPlanet bag has been to the South Pole, the Great Wall of China, the Galápagos Islands, the Super Bowl final and Machu Picchu – and many other places. The campaign has earned the company “increased engagement with our target audience and a driver of consistent new visitors to our website”. In fact, she says, “visitors that stay on our website longer from Pinterest than from any other social network,” says Bradman.

Pin yourself successful
• Pinterest has two sets of terms—one for people and one for businesses. If you’re using Pinterest for business purposes you should sign up for a (free) business account and agree to the Business Terms of Service.

• Foodporn alone does not make a successful business. The key to a popular Pinterest account is finding a niche or unique approach. Dani Booth says: “Curate both your own and others pinners’ images that appeal to your brand without transforming Pinterest boards into billboards.”

• Consider niche boards to garner more interest (for example, rather than “20th century furniture” have “mid-century Danish furniture”).

• Like other social media sites, success is in how collaborative you are. Get involved in other people’s “pins” (liking and commenting) – don’t just post blatant adverts to your own products, but follow related companies.