Using Pinterest for Higher Education Outreach and Engagement

Pinterest logoBen Silberman grew up in Iowa spending free time collecting bugs. Evan Sharp was an architect. Paul Sciarra played in a country-western band. Joining forces in 2010, these three men who have studied at Yale, the University of Chicago and Columbia founded Pinterest, which has quickly risen to become the third most popular social network in the U.S., behind Facebook and Twitter. Suggested by Silberman’s wife while watching TV, the name Pinterest is a combination of two concepts: “pinboard” and “interest.”

How Pinterest is Used and in What Fields

According to the Pew Reserarch Center, Pinterest is used by 31% of online adults (26% of all Americans) with 81% of users being women. Men are increasingly becoming Pinterest users, accounting for 40% of new signups in 2016, up 70% from 2015. Available in 30+ languages, having 110 million monthly active users per day and users seeing an average of 55 ideas per search, Pinterest belongs to a group of social media platforms (such as Bundlr, Flipboard and Evernote) that facilitate online content curation.

Man at art museumCuration is broadly defined as pulling together and sorting, classifying, and labeling content for public presentation. Historically, this definition was reserved for individuals entrusted with library, looking at stamp collection with magnifying glassart, music or historical collections. Prior to the availability of online curation sites such as Pinterest, the private or ‘home-grown’ version of curation was relegated to scrapbooking bits and pieces from one’s life experiences and thoughts, or collecting and displaying in the home or office favorite things such as artwork, bugs, stamps or family photos. With Pinterest’s mission “to help people discover the things they love and inspire them to go do those things in their daily lives,” the site successfully facilitates users’ ability to not only discover, collect, and organize but also to publicly display things they like, want, and/or desire to be associated with.

In addition to curating done by individuals, Pinterest is used by businesses, educators, researchers and health professionals who have realized Pinterest’s potential to promote and sell products, find ‘teachable moments’ within Pinterest trending topics, and identify potentially risky health behaviors. For example, in a 2014 study of how water pipe smoking was portrayed on Pinterest, analysis of 800 pins found the vast majority (98.5%) were presented in a positive light, associating waterpipe smoking with a sense of pleasure and relaxation with no mention of the known health risks. Not surprisingly, the majority of these pins included a direct sales link to water pipe paraphernalia.

The study resulted in the conclusion that successful public health campaigns should be aware of how social media portrays a given topic, and understand what and Pinterest waterpipe pinshow others are communicating about the topic.

How Pinterest Enhances Access to Learning

Pinterest’s 110 million active users are contributing to a new kind of shared online knowledge. Unlike most other social media platforms, Pinterest is promoted as a personal tool that is often described as a ‘digital scrapbook’ rather than a tool for social communication. However, in comparison to other content curation platforms such as Evernote, users of Pinterest are regularly e-mailed recommended pins in areas they have shown interest and/or notifications that their friends have posted new content. This social prompting of behavior is indicative of the application and success of cognitive learning theory on Pinterest. Also unlike personal ‘scrapbooking,’ Pinterest users acknowledge that their personally-curated content is publicly available to others— including friends, family, colleagues and strangers—who can not only see the content but also repin and display it as their own. And rather than creating new content, most Pinterest curation involves finding and re-categorizing content created by others. Re-pinning others’ content is the most common activity on Pinterest making up an estimated 90% of user action, compared to just 10% of users pinning new or original content.

Another unique feature of Pinterest is its promotion of discovery, rather than search-based navigation common to other social media platforms. Pins shown to Pinners are not random, but rather determined by the user’s previous activity and favorite board categories. For example, if a person has been looking at ‘rustic home decorating’ and also has a ‘weddings’ board,  content might be suggested/shown to them that includes images of ‘rustic wedding decorations.’ This search engine type used by Pinterest is called ‘Guided Search’ which presents to users a network of related topics they can explore.

Each year, Pinterest predicts the top categories, which for 2017 include (listed in order): food and drink, home, beauty, women’s style, men’s style and grooming, travel, kids and parenting, wellness, life events, and personal interests.

Educate and Engage with Original Content

collection of Pinterest pins on the Live Eat Play Colorado board
The ‘Following the DASH Diet’ infographic is one of CSU’s most popular original content pins.

With two-thirds of all pins coming from business websites and 87% of Pinterest users having purchased a product because of Pinterest, social-media-savvy businesses strategically use this information to create and/or pin new content aimed at promoting and selling products. Likewise, educators and researchers should be employing this strategy of creating original content for Pinterest that links users to research-based information, programs and/or services.

  • For example, the ‘Following the DASH Diet’ infographic shown to the right, has not only been re-pinned  >3,600 times since it was posted in 2015, but has also generated the greatest volume of traffic to and engagement with the Live Eat Play Colorado website between 2015-2017.