Curating for engagement: Identifying the nature and impact of organizational marketing strategies on Pinterest
First Monday

Curating for engagement: Identifying the nature and impact of organizational marketing strategies on Pinterest by Gregory D. Saxton and Amanda Ghosh

In an increasingly overloaded information environment sparked by the explosion of digital media, the ability to curate content has taken on greater importance. This study begins with the supposition that businesses that are able to adopt a content curation role and help consumers sort through the daily influx of information may be more successful in attracting, engaging, and retaining customers while fostering brand awareness and word of mouth. Accordingly, this study investigates organizational marketing strategies on Pinterest, the fifth most popular U.S. social media site and the largest social curation platform. Pinterest effectively offers a unique opportunity for businesses to engage customers through social curation strategies, and in this paper we set out to address two related questions. First, how are organizations communicating with current and potential customers on Pinterest? And second, how effective are these strategies? We address these questions by inductively analyzing 1,095 “pins” sent by 18 cosmetic surgery businesses. Undertaking analyses at the pin, board, and account levels, we ultimately identify three distinct pinning strategies: Lifestyle, Information Source, and Market Creator. These strategies are then related to the effectiveness of brand awareness and word of mouth, using the number of repins as the primary measure of “reach” of a marketing campaign. The Lifestyle strategy had the biggest impact, generating the largest number of repins. The implications of these social curation strategies for social media marketing are explored.


Successful strategies in social media marketing
Discussion and conclusions




Social media present the marketing professional with great opportunities as well as challenges. One of the greatest dilemmas is channel selection, for “social media” is not a single, homogeneous communication channel but a diverse collection of related platforms and tools. As shown in recent research on the message network Twitter (Jansen, et al., 2009; Swani, et al., 2014), the video marketing content site YouTube (Liu-Thompkins and Rogerson, 2012; Ertimur and Gilly, 2012), and the social networking site Facebook (De Vries, et al., 2012; Swani, et al., 2013; Veer, 2011), each platform possesses a unique set of affordances for the social media marketer.

One of the newest platforms is Pinterest, now the fifth most popular social media site in the United States, with around 250,000,000 unique monthly users worldwide (eBiz, 2016). Pinterest offers something new: It is a visual folksonomy network that allows for the social curation (Rheingold, 2012; Rosenbaum, 2011) of information. Unlike Twitter, which excels at the rapid diffusion of information, Pinterest and other content curation platforms offer adopting consumers a filter on the daily influx of information. Pinterest thus offers a unique opportunity for businesses to engage information-overloaded customers through curation strategies.

However, there is to date little understanding of how businesses might use social curation tools to attract and engage with target audiences. In this paper we thus set out to address two related questions. First, how are organizations communicating with current and potential customers on Pinterest? And second, how effective are these strategies in engaging with audiences?

To address these questions, we conduct a study of 1,095 “pins” sent by 18 cosmetic surgery businesses on the social curation network Pinterest. We conduct our study through three overarching stages of research that allow us to conceptualize what the organizations are “pinning,” what broader strategies these pinning behaviors suggest, and the relationship between these strategies and measures of audience engagement.

First, we perform an inductive message-level analysis of the 1,095 pins sent by the 18 accounts, focusing on the topics, originality, and audience orientation of the curated material. In the second stage we build on the pin-level insights by inductively examining each organization’s aggregate collection of pins; based on these analyses we identify three distinct organizational-level pinning strategies: Lifestyle, Information Source, and Market Creator. In the third and final stage, we develop propositions about the relative effectiveness of these marketing strategies by relating them to the total number of repins, which serves as the primary measure of campaign effectiveness or the “reach” of a marketing campaign into a target audience. The Lifestyle strategy had the biggest impact, generating the largest number of repins, followed by the Market Creator strategy.

This study makes several contributions to the social media marketing literature. To start, to our knowledge, this is the first marketing study of a social curation platform. Among other benefits, we are thus able to compare organizations’ social curating behaviors and strategies with those employed on other social media channels, an especially important task given the different marketing practices and audience outcomes across social media channels (Smith, et al., 2012). In so doing, we also add to our understanding of the types of marketing messages sent on social media and, more importantly, of the overall strategies manifest in organizations’ communicative practices. Among other things, we find communication on Pinterest is much less dialogic (Kent and Taylor, 1998) than that seen on microblogging sites such as Twitter (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012) or social networking sites such as Facebook (Waters, et al., 2009). As implied by the term curation, communication on Pinterest is primarily one-way, informational communication, yet there is a richness to (and strategy underlying) this information that has not been previously tapped by the marketing literature. Overall, we provide evidence for what should be considered a distinct social media marketing approach, the social curation approach, which has notable implications for both practitioners and existing theories of marketing strategies. Lastly, we add to the social media marketing effectiveness literature, which has, with few exceptions (e.g., De Vries, et al., 2012; Swani, et al., 2013; Saxton and Waters, 2014) been slow to directly connect social media marketing strategies to the measures of immediate audience reaction afforded by social media.

In the following section we summarize theoretical approaches to understanding social media marketing strategies and efforts to measure the effectiveness of those communicative efforts. We follow with a description of the methods employed and the presentation of findings. We end with an elaboration of the contributions alluded to above, a discussion of the strengths and limitations of the study, and a discussion of the implications that our study posits for understanding approaches to undertaking and measuring social media marketing strategies.



Successful strategies in social media marketing

Marketing practices on different social media platforms

Overview of social media channels. As of 2016, the top five U.S. social media sites — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest — command nearly three billion unique monthly visitors combined (eBiz, 2016). Not surprisingly, marketers have rushed to embrace the promises of increased sales, decreased marketing costs, improved search-engine rankings, increased traffic, and increased brand exposure (Stelzner, 2012) offered by these tools.

Approximately 93 percent of businesses now use social media (Pick, 2013), spending upwards of US$1.7 billion on social media advertising even as early as 2010 (Emarketer, 2010).

Research on different platforms. By now a growing body of research has explored the marketing uses of various social media channels. Building on research on such precursors to social media as open source collaboration (Hemetsberger, 2002), virtual worlds (Scaraboto, et al., 2013) and blogs (Balagué and de Valck, 2013), the social networking platform Facebook and microblogging platform Twitter have received the most attention. On Facebook, scholars have examined updating efforts (De Vries, et al., 2012), types of branded content (Lipsman, et al., 2012), and other germane practices; while on Twitter scholars have conducted investigations of one-way vs. two-way communication forms (Burton and Soboleva, 2011), entrepreneurial perceptions of Twitter’s marketing potential (Bulearca and Bulearca, 2010), tweets as electronic word of mouth (Jansen, et al., 2009), and herding and contagion processes (Langley, et al., 2014). Marketing scholars have also done some research on the video content community platform YouTube, including examinations of branding and identity-building (Waters and Jones, 2011) and the characteristics of highly diffused videos (Liu-Thompkins and Rogerson, 2012).

In short, marketing scholars have built a rapidly growing body of research on the social networking site Facebook, the microblogging platform Twitter, and the video content community YouTube, in the process generating new insights into the nature, determinants, and outcomes of social media marketing efforts. The social media landscape keeps changing, however, and marketing scholars have yet to examine social curation sites such as Pinterest.

What is social curation? The broad diffusion of new and social media has resulted in an information glut where one of the rarest commodities is attention. It is within this context that content curation, or the search, selection, and archiving of relevant resources (Miralbell, et al., 2013; Rotman, et al., 2012; Stanoevska-Slabeva, et al., 2012), has become one of the most critical skills for consumers navigating the Web experience (Rheingold, 2012; Rosenbaum, 2011; Scoble, 2010). Social curation platforms, including Digg, Reddit, Delicious (formerly,, and Pinterest, among others, have thus quickly become popular with information-overloaded consumers. Organizations that can adopt a content curation role and help consumers wade through the daily flood of information may be more successful at attracting and building relationships with new customers.

Pinterest. The most popular content curation site is Pinterest, the fifth most popular social media platform in the U.S. in 2016 (eBiz, 2016), with some evidence it has surpassed Google+ and Twitter in 2014 to take third place in number of users (Bercovici, 2014). It is the fourth most highly valued U.S.-based social media platform (Bercovici, 2014), and it has a highly prized demographic (predominantly middle- and upper-middle class women) whose users spend substantially more time on the site per day than on any other social media platform (Moore, 2014).

As with other social media-based curation (or social curation) platforms, the classification system on Pinterest is not predetermined but is rather a folksonomy (Gruber, 2007; Albrycht, 2006), or a decentralized, user-generated tagging, organizing, and classification system. Users can collaboratively create and manage tags, organize content, and share information with their social networks. Unlike text-based folksonomies such as Delicious, Pinterest is a visual folksonomy that allows users to graphically organize and present Web content. While such a system can be used to simply broadcast individual achievements, among other purposes, it is ideally suited for a content curation role, whereby organizations identify, filter, classify, archive, organize, and present only the most important and most relevant pieces of information that are produced on a given topic.

Research on Pinterest is only just beginning to get off the ground, with scholars in tourism studies (Maurer and Hinterdorfer, 2013), information science (Hall and Zarro, 2012), computer science (Church, et al., 2013), and artificial intelligence (Zhong, et al., 2013) recently taking an interest. To the best of our knowledge, no marketing studies have been conducted of Pinterest. Consequently, there is to date little understanding of how businesses might use social curation tools (Hall and Zarro, 2012) to attract and engage with target audiences. There is thus a pressing need to examine organizations’ social media marketing strategies on curation sites, especially given research showing that organizational practices and audience responses vary across platforms (Smith, et al., 2012; Nah and Saxton, 2013; Rogers, et al., 2012; Dalla Pozza, 2014).

Strategies in social media marketing

Given our interest in examining which social curation strategies are more successful, it would be worthwhile to understand how strategies are conceptualized in the extant social media marketing literature. Here most of the empirical social media marketing literature is silent, concentrating instead on testing the effects of specific practices and communication channels. There does, however, appear to be an implicit consensus that effective social media marketing strategies should focus on long-term, participatory, communicative “indirect” approaches rather than direct, short-term sales-maximization approaches. In Hoffman and Fodor’s (2010) words, these are strategies that “put the brand to work for the customers by satisfying their needs to create, consume, connect and control in the social Web” [1]. In other words, there is a belief that strategies should not be sales focused (short-term) but rather relationship-focused (long-term). This idea has found empirical support in research showing a positive relationship between engagement in the online context and advertising effectiveness (Calder, et al., 2009) as well as findings of a negative relationship between “hard sell” messages and the number of “likes” a Facebook message receives (Swani, et al., 2013).

It is within the domain of relationship-building strategies that expanding our scope to look at the public relations literature would be especially productive. In effect, the recent concern with relationship-building in social media marketing mirrors the earlier “relational turn” that has occurred in public relations since the late 1990s, when theorizing about public relations shifted from an emphasis on managing communication toward building and maintaining relationships (Kent and Taylor, 1998; Kent and Taylor, 2002; Ledingham, 2003; Ledingham and Bruning, 1998; Hon and Grunig, 1999; Broom, et al., 1997). As a result, compared to marketing scholars, public relations scholars have generally placed stronger emphasis on conceptualizing and measuring the strategies — especially relationship-building strategies — organizations are pursuing on social media (yet less time on testing the effectiveness of social media practices). In line with the relationship management paradigm now predominant, social media studies in public relations have largely concentrated on differentiating two-way dialogic strategies (Kent and Taylor, 1998) from one-way informational strategies.

Early social media research in this vein focused on evidence of dialogue as found in static profile information such as that on Facebook “walls” (Bortree and Seltzer, 2009; Waters, et al., 2009). More recent research has come to focus on the key dynamic feature of social media platforms: the regular brief updates, statuses, and tweets sent by the organizations (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012; Saffer, et al., 2013; Waters and Jamal, 2011). Here the focus has generally been on gleaning insights into organizational strategy by examining the intended audience role implicit in the message — especially as a “learner,” or passive recipient of information (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012; Waters and Jamal, 2011); or as a “conversant,” or active participant in two-way organization-public dialogue (Waters and Jamal, 2011; Saxton and Waters, 2014; Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012; Saffer, et al., 2013). A third audience role is as an “actor” or “agent,” as evidenced in promotional and mobilizational messages that seek to get the audience member to “do something” for the organization — anything from buying a product, attending an event, diffusing a message, to making a donation (Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012; Saxton and Waters, 2014; Thackeray, et al., 2013).

The public relations literature has hence identified three types of intended audience roles reflected in organizational messages — audience member as “learner,” as suggested by one-way informational updates; audience member as “agent,” as indicated by promotional and mobilizational updates; and audience member as “connector,” as reflected in dialogic and community-building updates. Organizations can effectively seek to have three distinct forms of relationships with their publics — a finding with strong implications for social media marketers. Given the emphasis on relational approaches in social media marketing, an understanding of the three chief relational orientations could be valuable for analyzing social media-driven business-to-consumer marketing efforts.

Measuring effectiveness of social media marketing efforts

Costs of social media marketing. The average amount of time marketers are spending on social media continues to increase (Stelzner, 2013). Marketers have reported using social media for eleven or more hours per week on average, with some reporting over 40 hours per week (Stelzner, 2013). Organizations are also starting to create a distinct budget for social media, with companies spending as much as US$19 million dollars on social media accounts (Marketing Charts, 2013). The reasons for such efforts are well known: companies seek to leverage social media to increase public exposure and Web traffic, improve search rankings, find leads, and develop loyal fans (Marketing Charts, 2013). Yet such considerable efforts require a tangible return on investment. To avoid wasting resources, organizations need to use effective social media strategies. In other words, with this much effort, it is important to understand effectiveness and return on investment. There are two main approaches in the empirical literature.

Survey measures. First, there are survey approaches to measuring the outcomes of relationship-building efforts. These have been popular especially in communication and public relations, largely influenced by relational quality perception scales developed by Hon and Grunig (1999) and Bruning, Ledingham and colleagues (Ledingham and Bruning, 1998; Ledingham, 2003). The surveys are used to measure the effectiveness — from the public’s perspective — of organizations’ long-term relationship-building efforts (e.g., Kelleher and Miller, 2006; Huang, 2001; Ki and Hon, 2006). Such surveys are often employed in experimental designs to examine the effects of organizations’ new media efforts (e.g., Sweetser and Metzgar, 2007). In marketing, such approaches typically concern attitudes toward the brand or firm or to assess brand evaluations (Naylor, et al., 2012), customer relationship quality (Kim and Ko, 2010), brand loyalty (Laroche, et al., 2013), purchase intentions (Naylor, et al., 2012; Kim and Ko, 2010), and other related outcomes.

Social media metrics — Real-time public response measures. Survey-based measures were effectively the most viable option for measuring customer engagement and reactions to traditional broadcast media as well as the earlier forms of new media such as Web sites. The interactivity (Parmentier and Fischer, 2013) inherent in social media, however, has afforded a new possibility: real-time metrics of audience engagement. The liking, commenting, following, replying, user mentions, upvotes and downvotes, and diffusing, sharing and repinning behaviors each provide a different vantage point on the magnitude, quality, and nature of the audience reaction to an organization’s social media content (Hoffman and Fodor, 2010; Saxton and Waters, 2014; Lipsman, et al., 2012). These metrics are useful for interpreting concepts such as brand reach and influence (Lipsman, et al., 2012), content diffusion (Langley, et al., 2014; Liu-Thompkins and Rogerson, 2012; Rogers, et al., 2012), and message popularity and effectiveness (De Vries, et al., 2012; Saxton and Waters, 2014; Swani, et al., 2013). Consequently, from a broad theoretical standpoint, these metrics can be used as real-time measures of the effectiveness and return on investment of social media efforts — all tap relational outcomes and thus fit within the broad framework of the relational view of social media marketing (Hoffman and Fodor, 2010).

Explaining success in social media marketing

In brief, social media have provided marketers with new tools for engaging customers along with new tools for measuring the effectiveness of marketing campaigns. Given the resources expended, it is critical to develop and test hypotheses of the relationships between organizations’ social media marketing practices and audience outcomes. The current literature has developed a number of explanations thus far. One line of research has examined the effects of channel and tool selection on audience influence, such as comparison of which tools and channels available within Facebook are most effective in brand management (Gensler, et al., 2013) and in extending the brand reach (Lipsman, et al., 2012). Another body of research focuses on the influence of targeting, networking, and following choices on audience engagement; such research focuses on, notably, audience characteristics in the spread of organizational messages (Lipsman, et al., 2012; Liu-Thompkins and Rogerson, 2012; Chen, et al., 2011). Another notable line of research seeks to build theory around content choices, such as the vividness, interactivity, and informative or entertainment value of the post (De Vries, et al., 2012). Related research in communication and public relations has also shown the intended audience role of social media content is another important determinant of message effectiveness (Saxton and Waters, 2014).

Surprisingly, the marketing literature is fairly light in its examinations of the connections between organizational actions and audience response in the social media context. Specifically, while a growing body of research is being done in related areas, such as brand communities (e.g., Laroche, et al., 2013) and user-generated content (e.g., Smith, et al., 2012; Hollenbeck and Kaikati, 2012; Onishi and Manchanda, 2012), marketing studies testing the social media action — campaign effectiveness connection have been sparse beyond those just noted above. Moreover, with several recent notable exceptions (De Vries, et al., 2012; Swani, et al., 2014; Swani, et al., 2013), social media marketing studies have not focused on the central dynamic feature of organizations’ social media presence: The regular updates (tweets, status updates, pins, etc.) the organizations are posting on social media platforms for audience consumption. Marketing scholars are thereby missing out on a tremendous opportunity to test the real-time effectiveness of marketing messages. Given the earlier discussion regarding social media metrics, ideally, we would have more studies along the lines of de Vries, et al. (2012) and Swani, et al. (2013) that employ social media metrics to measure effectiveness. The focus on concrete evidence of customer behavior would yield benefits to social media marketing scholars that would serve as a valuable complement to the existing body of experimental and survey-based research.

At the same time, there is a persistent lack of strategy-level analyses. No studies of which we are aware explicitly examine the relationship between overall social media marketing strategies and marketing outcomes. As noted above, scholars are beginning to conduct message-level analyses, including the strategies implicit in specific messages (e.g., Swani, et al., 2014; Swani, et al., 2013; De Vries, et al., 2012; Saxton and Waters, 2014). Given their message-level analyses, these studies seek to develop theory explaining what accounts for more successful marketing messages. Yet the above studies, while highly valuable, effectively test tactical-level choices — the type of tool employed, message modality, content choices, and the like. We also need explanations that aggregate message behaviors up to the marketing or organizational levels. We need, in other words, strategy-level explanations.


In short, the above studies play an important role in improving our understanding of what leads to better social media marketing outcomes. We now have studies on marketing efforts on the different social media platforms. We have studies on the effects of tool and channel selection on various platforms. We have studies of how content choices influence consumer outcomes. We have studies of how targeting, following, and networking choices influence audience and diffusion outcomes. And we have studies of how different types of audiences are influenced by social media content. In short, we are gaining a better understanding of what organizations are doing on social media and how channel selection, content choices, and targeting and networking strategies affect a broad range of consumer outcomes. What we could use more of is theorizing around the effects of the discrete messages the organizations are sending. More importantly, there is almost a complete absence of organization-level studies that explore the relationship between organizational strategies and marketing outcomes in the social media marketing context. We are missing an analysis not only of organizational-level strategy, but, with few exceptions (see De Vries, et al., 2012; Swani, et al., 2014; Swani, et al., 2013), of how the strategies are being reflected in discrete social media marketing messages. Moreover, few are leveraging the immediate audience reaction metrics available on social media to measure message effectiveness. Lastly, not for nothing, we have little sense of how organizations are using curation tools to connect and engage with customers. Our study is directed at addressing these gaps.




Study setting: Pinterest

Pinterest is a visual folksonomy platform that is employed as a social curation tool. Visual folksonomies allow users to graphically organize the content they find on the Internet by providing a social network-based system of classification (Peters, 2009). Users can collaboratively create and manage tags, organize content, and share information with their social networks using a system of “pins” categorized into “boards” (for a description of the main elements of the Pinterest architecture, see Zarro and Hall, 2012). Since Pinterest opened to the public in August 2012, its Web traffic referrals have risen by 63 percent; in 2013, international traffic increased by 125 percent, and the platform reached 70 million users and 500,000 business accounts (Smith, 2016), increasing to roughly 250 million users by 2016 (eBiz, 2016). Given its growth and desirable core demographic (Moore, 2014; Bercovici, 2014), business-to-consumer (B2C) companies have flocked to Pinterest to join the conversation and reach new users with their messages, ideas, and products. Pinterest’s popularity among businesses and consumers alike makes it the most worthwhile social curation platform to study.

Sample: Cosmetic surgery practices

Given Pinterest’s orientation toward consumer products, our priority in selecting a sample was a set of single-industry B2C companies that would facilitate a comparable analysis of direct-to-consumer marketing strategies. In line with recent attention to cosmetic surgery among scholars (Voelker and Pentina, 2011), we chose cosmetic surgery practices on Pinterest as our organizations of interest. The cosmetic surgery practices in our sample are small entrepreneurial companies that actively seek to gain and maintain clients through direct-to-consumer marketing and patient referrals. Our results are thus chiefly generalizable to similar small and entrepreneurial B2C service companies.

For our sample of cosmetic surgery businesses, we wanted to examine organizations that had developed a reasonable proficiency on Pinterest. Accordingly, to obtain our sample we searched Google on 12 September 2013 for the terms “Pinterest ‘cosmetic surgery’” and “Pinterest ‘plastic surgery.’” These search phrases returned between 20 and 30 million hits. We examined the first 25 business accounts, which, broadly speaking, represent 25 of the most prominent cosmetic surgery practices on Pinterest. These businesses have more sophisticated social media skills than the average user, thus improving the odds of providing us with sufficient quality and quantity of content to analyze marketing strategies. Twenty-four of 25 accounts represent cosmetic surgery practices located in the United States, with one located in Australia.


We found 23 of the 25 organizations maintained an active and publicly available account on Pinterest. Collectively, these 23 accounts had pins organized into 250 different boards. Python code (available upon request) was then written to scrape pinning data from each of these boards, collecting the most recent 25 pins (as available) from each board. Data on a total of 3,062 pins across the 250 boards for the 23 organizations were thus downloaded into a relational database. Among the pin-level data scraped from the Pinterest site were variables related to the organization URL, board URL, board title, pin URL, pin description (i.e., text accompanying a pin), number of likes and comments for each pin, the number of times each pin was repinned, who pinned (or repinned) the content, and the origin of the pinned material. Recall, Pinterest is a collection of virtual bulletin boards and pins pinned to these virtual bulletin boards. Data were thus also gathered at the board level, including number of pins, board description, number of board followers; as well as at the account level, including number of pins sent, number of boards, account description, repinner data (specific users who pin for the account), number of boards, number of account likes, and number of users followed and following.

Analysis plan

To document, categorize, and conceptualize the range of marketing strategies undertaken in this new social media context, this study undertakes a primarily inductive, theory-building approach. Following qualitative methodological tenets outlined by Strauss and Corbin (1998) and Miles and Huberman (1984), we analyze the data inductively to identify communicative actions and marketing strategies that are unique to the Pinterest context. Such qualitative inductive analyses are ideally suited to identifying categories of marketing practices that are newly emergent in organizations’ social media use and thus not previously identified in the literature.

Analysis of the data proceeded in three steps. First, we start at the pin level. Our aim here is to gain an appreciation of the range and type of messages the organizations are sending in their daily pinning activities. Though our analyses are largely inductive, in line with the literature review our starting point for the analyses is the relational focus of the pins. The core underlying tenet of social media marketing is that effective strategies are those that seek to build a relationship with customers. The question is, what type of relationship? Accordingly, to help guide our efforts, our pin-level inductive analyses are initially guided by the intended relationship role suggested by the message. Here we adopt the relational perspective common in the public relations and communication literatures (e.g., Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012; Waters and Jamal, 2011; Saffer, et al., 2013), which categorizes social media messages into informational messages, or messages conveying information, reports, and news on the organization or anything of potential relevance to the audience, which put the audience member into a relatively passive “learner” role; dialogic and connecting community-building messages, or those that employ dialogue, conversational, and interactivity in the attempt to put the audience member into a role as active conversationalist or community-builder; and promotional and mobilizational messages, or those that seek to place the audience member in the role of agent who will undertake some specific action for the organization, such as purchasing, donating, viewing, volunteering, or spreading the word. We thus use this relational framework as a starting point for our inductive analyses into the nature of organizations’ strategic pinning efforts; in so doing, in line with inductive grounded theory building, we also look for emergent and previously undocumented forms of communicative and marketing behaviors manifest in the organizations’ pinning efforts. Analysis of 18 of the 23 organizations’ Pinterest accounts, including 1,095 pins, helped the analyses reach the point of theoretical saturation (Strauss and Corbin, 1998), insofar as the analysis of additional data did not yield significant additional theoretical insights.

Second, we build on the pin-level analyses and move up to the organizational strategy level. Here we seek to inductively identify a set of broad strategies the organizations are using in their pinning actions. As with the pin-level analyses, this inductive coding relied on the constant comparative method (Strauss and Corbin, 1998), whereby newly and previously coded messages are compared to ensure the validity and integrity of emergent constructs. At both the pin and organizational levels, coding involved an iterative process of cycling among data, existing literature, and emergent theoretical constructs (Eisenhardt, 1989; Miles and Huberman, 1984).

Third, we examine the relationship between the strategies identified in the second stage and the indicators of audience engagement, particularly the number of repins. We then use these relationships to help develop theoretical insights into the effectiveness of various organizational pinning strategies on audience engagement.

Collectively, these three sets of analyses will allow us to identify the types of messages organizations are sending in this social media context, the broad marketing strategies they are pursuing, and the relative effectiveness of the strategies identified.




Descriptive statistics on the accounts

At the account level in September 2013, the average number of likes for the 23 businesses sampled was 29 (sd = 88), ranging from a minimum of zero to a maximum of 419. They had an average of 353 followers (sd = 1,004), with as few as one and as many as 4,887, and were themselves following an average of 137 other Pinterest users (sd = 249), ranging from a minimum of zero to a maximum of 951. The 23 businesses had created on average 315 pins to date (sd = 465) that were organized into 11 different boards (sd = 8). Organizations typically pinned from external rather than internal sources. Sometimes Pinterest accounts were presented as the organization’s, while in other cases the individual doctor(s) leading the company appeared to hold the account connected with the cosmetic surgery practice.

Pin-level analyses

In line with our analysis plan, the starting point for our inductive analyses was the intended audience role of the pins. After categorizing the pins according to intended audience role, we then looked for additional dimensions in organizations’ pinning efforts. Based on our inductive analyses we ultimately identified or refined four key dimensions of the cosmetic surgery practices’ pins: 1) the intended audience role; 2) content source; 3) the relationship to the organization’s core business; and, 4) the aspirational nature of the content. We deal with each of these four dimensions in turn.

Relational orientation to customers. In line with previous literature, the starting point for our inductive analyses was the intended audience role of the pins, as indicated by whether the pin’s message was informational, community-building, or mobilizational. Uncovering the audience role that these messages is the first step in the inductive development of a set of strategies that organizations employ on the social curation network.

Community-building messages: Consumer as dialogic conversant. We present the findings from our analyses in ascending order of theoretical interest. First, somewhat surprisingly, we found no evidence of pins reflecting a dialogic or community-building function; that is, none explicitly sought to put the customer in a conversational role through the solicitation of feedback, asking a question, or other forms of dialogue or interactivity. Pinterest certainly affords the possibility for dialogic engagement; the organizations here are simply choosing not to use it. By the same token, though it is not directly related to our research questions, we found little evidence of customers seeking to engage in dialogue through the use of comments: Only 49 (or 1.6 percent) of the 3,062 total pins in the dataset generated any audience comments.

Promotional and mobilizational messages: Consumer as agent. An important minority of pins by the organizations in our sample were those that explicitly place the audience member in an “action” role; audience members are intended to take the role of a “doer” or agent for the business, typically as a consumer. We classify action pins into two central categories. Recall that pins have a visual and a textual component (the “description”); visual exemplars of the two forms of action pins are illustrated in Figure 1. As shown in the examples, a pin consists of an image, text indicating the source of the image, and a description of or commentary on the pin written by the cosmetic surgery practice.


Action pin related to the lifestyle that the organization promotes
Figure 1a: Action pin related to the lifestyle that the organization promotes.
Action pin prompting sales-related action
Figure 1b: Action pin prompting sales-related action (direct sales pitch).
Figure 1: Visual exemplars of action pins.


First, the most common topic of action pins, as in the following example, involved plugs for cosmetic products and services: “Belotero Dermal Filler is used for harder to treat superficial lines around the eyes, upper lip, and lower cheek areas. Call to schedule your appointment for Belotero.” Such messages, with a direct call to purchase, conform with a selling strategy (Swani, et al., 2014). In addition to content related to the organizations and their products and services, this category of business-oriented action pins also included organization-run specials, contests, and giveaways.

Second, a minority of action pins prompted audiences to partake in activities not related to the organization but rather to a lifestyle the business was supporting. Most common were pins asking followers to take an action that was health or beauty related, with others related to philanthropic or cultural or recreational pursuits, such as the following pin: “Grab your mittens and scarves and make your way to the heart of the center city for Raleigh’s premier holiday event — the AT Raleigh Winterfest.”

Informational messages: Knowledge consumer. Our findings indicate the great majority of pins were informational in nature. As shown in the examples in Figure 2, such pins put audience members in the role of knowledge consumer, or passive recipient of information.


Informational pin related to beauty tips
Figure 2a: Informational pin related to beauty tips.
Informational pin related to health
Figure 2b: Informational pin related to health.
Figure 2: Visual exemplars of informational pins.


Our analysis indicated these businesses were pinning information on a broad range of topics. Through our analyses we condensed and aggregated these topics. We found the cosmetic surgery businesses were commonly pinning in the areas of beauty, cars, food, recreation, sports, weddings, health, humor, nature, and fashion as well as pins related to household hints, the doctors’ lives, and cosmetic surgery procedures. In effect, in some cases, the business will pin content conveying information on its products or services. The difference between these informational pins and action pins is that the latter explicitly prompt their audiences buy a product or make an appointment, while information pins simply relay the bits of information. In essence, in contrast to product-related action pins, informational pins lack the explicit call to purchase that characterizes “hard sell” messages (Swani, et al., 2014).

Intended audience orientation: Informational or action-oriented. In sum, our first dimension relates to whether the social media content sent by the organization seeks to put the audience member in the role of conversant, doer, or knowledge recipient. The key conclusion here is that social curation strategies undertaken in our sample seek to place the audience in either an information consumption role or a “doer” role, especially as a consumer of products and services. We propose the organizational selection of audience orientation likely plays a key role in how the consumer engages and identifies with the business’ brand.

Content source: Internal or external. The second dimension, content source, refers to whether the pinned content comes from within or without the organization. Specifically, we found organizations’ pins were uploaded information (internal) or outsider information (external). Internal pins typically involve either a direct sales message or information that relates to organization activities, highlights from organizational events, and relevant organization-specific news, facts, and reports. The majority of the pins in our sample, however, were externally sourced. External pinning is a useful practice to avoid appearing like a “megaphone” and is analogous to retweeting on Twitter or sharing on Facebook. Such pins can be used to share useful information to the organizations’ target audiences. These types of pins can also be used to make a “connection” with the original content creators, the original content creators’ networks, or both.

Relationship to core business: Direct or indirect. The third dimension taps whether the content is directly or only indirectly related to cosmetic surgery practices. Direct messages are those related to the firms’ core business: cosmetic surgery. Direct pins typically conveyed information on services or procedures or products available to patients, trends in cosmetic surgery, before-and-after photos, or photos of “successful” cosmetic surgery procedures. Indirect pins, in contrast, were not directly related the organization’s core business; the majority of these were pins that featured fashionable clothing, beautiful makeup looks, tips to obtain a more beautiful and fit appearance, and pins that stress the importance of physical and emotional health or how physical appearance translates to emotional health. A smaller number of pins conveyed basic information about the cosmetic surgery practice, its facilities, and employees. In short, the majority of pins in our sample covered information that was relevant to the organizations’ stakeholders but was not necessarily directly relevant to cosmetic surgery or the organizations themselves. Instead, much of the informational pin content was reflective of a lifestyle with which the organization identified and promoted.

Aspirational nature of content. The fourth and final dimension relates to whether the content presents aspirational material to the consumer. As discussed above, these organizations frequently pinned content containing basic organizational information or mundane details about cosmetic surgery practices. Such content is not aspirational (Saviolo and Marazza, 2012) in nature. More commonly, however, the organizations were pinning content that presented something to which the consumer could purportedly aspire. There were essentially two forms of aspirational content. When the content was directly related to cosmetic surgery, the content represented “beauty templates” that consumers could aspire to through the organizations’ core business. When the content was indirectly related to the mission, in contrast, it was typically presenting lifestyle-related aspirational images for the target audience.

Labelling the pins based on the interplay of the four dimensions. Collectively, these four dimensions provide insights into the nature of the organizations’ pinning strategies. Figure 3 presents a classification tree depicting the six different pin types that result from the interplay of these four dimensions. To start, if the pin is action-oriented, there are only two main categories of pins. If the pin contains internal content, it is generally a hard sell pin; alternatively, if the content contains external content, it is generally what we might label lifestyle action pins. In effect, the source of the content serves to delineate the direct sales pins from the action-oriented lifestyle pins discussed in the prior section.


Classification tree
Figure 3: Classification tree classifying pin type based on audience role, content source, relationship to mission, and aspirational value.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


There is more variety in organizations’ informational pinning. If the pin puts the audience member in an information-recipient role, the pin type varies according to content source, directness, and aspirational focus. To start, if the content source is internal, pin type differs for direct and indirect content: the former are what we call cosmetic surgery information pins, while the latter are basic organizational information pins. Though both present organization-specific information, only the former present information on the organizations’ core business. The latter are more mundane details on office hours, descriptions of facilities, and other such details. Given their one-way informational nature, neither cosmetic surgery information pins nor basic organizational information pins involve an action-oriented sales pitch. Similarly, these pins are typically not aspirational in nature.

If, in contrast, the informational content is external, then there are three distinct forms of pins depending on the directness and aspirational nature of the material. Indirect, externally sourced informational pins are what we call lifestyle pins; these messages are typically aspirational in nature, and present content related to beauty and health tips, material aspirations, and various recreational and lifestyle recommendations. Finally, moving to the bottom of the classification tree in Figure 3, there are two categories of externally sourced informational messages that are directly related to the organizations’ core business. The non-aspirational variety are cosmetic surgery information pins that contain information on cosmetic surgery trends or practices, while the aspirational variety are cosmetic surgery aspiration pins, which generally present images of beauty ideals and cosmetic surgery stories that constitute a “beauty template” for the targeted consumer.

Organizational strategy-level analyses

The next stage of the analysis involved moving up further the ladder of analysis to the organizational level — to the organization’s platform-wide strategy. Here we attempt to develop theoretical insights into the nature of organizations’ social curation strategies on Pinterest. Inductive thematic analysis revealed three marketing strategies employed by the organizations: Lifestyle pinner, Information source pinner, and Market creator pinner.

The Lifestyle pinner. Lifestyle pinners primarily pin aspirational content. Aspirational content captures those items associated with a high social status or trendy lifestyle, such as trending fashion, expensive homes, luxury cars, chic restaurants, inspirational quotes, and exercise templates for the fit and beautiful. Such pinners could be considered “lifestyle sellers.” Implicitly, it appears these plastic surgery practices are seeking to identify themselves with a certain (high-income) profile of clientele, and provide an aspirational template for prospective clients. Sometimes doctors themselves were featured parts of the lifestyle being sold. At times this attributed a form of “celebrity” appearance to the doctors that reinforced the trendy and ambitious lifestyle being promoted. Note that this strategy is similar but not identical to lifestyle branding (Chernev, et al., 2011; Saviolo and Marazza, 2012); a key distinction is that the aspirational and/or lifestyle component seen here is more indirectly related to the products and services provided by the business. Also distinct is the sheer proportion of material that is lifestyle-oriented and not immediately related to the core cosmetic surgery business.

Information source pinner. Here we see organizations setting themselves in a role as a source for meaningful information on mission-related topics. For instance, a plastic surgeon may pin information related to skin care tips. Such information is not expected to directly result in product or service sales. Rather, the pinner is taking a more long-term approach in aiming to become seen as a useful information source. The effect, if successful, is that the pinner will acquire substantial social media-based reputational capital, or what we may call social media capital (Saxton and Guo, 2014), and that this influential social position will ultimately be converted into increased brand equity and financial gain. This strategy manifested through the myriad informational pins which offered bits of information about cosmetic surgery, beauty, nutrition, fitness, and health care. Exemplars of this strategy are: “Did you know that Botox can smooth out a dimpled chin?” “Over injecting is a DON’T! If you’re thinking about getting dermal fillers, such as Restylane, you probably want to look like yourself, only better, and avoid looking fake and overfilled.”

Market creator pinner. Just as Starbucks’ long-term strategy was to create a market for high-quality coffee (Mourdoukoutas, 2013), these types of pinners strive to create a market for beauty achieved through plastic surgery, as evident in frequent posting of “beauty templates” as seen in pins of celebrities and models and other “beautiful” people, or in some cases body parts which were described by the organizations as “beautiful.” For example, there were boards specifically dedicated to “beautiful breasts” and “beautiful butts.” Organizations tried to accomplish a range of tasks in using this strategy to create a market for plastic surgery. For instance, to attract clientele, organizations used information about which celebrities had which type of plastic surgery. Organizations also tried to dispel negative attitudes toward plastic surgery by pointing out reasons to obtain plastic surgery that augment mental and emotional health. Similarly, organizations set themselves in a role as a friend and support network for patients who may not receive adequate support during the process of considering, obtaining, and recovering from plastic surgery.

Effectiveness of strategies

The final stage of the analysis was to consider the relative effectiveness of the different pinning strategies. The effectiveness of each strategy was assessed by determining the aggregate number of repins each strategy generated across organizations. The results showing the number of repins associated with each strategy are summarized in Table 1.


Effectiveness of organizational strategies as reflected in number of repins


Our findings suggest that the Lifestyle pinning strategy was associated with the highest number of repins (3,075 in total). Because the Lifestyle strategy allows organizations to identify with a particular clientele and provide aspirational templates for prospective clients, the range of material posted is broader than that of the Market Creators and thus reaches a larger and more diffused audience. Given the more indirect relationship to the core business, those adopting a Lifestyle strategy need to ensure that the favorable network position engendered through their pinning efforts ultimately translates into a larger customer base. The Market Creator strategy, in turn, which generated a moderate number of repins (488), is more directly linked to the organizations’ mission by seeking to create a larger market for cosmetic surgery services. Lastly, and surprisingly, Information Source pinners received a low number of repins: merely 11. While seeking to adopt a position as an important conveyor of cosmetic surgery information would appear to be a viable strategy, in our sample it did not result in a substantial return on investment in terms of improved network position.



Discussion and conclusions

Social media have altered the ways businesses communicate with and attract customers. It is important to note that each social media platform presents a unique set of affordances for the social media marketer. This paper constitutes the first marketing study of a social curation platform, and presents a number of contributions to the extant social media marketing literature.

To start, through our inductive analyses we found four key dimensions in cosmetic surgery organizations’ pins: intended audience orientation, internal vs. external content source, relationship to core business, and the aspirational nature of the material. Though not all original, these four dimensions are useful additions to those seeking to understand social media marketing. Intended audience orientation has been imported from communication and public relations (e.g., Lovejoy and Saxton, 2012); our analyses show meaningful variation around the consumer-as-doer and consumer-as-knowledge-recipient orientation of the messages marketers are sending on social media. Our findings imply that the organizational selection of audience orientation likely plays a key role in how the consumer engages and identifies with the business’ brand. The notion of content source, in turn, helps place emphasis on the organizations’ heavy use of external content. In fact, this is a key characteristic of the social curation role — searching for and sharing valuable pieces of information produced by others (Hall and Zarro, 2012; Miralbell, et al., 2013). The third dimension was valuable in helping detect the sheer proportion of content that was only indirectly related to the organization’s core cosmetic surgery business. Through this concept we were able to identify unique insights into the strategies these organizations are implicitly pursuing through their pinning efforts. Lastly, while the notion of aspirational marketing is well known to marketing scholars (Saviolo and Marazza, 2012), our findings were surprising in terms of the sheer quantity of aspirational content shared in these social media marketing efforts.

The configuration of these four dimensions also led us to identify six unique pin types: Lifestyle Action pins and Hard Sell pins both seek to place the audience member in the role of “doer,” yet such pins represented a minority of content shared on Pinterest. Much more prevalent were four types of informational messages: Basic Organizational Information pins, Cosmetic Surgery Information pins, Lifestyle pins, and Cosmetic Surgery Aspiration pins. We argue this classification scheme, along with the dimensions underlying it, help extend research on social media marketing messages. This is particularly important given how the primary vehicle for marketing on social media is the continual sharing of discrete brief messages, whether these are status updates on Facebook (Swani, et al., 2013), images on Instagram, tweets on Twitter (Burton and Soboleva, 2011), videos on YouTube (Waters and Jones, 2011), or pins on Pinterest.

Generalizing beyond cosmetic surgery practices, our pin-level analyses suggest some further precision in existing marketing concepts. Notably, we suggest the notions of lifestyle branding and aspirational marketing (Chernev, et al., 2011; Saviolo and Marazza, 2012) could be further delineated according to how directly such material is related to the core business and whether the source for the material comes from inside or outside the organization. Not only did we find the aspirational content in our sample was meaningfully split between aspirational “cosmetic surgery templates” and “lifestyle templates,” but this material came from both inside and outside the organization, suggesting a broader, more indirect view of lifestyle branding.

Beyond examining the types of messages organizations were sending, a primary goal was to develop insights at the organizational-level to help understand the types of strategies businesses were pursuing on social media. We identified three distinct long-term strategies: Information Source, Lifestyle, and Market Creator. What all three share in common is a lack of a direct sales or selling strategy. Rather, all adopt a more long-term approach to developing a clientele. The Information Source strategy seeks to place the business in the role as a curator of information on cosmetic surgery-related topics. This is closest to a pure “curation” role, with the business finding valuable information and sharing that with a broader audience. The Information Source business seeks to adopt the role of information filter and reputable knowledge source in the core business area. The Lifestyle strategy similarly relies on curating information produced by other Pinterest users, but it supplements this external content with content produced internally. More importantly, in a Lifestyle strategy the business mobilizes this content for a different purpose. The organization is not seeking to be seen as a knowledgeable purveyor of information; instead, it seeks to brand the business and promote an aspirational lifestyle (Chernev, et al., 2011; Saviolo and Marazza, 2012) with which potential customers can identify. The Market Creator strategy, in turn, likely assumes the most long-term strategic position. The content shared by the Market Creator seeks to stimulate demand for cosmetic surgery practices over the long term through sharing “beauty ideals” and aspirational “beauty templates” and cosmetic surgery exemplars.

We can derive further theoretical insights based on our analyses at the pin and organizational strategy levels. These strategies are markedly light in terms of a direct sales or selling strategy (Swani, et al., 2014). They instead broadly conform with the relational approaches to understanding social media marketing (Hoffman and Fodor, 2010). There is a key difference, however. These strategies do not rely on interactive or two-way engagement (Calder, et al., 2009) with the content. In contrast to other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (Saxton and Waters, 2014; Waters and Jamal, 2011), the organizations’ pinning efforts did not involve any notable efforts at dialogic engagement or two-way communication.

Instead, the organizations are implicitly seeking to assume a role as a valuable conduit of information (Information Source) or to slowly change how consumers identify with the brand (Lifestyle strategy) or with cosmetic surgery in general (Market Creator strategy). In all three cases, we propose the ultimate effectiveness of the strategy will depend in large part on the organizations’ success in reaching a favorable network position. The size of the follower network created by the organization, in conjunction with its importance within that network and influence over that network, leads to the acquisition of a social media-based resource that might be referred to as social media capital (Saxton and Guo, 2014). We argue this is a convertible resource (Bourdieu, 1989), one that can ultimately be translated into financial capital when audience members are ready to consume cosmetic surgery services.

In essence, these strategies are more long term, more indirectly related to the core business, more externally sourced, and more aspirational than previously seen in relational marketing research. Also worth stressing is the finding that there is a substantial viral aspect to these businesses’ marketing efforts on Pinterest. For instance, the Information Source’s cachet depends on how influential she becomes in the relevant networks of experts, opinion makers, and consumers. The influence is dependent, in turn, on who, and how many people, repin her content. Differently put, her ultimate success in achieving a valuable network and market position depends on the actions her followers make in promoting her content. When successful, customer engagement will lead to increased brand awareness and word of mouth (Jansen, et al., 2009; Ahrens, et al., 2013).

In all three strategies, we thus propose that effectiveness depends on how consumers engage with the content. We have relied on the number of repins, which is analogous to the “share” function on Facebook or the retweet function on Twitter. Repins thus reflect how broadly the organization’s message is diffused by other Pinterest users.

It is here that we continue in a recent line of research on measuring marketing message effectiveness via social media metrics (Saxton and Waters, 2014; De Vries, et al., 2012; Swani, et al., 2013). Such metrics offer a unique opportunity to connect organizational communicative actions with immediate audience reactions in a way that was simply not possible or at least feasible on previous communication platforms. This approach also offers the ability to move the measurement of social media return on investment (ROI) from the attitudinal to the behavioral realm.

We found that the Information Source was the least effective in terms of immediate ROI and that the Lifestyle strategy was most effective. However, caution is in order. While the Lifestyle strategy generated a far higher return in terms of message diffusion, it is possible that the Market Creator strategy will render stronger financial returns in the long term. Delivering an answer to this question would be an excellent topic for further study.

This also leads to a discussion of the limitations of our study. Given our focus on small and mid-sized cosmetic surgery practices chiefly in the U.S., care must be taken in generalizing to other for-profit as well as non-profit or governmental entities. Caution must also be taken in generalizing to strategies in other geographic areas. While we believe the insights should apply to other companies offering a wide array of B2C products and services, future research will have to be conducted to ascertain how broadly the identified pinning strategies apply to other consumer product and service areas. It is unlikely, for instance, that Pinterest would be used as a news curation platform. Our inductive theorization should also be subject to empirical verification using both qualitative and quantitative designs.

These limitations notwithstanding, we believe this study delivers valuable conceptual and theoretical insights into how marketers are using not only social curation platforms but social media tools in general. As the number of social media platforms continues to multiply, the decisions about which strategy to pursue, which messages to send, and which channel to send them on will only become both more frustrating and potentially more rewarding to the nimble and entrepreneurial marketer. Pinterest offers an opportunity for businesses to engage customers suffering from information overload by carving out unique, long-term branding and relationship-building strategies. The potential implications of this for social media marketing scholars and practitioners alike could be substantial. End of article


About the authors

Gregory D. Saxton is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, University at Buffalo, SUNY.
E-mail: gdsaxton [at] buffalo [dot] edu

Amanda Ghosh is an independent researcher.
E-mail: ghoshamanda [at] gmail [dot] com



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Editorial history

Received 21 May 2016; revised 22 July 2016; accepted 14 August 2016.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Curating for engagement: Identifying the nature and impact of organizational marketing strategies on Pinterest
by Gregory D. Saxton and Amanda Ghosh.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 9 - 5 September 2016

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