If you haven’t heard about Pinterest, here’s the lowdown: Pinterest is an image collection and sharing site. More commonly thought of as an online pinboard, users can pin pictures from other websites onto their virtual boards, creating multiple boards organized by themes. An additional click on a picture will then lead the user to the web page where the picture was first lifted.

And the site’s rise has been meteoric. The three-year-old site grew tenfold in the last six months, topping off at 11 million unique visitors in January 2012, according to comScore. On average, users spend 98 minutes on the site each month. It also generates more referral traffic than Google+, YouTube, Reddit and LinkedIn combined.

Consumers have found myriad ways to utilize this site. Themes like home decoration, food and drink and travel have emerged, and hidden behind these themed pinboards are aspirations: projects to start, recipes to try, places to visit.

Make room – why using Pinterest for brands is different

But with an entire galaxy of social networking sites–Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr–how did the world make room for another one?

Here’s where Pinterest is fundamentally unique:

It’s a different kind of self-expression: Pinterest offers users a way to express their likes and personalities in an organic way. Boards and pins are creative expressions and future-focused plans without the “Hey! Look at me!” subtext that tends to accompany status updates.

It’s “all-for-one”: The site thrives because users can pull shared images onto their virtual boards. It’s a reverse form of social activity. Whereas Facebook and Google+ are about broadcasting personal activities to a larger group of people, Pinterest sets users up to benefit from the common, shared pool of visual information.

It expands social circles: Sociologist Mark S. Granovetter has suggested that interactions with our weak links can yield fruitful exchanges. On Pinterest, the nature of creating themed boards pulls unconnected people with common interests together. Rather than replicating their real-life social circles, the site connects socially unrelated users based on their interests and directs them to novel ideas and websites that they (and their friends) haven’t yet uncovered.

It has multi-language potential: Though websites are technically accessible from anywhere in the world (firewalls notwithstanding), the reality is that blogs and social networks are organized by languages, and consumers visit sites that appear in the languages they read. Pinterest, being an image collection and sharing site, can sidestep this inherent problem. With minimal translation, the content on Pinterest can be adapted to reach consumers in different countries. According to comScore, 67,000 unique visitors from Germany used Pinterest in January 2012, while 62,000 Spanish users visited.

Time for a new paradigm

A new paradigm of interacting with consumers on social networks is needed, especially now that targeted advertising is becoming a tricky area. 68% of consumers are “not okay” with targeted advertising derived from their online behaviors, according to a new study by Pew Research.

Consumers have become more apprehensive toward divulging their information on public forums. With privacy still of paramount concern, marketers have to tread carefully in how they reach out to fans on social networks. Many consumers view social networks as private spaces and don’t want marketers to intrude on their parties like a rude salesman.

In this light, Pinterest offers brands a potentially new way to interact with consumers. Whole Foods, for example, re-pins dinner recipes shared by other users on its Who Wants Dinner?! board. On its How Does Your Garden Grow? board, users can gather ideas for creating herb and vegetable gardens. These boards come across as helpful tools created by another Pinster, and the absence of a catalog-feel makes the relationship feel less commercial.

There haven’t yet been studies to understand if consumers view Pinterest as a private space, but given that it is centered less on the existing social relationships consumers have and more on the projects they aspire to start, we might find greater acceptance of exchanges with brands here.

But that’s not to say that brands have to sit back and wait for Pinsters to circulate their images. Fashion brand Calypso St. Barth recently collaborated with fashion blogger and “power pinner” Christine Martinez, engaging her to pin its photo shoot for the label’s 2012 summer look book. Her behind-the-scenes pinboardgarnered over 10,000 re-pins, confirming the influential power of weak social ties.

Social networks are diversifying rapidly, with new platforms offering inherently different types of brand-consumer interaction. Along with that are consumers’ evolving expectations of the way brands approach them. Relationship building requires shared activities, experiences and goals, and it seems like we’re finally seeing a social network that can put brands on that path.

Read highlights from the latest Mintel Social Networking report here.

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