Pinterest, the photo-clipping social network, may be the next step for banks and payment companies seeking to add a visual kick to their mobile, tablet and online marketing strategies.
Most banks have so far ignored the site, which allows users to "pin" images they see as they traverse the Web. The mobile payments company Square is one of the few to take an early and aggressive stance on its use of Pinterest. Square launched its Pinterest page, or pinboard, in early April.
One way Square uses Pinterest is to explain the Register app it launched in March. The company says its new software for the Apple iPad is capable of replacing a traditional point of sale terminal. It's a sleek sales pitch but a tough one to visualize in practice, and Pinterest helps Square in that regard.
Its pinboard includes images and videos of customer testimonials. In these videos, cafe owners and other merchants describe the experience of using Square's technology as their only means of accepting card payments in a retail environment. The videos include images of other products, such as Square's iPhone app, that can be used to make mobile payments.
"Small-business owners are often inspired by other entrepreneurs, so we wanted to reach them where they might be looking for such inspiration," Lindsay Wiese, the Square spokeswoman who created the company's Pinterest board, wrote in an email.
The pinboard also includes other things that might help persuade small-business owners to use a mobile device in place of a cash register. One of Square's galleries depicts iPad stands that are meant to be used in retail stores (one of the stands even has a built-in cash drawer). Another gallery depicts wireless receipt printers that work with Square's app.
The Pinterest page is not just one big sales pitch. Square's pinboard has a gallery depicting employee life, for example.
"From Square's perspective I understand where they are going with this … this is a way for them to promote merchant partnerships," says Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst with Celent. "It's also a way for them to push out the iPad … if you use the iPad as a cash register, you will need a stand for it. Their Pinterest board has visual shots of iPad stands."
Pinterest may intersect with another trend in mobile banking: personal financial management. As banks try to make the most of the larger screen sizes of newer smartphones and especially tablets, they are increasingly using PFM to provide a visual representation of customers' cash flow.
Geezeo, the white-label provider of PFM tools, created a Pinterest board where it displays screen shots from financial services companies using its product. That can be a sales pitch for financial services companies that may be considering PFM, the company says. By May, Geezeo had attracted a small following including two credit unions that weren't already customers. If Pinterest members "are following Geezeo on Pinterest and see the neat things we do visually with PFM … they can interpret our products differently, and then visualize it with their own brand," says Bryan E. Clagett, Geezeo's marketing chief.
On the consumer side, an obvious link exists between the goals that consumers represent pictorially on Pinterest and the financial goals they might establish using a PFM tool, Clagett says.
Banks often act as the funders of those dreams and goals. For example, banks can provide the funding for a home purchase; they can also provide a savings account to allow consumers to save up for smaller goals, such as a vacation. "The whole issue around PFM is what do I want to do with my finances and the money I've saved, so if I have a Pinterest board of places I want to go and I have PFM at my bank, the question is how do I connect those two," says Stessa Cohen, research director of banking industry advisory services at Gartner.
Banks thinking of using Pinterest may also find success in the business-to-business sphere. Because Pinterest, which has an estimated 100 million users, is so visual, it could be used to demonstrate how certain complex business products work, experts say.
So far, industry experts have stretched to make the connection for financial institutions, urging them to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon. A white paper from the social media research firm Corporate Insight suggests there are at least seven ways large banks can use Pinterest to engage their customers. Those include retirement, savings and investment goals, credit card rewards, lifestyle choices, branding, contests and charitable giving.
"Aspirational goals are a great way to engage an audience, and a pinboard encouraging users to post their goals and aspirations is a great way to get them involved," says Ben Pousty, a senior analyst for Corporate Insight.
But that's putting the cart before the horse, some analysts say.
"Banks have bigger fish to fry than worrying about Pinterest, even on the social media front," Jegher says. More specifically, he says, banks need to tie their social media efforts to larger business goals. For example, if they want to improve service, they might consider using Twitter or Facebook, but those efforts should be part of efforts such as shortening call center response times or training branch representatives.
State Bank and Trust (STBZ) in Macon, Ga., says it was involved in an exploratory exchange over Pinterest with its branding company, Financial Marketing Solutions, when the trade press got wind of it and published a full-fledged critique of its exchange. Primarily, the bank had been pinning its logo and brochures for things like mortgages and personal banking, as well as TV spots available through YouTube.
"We have not articulated" a social media strategy, "and we need to back up and ask the question, What will the bank do with social media overall?" says Tom Woodbery, State Bank's director of marketing. Woodbery says the bank has not ventured into Facebook or Twitter. But he says he and others at the bank see possibilities in Pinterest, potentially as a medium for static images and video.
Other financial services companies using Pinterest in a business-to-business context say there has been strong interest from current and prospective customers.
"There is the opportunity to visually and emotionally express the application of your brand to a consumer in a way that connects with them," says Tim Pannell, the chief executive and president of Financial Marketing Solutions, a marketing firm in Franklin, Tenn., that State Bank and Trust works with.
Banks, which often have commercial clients or credit card processing relationships with merchants, could construct Pinterest boards that promote their small businesses.
"Any bank with small-business clients could leverage the marketing potential of Pinterest and the [commercial] knowledge they have of their customers, and share this with their small-business clients to help them succeed," says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at CEB TowerGroup.