When I first saw Pinterest, it almost made me wish I were a visual artist.
“What a fantastic idea!” I thought. It brought to mind all my artist coaching clients who had said to me:
Twitter’s all very well for you, you’re a writer. But no one can see my pictures on Twitter.
They were right. Twitter is a fantastic platform for networking and getting your work and ideas into circulation, but if you’re an artist, designer or photographer, it’s a bit of a handicap not being able to showcase your fabulous visuals.
And Pinterest looked to me like a visual Twitter – instead of sharing short, sharp tweets, users share thumbnail images. A well crafted headline can attract attention on Twitter, but on Pinterest an image is worth far more than 140 characters.
So I wasn’t surprised to see posts on some of my favourite art marketing blogs, such as Art Biz Blog and The Abundant Artist, as well by as creators such as artist Natasha Wescoat and photographer Jim Goldstein, enthusing about the opportunity Pinterest gives artists to showcase their work and build their audience.
Then Alyson Stanfield mentioned to me that there had been a backlash against Pinterest in the comments on Beth Hayden’s guest post How Artists Can Harness the Power of Pinterest. Apparently some artists were up in arms because they believed Pinterest infringed their copyright, or put them in danger of infringing others’ copyright.
When I tweeted links to articles about Pinterest for artists, I started getting replies from creatives who sounded distinctly unimpressed with the site. And when I spoke about Pinterest in my marketing workshops, some people ask me how they could stop Pinterest users pinning their work – which was the opposite of what I thought they would want.
Alyson responded with a post where she wondered whether the Pinterest problem is really a problem. And Trey Ratcliffe – a photographer who has achieved spectacular success by sharing his images online – made an outspoken contribution to the debate in his piece Why Photographers Should Stop Complaining about Copyright and Embrace Pinterest.
It seems the art world (in the broadest sense) is divided about Pinterest, with enthusiasm on one side, and fear and anger on the other. And it’s not a simple case of creators on one side and parasitical file sharers on the other – some of the most passionate advocates for Pinterest are artists themselves, who theoretically have as much as anyone to lose from Pinterest’s alleged erosion of their rights.
So in this post I’m going to look at both sides, to see why some people are so excited and others are so annoyed. I’ll do my best to highlight what I see as a big opportunity for creators, and to address their concerns as I understand them – with some recommendations about how to protect yourself from the potential downside of Pinterest.
In this article, I’m only interested in how Pinterest affects creators – artists, illustrators, photographers, designers, craftsmen and women, and other visual creatives.
I think everyone would agree that from the perspective of an average user, Pinterest is gorgeous and great fun. But for creators, the question is whether this is harmless fun or something that devalues their work and damages their business.
I’ve done my best to cover both sides of the argument – but if you think there’s something important I’ve missed on either side, please leave a comment.
So what is Pinterest?
Pinterest is a social network based around sharing images. When you sign up for an account, you get to fill out a minimalist profile (here’s mine), after which you can start sharing images and following other people to see the images they share.
The sharing process is divided into boards and pins:
Boards – as the name suggests, these are virtual mood boards, spaces where you can pin images that relate to the same theme or project.
For example, I’ve created a board of some of my favourite poetry books, another one for my Tips for Creatives published on The 99%, another one for my Free Ebooks for Creative People, and – inevitably – a board called Pinterest for Creative People, where I’m pinning articles containing Pinterest advice for artists and creatives.
Pins – these are the virtual items you ‘pin’ to your virtual boards. Every time you add something to Pinterest, you need to either allocate it to an existing board or create a new one for it.
Repinning – this is the Pinterest equivalent of retweeting, in which you take someone else’s pin and add it to one of your own boards.
Liking – pressing the ‘like’ button on a pin is very (ahem) like ‘liking’ something on Facebook – a way of showing your appreciation without having to think of a comment.
Commenting – you can leave a comment on any pin, although sadly it doesn’t look like many people do. I guess they’ve been rendered speechless by all the visual awesomeness.
And that’s basically it. There’s also a beautifully designed Pinterest iPhone app which will eat your leisure hours for breakfast if you let it.
Three types of opportunity for creators on Pinterest
When I work with coaching clients on their online marketing, I look for ways to dovetail their creative interests with their marketing activities – that makes it more enjoyable as well as more effective. In this respect, Pinterest does a great job of killing three birds with one stone.
1. Creative inspiration
Choose the right people to follow and it’s hard not to feel inspired when you look through your Pinterest stream. It’s a neverending calvacade of gorgeousness – photos, paintings, illustrations, architecture, dolls, infographics, and so on and on.
Another way Pinterest can help your creativity is by allowing you to create mood boards of images and webpages that relate to different creative projects. Many creators already use mood boards as an integral part of their creative process, so using Pinterest in this way adds nothing to your workload (it may even save you time).
And having a mood board for a project is a nice, subtle way of advertising it. When your followers see you collecting material around a theme, it acts as a ‘trailer’ for the finished work, building anticipation. So make sure you give this kind of board a title that whets their appetite!
2. Showcasing your taste
Creative work is born of taste as well as skill. You can have all the technical ability in the world, but there’s not much point unless you have a finely honed aesthetic sense. Compiling boards will not only help you refine your critical thinking skills, they also help to build your authority in others’ eyes by showcasing your taste.
It’s impossible to create great art unless you first know how to appreciate it. When I edited an issue of Magma Poetry magazine, I could tell instantly which poems had been sent in by people who never read contemporary poetry. Conversely, I write about other poets work on my poetry blog, partly for fun, and partly to showcase my (impeccable) taste in poetry to people who share my enthusiasms.
Your Pinterest boards could perform the same function for you: establishing your credibility by demonstrating your appreciation of exceptional work. You should aim to be one of the ‘people to follow’ in your category, a well-known source of beautiful and interesting pins.
And when people see that you have an exceptionally discerning eye for good work, it’s natural for them to wonder what your work is like …
3. Showcasing your work
Some people say you shouldn’t pin your own work on Pinterest, but if you’re sharing images on the site I think you’d be mad not to include your own. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to get your work into circulation on such an attractive network?
As a general rule the done thing on social networks is to share more of other people’s work than your own. As well as establishing yourself as a curator with good taste, this looks generous, feels good, and can help you build relationships with the people whose work you share. And you may well want to take a similar approach on Pinterest, with plenty of boards displaying other people’s work, mixed in with a few of your own.
On the other hand, I would personally be happy to follow an artist on Pinterest who shared nothing but her own stunning creations. If the work’s good, what’s not to like?
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, if you’re hoping to sell your products or artwork, then it makes sense to pin an image from a sales page rather than a blog post. (Which is another difference between Pinterest and other social networks, where it’s usually more effective to share blog posts than sales pages.)
Is Pinterest a threat to creators?
Most of the objections to Pinterest by creatives centre around copyright infringement. This is understandable given that your images are not just your passion, they are your livelihood. And visual artists aren’t alone in protesting about unauthorised copying and sharing of their work on the internet – we’ve seen the same thing many times in relation to music, movies and publishing.
Now I’m not a visual artist, but I do feel your pain to some extent. Practically every time I publish an article on this blog, people copy and republish the entire article on their own blog. Sometimes they are just clueless about copyright. And sometimes they are criminals, generating spam blogs stuffed with adverts, making money off the work of bloggers like me.
It’s annoying but it doesn’t stop me blogging – because in my experience the benefits outweigh the downside.
“People are sharing my work without my permission.”
I hear this one a lot, and not just in relation to Pinterest. Some creators seem to be deeply suspicious of the internet, viewing it as some kind of Wild West where the laws of civilisation and intellectual property have broken down. The basic assumption seems to be that since a creator’s work is his or her intellectual property, it’s a Very Bad Thing if anybody copies or shares it in any shape or form without getting explicit permission in advance.
To me, this assumption is based on a limited way of looking at intellectual property, as well as the potential of the internet to help creators find an audience and customers for their work.
Let’s start with intellectual property. Part of the problem stems from the idea of intellectual property. The metaphor suggests that an image is akin to a table, chair or laptop – something that is the owner’s exclusive property, and should not be taken without their permission. But making a digital copy does not destroy the original. It’s possible for everyone to have a copy, including the original owner.
Things look a bit different if you think about your work in terms of rights rather than property. The word ‘copyright’ means ‘the right to copy’. This right is owned by the creator. He can choose to enforce it, or to grant it to other people. Often, this right is granted in exchange for payment.
Why would they do this? Sometimes because they are working for fun or to promote a cause, and want as many people as possible to see their work. And in some cases because they are commercially minded, and they look at the idea of people copying their work and sharing it with thousands of others and think: “Wow! Free marketing!”
Now let’s consider the internet. It’s an amazingly efficient platform for making and sharing digital copies. So if you’re locked into the idea of your intellectual property as something you need to hold onto at all costs, and prevent people from sharing, the internet looks utterly terrifying.
But if you view your copyright as a set of rights that you can either grant or withhold, depending on your goals, then you may well look at the internet and think: “Wow! A free marketing machine!”
And in this scenario, your problem isn’t “How can I stop people copying and sharing my work?” but “How can I get as many people as possible to copy and share my work?”. And a website like Pinterest looks less like a threat and more like a fantastic opportunity.
“Pinterest ‘thumbnails’ are enormous! It’s like they’re republishing my original image.”
I can understand this being a concern, especially as I get annoyed when people copy and paste my entire articles instead of an excerpt.
I don’t know how Pinterest affects image search results (if you do, please leave a comment). But assuming Pinterest posts doesn’t consistently rank above your own site, and they are sending you traffic, I’d say the benefits of this outweigh the risks – as long as you’re not sharing hi-res images (see below) and you’ve set your website up to capitalise on the traffic you get from Pinterest.
“But most people just view the images on Pinterest – they don’t click through to my site.”
I think this is a ‘glass half full’ way of looking at it. Most people who encounter you and your work anywhere on the internet are not going to do what you want, otherwise there’d be a lot more internet millionaires!
Most blog readers don’t comment on blog posts. Most Twitter followers don’t retweet your tweets. Most visitors to your site don’t buy anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth writing a blog, using Twitter or having a website.
The key question is: “Are there enough people taking action that helps you achieve your goals?” Even if only 1% of website visitors buy anything from you, it’s worth having a website if that 1% spend enough for your business to thrive.
Even if only a small percentage of Pinterest users click through to your site, it’s worth having your work on Pinterest if enough of those people do what you want – subscribe to your newsletter, buy your work, or spread the word about how great you are (maybe by sharing more of your work on Pinterest!).
“People are copying my images without attribution onto their blogs or Facebook pages, and Pinterest users are pinning the copies!”
Now this one is seriously annoying.
As I said earlier on, some people are utterly clueless about copyright and the internet – these are the folks who happily use Google Image Search to copy and paste images onto their own blogs, Facebook stream, or wherever.
So if a Pinterest user then pins that blog post or Facebook update, the Pinterest traffic goes to their page instead of your website. Nobody knows it’s your image, so you don’t get any credit or any benefit.
But I’m struggling to see how this is Pinterest’s fault. Surely it’s the fault of the clueless blogger/Facebook user? The Pinterest team can do many things, but educating 800 million Facebook users about copyright isn’t one of them.
It’s still annoying though. And I don’t see it stopping any time soon. You’re not going to be able to catch and recall everyone who does it, so you have two basic options, both of which are described below: prevent anyone from pinning images from your website (which I don’t recommend); or watermark your images with your name/website address (which I do).
“Pinterest’s Terms & Conditions make you liable if an image owner sues”
One of the biggest concerns I’ve seen about Pinterest’s Terms of Service is the part that states in CAPITAL LETTERS that if you share someone else’s content on Pinterest, you are liable for all damages and legal costs if they sue for copyright infringement.
This made photographer Kirsten Kowalski so nervous that she tearfully deleted her Pinterest inspiration boards and wrote a blog post about it that attracted the attention of a lot of people – including Pinterest founder Ben Silberman, who then rang her and spent an hour listening to her concerns and asking for suggestions on how to improve the site. He promised her some improvements, and Pinterest have since revised their ToS, but Kowalski is still not convinced it’s safe to go back to pinning others’ work.
If you’re really concerned about this part, you might want to restrict your pinning to either your own images, or images published by creators on their own websites – and with ‘pin this’ buttons on the page indicating they are happy – nay eager – for you to pin their work.
How to make sure YOU get the credit and benefit when people share your work on Pinterest
Of course, there’s no point having people share your work on Pinterest unless you get the credit. And you need to make sure that there is, in Hugh MacLeod’s words, a “trail of breadcrumbs” that leads from the work you allow people to copy for free, to the work you ultimately want them to buy. Here are some tips on how to do that.
Don’t give away the farm
If you’re selling digital images, it’s not a great idea to publish large, high resolution images of every single one of your images in the public areas of your website. If they ended up all over Pinterest and other websites, there wouldn’t be a massive incentive for people to buy them from you. But you’re probably not doing this.
If you’re selling prints or physical artworks, you can probably benefit from being a lot more generous than you think when it comes to sharing high-quality images of them on Pinterest and elsewhere on the Internet. As Hugh said to me when I asked him how he managed to sell so many of his cartoons after giving them away for free:
If you know any website where you can download, for free, a genuine Picasso oil painting, or ditto with a Paul Klee or Joan Miro, please let me know.
Hugh has a very busy Gapingvoid Pinterest account, and I don’t hear him complaining that Pinterest is a threat to his business.
Don’t publish high resolution images on the web
I should point out that Trey Ratcliffe disagrees with this one – he argues that being generous and sharing hi-resolution images on the web (with a Creative Commons licence prohibiting commercial use) has been key to his phenomenal success. But if you’re really nervous about people ripping you off, this should allay some of your fears.
For one thing, 72 dpi is the maximum resolution a web browser will display, so – unless your images are intended for download rather than browsing – publishing them at high resolution will slow your website down needlessly.
72 dpi isn’t good enough to make a high-quality print reproduction, so the opportunities for profiting by ripping off your work are limited. Save the hi-res images for your paying customers, or use them as special gifts.
Watermark your images
Not big ugly watermarks that disfigure the images and make decent law-abiding nice people feel slightly guilty every time they look at your work (not the kind of association you want to create!). But a discrete tagline in a bottom corner, with your name, website address and maybe (c) and the year of publication.
With a watermarked image, viewers will always be able to identify you as the creator, and find your website if they want to buy from you, even if the image has been published without acknowledgment by thieves or knuckleheads.
But can you convert visitors from Pinterest into customers?
This basically boils down to whether you are good at converting website visitors from any source into customers. If you’re not so good at that, check out my article How to Turn Website Visitors into Customers for Your Creative Business.
Are Pinterest visitors more or less likely to buy than visitors from other sources? It obviously depends what you’re selling, but – unlike many social networks – Pinterest users share a high proportion of links to products and artworks for sale, so if you sell gorgeous stuff it’s not inconceivable that it could be a happy hunting ground for you.
For more on this subject see this article by Lateral Action co-founder Tony Clark: Is Pinterest Traffic Worthless?
If you really don’t want people to share your work on Pinterest…
If you’re not convinced you that having your work shared on Pinterest is a good thing, you can add some code to your website that makes it impossible for Pinterest users to in your images. Instructions are doing that are at the bottom of this page.
What do you think of Pinterest?
Do you agree that Pinterest is a land of opportunity for creators?
Are you concerned about Pinterest? Have I addressed those concerns – or did I miss something important?
Do you use Pinterest to promote your creative work? If so, what results are you seeing? Any tips?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps artists and creatives get their work in front of the right people online. For a FREE 26 week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And if he hasn’t scared you off, you can follow Mark on Pinterest here.