Pinterest has more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter.

The social photo sharing site Pinterest, in some corners of higher education, is seen as superfluous, nonessential, and unappealing to a mass audience. A recent spike in the number of Americans joining Pinterest could change that prevailing perception very soon.

Pinterest, which launched a beta version of the website in 2010 and a full unveiling in 2011, lets members post photos, drawings, and images on an online pinboard available for others to peruse. Pinterest members must link their accounts to Twitter or Facebook, where they can more widely share their various pinboards.

Pinterest remains invitation-only – much like Google+ or Gmail when those services were first introduced – but the site’s most recent statistics show it can be another tool in colleges’ constant battle for online attention from prospective and current students.

Pinterest drew almost 12 million unique views in January, and now has more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter, according to a report from Shareaholic, a web traffic tracking service. The Pinterest model, based almost entirely on sharing photos and links, is “naturally inclined to drive referral traffic,” according to the Shareaholic research.

The site isn’t text heavy like Twitter and Facebook, but college social media pros said Pinterest can be just as effective in drawing interest, especially on campuses with picturesque landscaping or striking seasonal images. Displaying campus scenery front and center on a school’s Pinterest page is the direct way to share photos in a social media setting, said Christen Gawan, head of social media sites at Union College in New York.

“On Twitter, you can tell followers that you have a great photo online, and you can promise it’s nice, but you have to have them click to actually see it,” Gawan said. “And sometimes that extra step loses people. … Photos can get lost on Facebook and Twitter, so it’s such a missed opportunity to not post pictures of your campus on Pinterest, where you can really display them in a very prominent way. ”

Even if a college isn’t ready to pour resources into creating and maintain an official campus Pinterest page, Gawan said creating some sort of Pinterest presence will be important in 2012, just as it was on Twitter and Facebook in the late 2000s.

“I think it’s great to be recognized as a place that is very proactive with social media, rather than being reactionary,” she said. “You run the risk of looking a little old and stodgy if you don’t go forward with that.”

Higher education’s social networking advocates have urged colleges and universities to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon before it’s too late and their schools appear out of touch with tech-savvy, internet-obsessed teenagers and 20-somethings.

But Aaron Jaco, digital media specialist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, wrote in a blog post that pushing a school’s brand on Pinterest could rub against the grain of avid Pinterest users, who spend an average of 98 minutes on the site every day.

“Right now, Pinterest is a quiet refuge from more brand and corporate-saturated social platforms,” Jaco wrote on Higher Ed Live. “You may scare your followers off with excessive promotion — and if we’re not careful, all of us in the brand world may collectively kill the goose. … It’s not out of line to mention an upcoming event or even drop an occasional marketing line — but, as always, try to be a friend much more than a salesperson.”

Melissa Beecher, social media manager at Boston College (BC), which established its Pinterest page in February, said Pinterest followers have responded positively to college postings centered around school pride, campus alumni, and eye-catching photos of BC’s must-see spots.

Paying attention to what Pinterest members want to see, instead of what a college would want to push on its audience, will separate schools that become popular on Pinterest and those that drive away potential fans.

“I have been very surprised by the rate of growth on the site and the speed at which a hot item is repined,” she said. “I don’t know if Pinterest is inevitable at higher education institutions, but I do believe in its current form it is a far-reaching and engaging tool for those savvy enough to get on board.”

Jaco pointed to Butler University’s Pinterest page as a good example of engaging student and alumni followers without pushing the school’s brand name.

On Butler’s “Famous People I’ve Met” Pinterest pinboard page, the school has photos ranging from late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon to college basketball announcer Dick Vitale to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

The Butler Pinterest page lets the school “flaunt a brand’s celebrity cred in a fun and non-invasive way,” Jaco wrote.


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