I recently had the pleasure of hanging out at Pinterest’s new headquarters in San Francisco. I listened to a presentation by Pinterests’s own “voice strategist,” Tiffani Jones Brown.
Sculpting the Pinning message and brand
In her presentation, Tiffani reviewed a number of qualifying factors that go into determining the company’s content. Voice factors include: personality, vibe, and feeling. According to Tiffani, Pinterest’s voice must have power and resonate in everything the company does. In forging their voice, Tiffani stressed the company’s storyline and how it values Pinners first, above all else. Tiffany described “pinning etiquette” and “Pin with care” as models for crafting a unique voice. Tiffani stressed being “gender neutral” and “to be the voice” when crafting content. With so much of Pinterest’s content being graphical, someone in the audience asked what written content is the Pinterest content strategy team actually creating? Tiffany responded that content strategy included the creation of traditional company content such as FAQs, style guides, product descriptions, etc…
Tiffany provided one example of developing the Pinterest voice by comparing two email responses crafted by the company in response to a Pinner who had pinned content that was considered “sexually explicit.” The first Pinterest response used a stiff, generic voice and began with “We removed a pin from your account because it contained nudity…Please remove any other pins you’ve added that contain nudity.” Instead, the Pinterest voice team revised their “corporate speak” and the email response crafted went like this: “We recently removed one of your pins from Pinterest because it may include sexually explicit content. We hate removing pins, but sometimes we have to when they go against our policies. This helps keep Pinterest fun for families, professionals and everyone else who uses it. Please remove any other pins like this from Pinterest. Or, if you think we’ve made a mistake, please let us know!”
Now most brands do spend the time and resources to cultivate a unique voice that speaks to their customer-base. But many corporations still come across with an icy voice to their audience. But I was surprised at just how banal most of what Tiffani discussed came across to me. I’m not sure what I expected but it makes sense that Pinterest does not want to be using “corporate speak” when communicating with its users. That warm and fuzzy feeling is critical because Pinners are using their platform, in particular, to post and share about their life passions, like cooking, fashion, travel, etc…Pinners don’t want to dialogue with a “corporation” that doesn’t understand or appreciate their human qualities. Hmmm, wouldn’t everyone like a corporation to communicate in this same fashion?
Pinterest is a start-up. It received 200 million in series D funding earlier this year. The company is valued at more than 2 billion, according to VentureBeat. The company, while not profitable, is flush with cash and can spend the time needed to figure out how it is going to earn a profit.
When VC money comes knockin on your door
So Tiffani and her crew of five writers (yup, this constitutes the core of Pinterest’s current content strategy team) have this golden opportunity to continue refining and developing their voice to maximize Pinner appeal. VCs, however, will one day want their money back. Pinterest will be forced to go public. Now Pinterest continues to experiment with revenue driving models. Founder Ben Silbermann says, “we don’t want to commodify someone’s passions.” Great sentiment. I’d like to see just how far it gets him and the company when it comes time to show a profit to investors.
More importantly, once a company does go public, everything changes. The warm and “viby” voice that Tiffani and her writing crew are busy developing now will most certainly be impacted by the time Pinterest does go public. Think about Facebook. As a public company, it is beholden to its shareholders and must consistently show a profit. Facebook’s stock price is currently nestled in at around $25 a share, thirteen dollars below its IPO price back in May of 2012. In a recent story in U.S. News & World Report, Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg expressed his own disappointment at the stock’s performance, mirroring the sentiment of the company’s shareholders
Meanwhile, Facebook continues to try new initiatives that piss off its users. Just how popular was the $1 fee Facebook implemented forcing users to pay if they want to send messages to non-friends? Or what about the hashtag? I haven’t used hashtags yet myself but I’ve read nothing but negative accounts by users in my network and just as important is the spam it has created generating dozens of irrelevant spam posts.
Facebook is a splendid case study for Ben Silberman and I’m sure he and co-founder Evan Sharp are not ignoring that company’s ongoing challenges in its quest to remain profitable and popular among its users.
The warm and fuzzy Pinterest voice
Pinterest has the luxury like any other venture-backed start-up to proceed at a measured pace not beholden to any stockholders. Tiffani and crew can take the time to hone the Pinterest voice, making it warm and congenial for its users. But nothing I heard in Tiffani’s presentation made me think that what the company is doing in developing its voice and branding isn’t terribly unique. Because Pinterest is heavily invested, it has more than a few years to go modifying and shaping its brand voice. Meanwhile, the VCs still breathe down Silberman’s neck wanting to know sooner, rather than later, just how Pinterest is going to become profitable.
Tiffani left Facebook to work at Pinterest. Does anybody wonder if Tiffani would leave Pinterest the day it goes public to go work for another start-up? Well, assuming she’s still working as the company’s chief content strategist she probably won’t have to worry, as she’ll become one of the next SF Bay Area millionaires.
Entrepreneurs generally love the start-up culture. The time before a company is forced to go public is generally considered one of the most exciting periods in a company’s life. Once it does go public and shareholders enter the mix, the fun is diluted. Pinterest is hiring like crazy, in particular, for more software engineers.
Pinterest will be an interesting company to track. According to Alexa, Pinterest currently ranks 17 on the top websites visited in the U.S. with Google and Facebook ranking 1 and 2, respectively. While the majority of its users are still women, men are becoming a larger demographic. Tiffany did bring up the important point of how Pinterest’s voice will continue to adapt as its tries to broaden its user-base.