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Pinning Promotions on Pinterest

Finding a place in higher ed for the new social media giant
University Business, June 2012
Roanoke Pinterest board
Roanoke College's Student Life Pinterest board showcases photos of students volunteering, studying, and enjoying nightlife and Greek life.

Colleges and universities are rushing to use Pinterest, the fast-growing social media innovation, but many remain uncertain of where it fits in their promotional mix. A key factor appears to be how important they consider adult women to be in their marketing outreach.

Pinterest is a pinboard-style social photo sharing website. It allows users to create and manage theme-based boards focused on events, hobbies, locations, and other things. From a modest launch in March 2010, it has become the fastest site to break through the 10 million unique visitor mark, logging 11.7 million U.S. visitors in January of 2012.

"Pinterest’s users are 80 percent women, according to recent data from Google Ad Planner," says Casey Paquet, director of marketing, communications, and web services at Eckerd College (Fla.). "The site is biggest among the 25-34 age range, followed by 35-44 year olds."

He suggests that Pinterest makes sense for outreach to parents and alumni but not as much for recruitment of students. Officials at Lebanon Valley College (Pa.) take a different view.

"We recognize that an important demographic—mothers—are the biggest users of the platform," says Emily Summey, director of media relations and campus communications at Lebanon Valley. "Mothers are a major influence in the admissions process and we want to make sure that LVC has the opportunity to connect with them on Pinterest."

Many colleges are proud to showcase their campuses and that seems to be a common application of Pinterest. Roanoke College (Va.) and Mansfield University (Pa.) have "pinned" virtual tours of buildings and grounds. Additional uses are developing quickly. 

"We have boards on our ‘Fabulous 1890s Weekend,’ one of our largest annual events," says Dennis Miller, director of public relations at Mansfield, "along with boards on campus scenes, North Hall, our signature building, and regional activities."

At Messiah College (Pa.) they’ve focused on boards about distinctive features of the college, such as service learning and study abroad. "But we also want it to be fun," says Beth Lorow, assistant director of public relations, "which is why we have boards featuring fashion and meals you can make without a stove." The Dining Services Office at Messiah is planning its own Pinterest board featuring recipes, photos of their best creations, and views of catering setups. Lorow likes Pinterest because it’s low maintenance. "It is not overly taxing of anyone’s time and resources," she observes. "It’s also less conversation-oriented than Facebook or Twitter, so there is less monitoring that needs to take place."

Like Messiah, Texas Christian University selects boards that "support our brand and visually communicate who we are to our Pinterest followers," shares Amy Peterson, new media specialist at TCU. That includes boards on study abroad, the city of Fort Worth, residential living at TCU and academics.

"The web is becoming a more visual experience," says TCU’s Peterson.  "Many times, people don’t read.  They just want to see pictures or video."

Lebanon Valley’s boards include "Around Town," which gives a glimpse of Annville, Pa. Another, "Go Dutchmen," focuses on school spirit. "The Arts at LVC" highlights cultural programs and events and "On the Quad" works to capture the student experience.

Rather than dive in, some institutions are still testing the waters. Western New England University (Mass.) is studying how best to use Pinterest and trying to figure out how to measure the return on investment before entering the field. The same strategy is being employed at Misericordia University (Pa.).

"We wanted to see it evolve a little bit and learn from others’ early experiences," says Jim Roberts, director of marketing and communications at Misericordia. He cites copyright issues that were in the news recently. Another factor for that school is the dominant Pinterest demographic—adult women.

"They are a part of our target market for graduate and adult ed programming," says Roberts, "but what can we offer that best fits the style of Pinterest to achieve the goal of engaging them?" Misericordia is working to figure that out.

The importance of Pinterest in the social marketing mix is likewise up for grabs.

"It is not yet a key tenet of our social media strategy," says Summey of Lebanon Valley.  "Our efforts are much more heavily concentrated on our existing Facebook and Twitter pages."  But, says Mansfield’s Dennis Miller, "Pinterest has the potential to be one of our most useful tools in recruiting, alumni relations and community relations."