Pinterest – social media saviour or security failure?

In recent months it feels like Pinterest has come out of almost nowhere to become the third largest social platform in the world. Andrew Conway, lead software engineer at security expert Cloudmark, discusses the rise to fame of Pinterest and the security issues that can come with instant success.

Since its launch in March 2010, Pinterest has rapidly reached heady heights. Last year, Time magazine named Pinterest as one of its “50 best websites of 2011” and according to comScore, by January 2012 the website had attracted an unbelievable 11.7 million unique users, cementing its position as the fastest site in history to surpass the ten million unique visitor mark. Despite being the new kid in class, Pinterest has already become the third most visited social networking site in the United States this year, just behind Twitter and Facebook. Add to that a whopping 104 million total visits in March 2012 alone, and Pinterest’s success so far is undeniable.

With such success under its belt, marketers are naturally now turning to Pinterest to explore the ways in which they can use the site as part of their current social media strategy. With Pinterest’s main demographic being educated females within the 25-34 age group, marketers are particularly interested in the secrets that Pinterest holds in unlocking this key demographic. However, like any social networking site, there are security implications that can arise. Before marketers pin their hopes on Pinterest, marketers need to recognise and address the potential security pitfalls that the site can bring. Failure to do so could be damaging to the brand’s reputation and, more importantly, the business’ bottom line.

The interest with Pinterest

As social media becomes ingrained into both our personal and professional lives, marketers increasingly look to these platforms as channels of engagement within their communications strategies. As with any social media site, as Pinterest becomes popular with the public, it can attract unwelcome attention from individuals that want to exploit its fame and monetise its traffic for their own personal gain. These characters are often not governed by ethics or law, and will use almost any method necessary to achieve their goals. This particular interest with Pinterest is a cause for concern for marketers. Allowing cyber criminals and scammers to use the platform as a foothold for messaging abuse could be very damaging to the reputations of both the brand and the platform. If users can’t create, manage and interact with pin boards without the threat of abuse, they will begin to lose trust in the security of the channel, and will turn to other brands and platforms for their preferred content.

Pinning down the security problem

The visual nature of Pinterest has opened up the platform to more innovative attacks modified from the techniques used on Twitter and Facebook. This can include the use of malicious links to images or surveys placed on pinboards that redirect users elsewhere or entice them to divulge private, sensitive information.

Tools for spamming social media sites have existed for some time now, and as a true testament to Pinterest’s success, one tool tailored specifically to the platform is now readily available to the so-called ‘black hat’ marketing communities for a few hundred dollars. The software allows anyone to set up a farm of Pinterest accounts that can then be used to conduct messaging abuse. While this may seem like an attractive proposition to some marketers who are perhaps struggling to attract the attention of their target audience, it’s important to note that by using these tools, brands run the risk of being indistinguishable from the illegitimate efforts of scammers. By setting up terms and conditions, codes of conduct, rules of engagement or simply being transparent about the methods they use to engage with consumers on Pinterest, marketers can differentiate their legitimate customer engagement from that of the scammer. This will then allow consumers to more effectively identify the validity of the brand’s presence on Pinterest.

Safety-pinning the security holes in Pinterest

Despite being launched in 2010, Pinterest is still a relatively new social media platform that has been met with equal measure of enthusiasm and uncertainty. Many brands, such as beauty retailer Sephora and global heavyweight Coca-Cola, have already begun experimenting with the platform, but Pinterest’s true value and functionality, particularly from an e-commerce perspective, still remains to be seen.

Although the potential for scammers to monopolise social networking sites such as Pinterest is growing, these attacks can be stopped. eBay allows the posting of third party images, HTML and flash animations on listings. However, the online marketplace counteracts the potential problem of security threats by allocating substantial technical resources to scanning and monitoring the site. Only time will tell if Pinterest’s site moderators will invest the same level of attention to fighting the inevitable spam battle.

Although Pinterest seems to be beating the likes of old-timer Facebook in the revenue-per-click stakes, Pinterest will not flourish as a true channel of engagement for brands unless marketers are vigilant about content shared and re-pinned on their pinboards. If attacks are not controlled, legitimate users will be discouraged from engaging with the brand, damaging loyalty and reputation. By communicating any issues with users in a prompt and honest manner, encouraging best practice across the platform and monitoring all content on the platform, marketers can safety-pin the security holes in Pinterest and allow the platform to demonstrate its true worth and ROI.

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