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At 28 million visitors a month, Pinterest's traffic is monumental, but it is taking its sweet time to explain how it plans to make money from the huge number of people who share images they find interesting on the site.
Entrepreneurs like Deena Varshavskaya of Wanelo see an opportunity in that.
In particular, Pinterest's upstart rivals are attacking Pinterest's weakness: It doesn't distinguish for users which items out of billions are available for purchase.
The opportunity is sometimes called "discovery commerce": sites and apps that offer things you didn't realize you wanted to buy until you see them. That's very different from traditional e-commerce, where you typically browse through defined categories or search for specific products. But it's much more like the experience of leafing through a printed catalog or window-shopping at retail stores.
Wanelo raised $2 million from early-stage investors to create what some might describe as a "buy-only" version of Pinterest. (Varshavskaya objects to that characterization.)
The Fancy, similarly, emphasizes objects you can buy, with mobile apps geared for quick purchasing.
Then there's Pinshoppr, a startup that soft-launched in May. It actually pulls in Pinterest's top pins and crossreferences them against more than 250 e-commerce sites.
It wouldn't be hard for Pinterest to pull a trigger and squash startups like this. All it needs to do is sort items into categories like "Buy" or "Browse."
But after raising $138 million and attracting 28 million visitors, Pinterest has yet to unveil a strategy for making money off all the images stored on its site.
Meanwhile Wanelo has grown rapidly. We're told its user engagement metrics are extraordinary and investors are thrilled. Things have been trending that way for a while; in June, Wanelo's Varshavskaya told TechCrunch that the average user was spending 16 minutes on her site. It's grown to 149,000 Facebook fans, up from 100,000 seven months ago.
Granted, Wanelo isn't making money yet either. But it's well-positioned to once it decides to start taking a cut of sales it refers.
According to ComScore, Wanelo pulled in 1,367,000 unique visitors in December, up from 743,000 the month prior. (Keep in mind it was the holiday season, which could account for a seasonal lift.)
That makes it half the size of Fab, which recently raised at a $700 million valuation, and larger than The Fancy.
ComScore only shows desktop traffic, and Fab and The Fancy have substantial mobile traffic, as does Pinterest. But Wanelo is currently the No. 25 free app in the App Store, ahead of Pinterest in 39th place.
Here's its growth relative to similar social commerce sites:
[Numbers are number of monthly visits in thousands, courtesy of ComScore. Click to enlarge.]
None of these sites are posting numbers that come near to threatening Pinterest. But it's good to remember that Pinterest was once a nearly-invisible startup whose numbers were nothing to look at.
We can respect that Pinterest wants to take its time coming up with plans to make money. An experiment with affiliate-marketing site Skimlinks went sour after users expressed their distaste for the arrangement.
And Pinterest has not exactly been silent, having rolled out new mobile apps and launched a redesign of its website in recent months.
What it hasn't done is recaptured the ineffable buzz it had last year.
The best way for it to do that is to show everyone the money—and how it plans to make it.
Update: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Varshavskaya's description of her site. We've noted her objection to that description.
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