Twitter is for now and Facebook’s for yesterday – but you can see the future on Pinterest. From recipes, wishlists and wedding plans to visualisations of new romantic partners and dream homes, this virtual pinboard has it all.

In a neurotic, self-obsessed, keeping up with the Joneses world, what could be better than a social network that defines not so much who you are, but who you want to be?

Pinterest’s 70 million users (“pinners”) share what they want, not what they own. For a generation where identity is built around shared ideas and experiences, Pinterest could be the de facto social network.

Soul searching

“Pinterest is a search engine, first and foremost” says Sarah Bush, Pinterest’s UK country lead. Pinterest wants to take on Google – by being a social discovery engine where images are curated by other people. A Google search for “red dress” (for example) will serve up a selection of sponsored links under the “shopping” tab – Pinterest gives you a range of styles selected and commented on by fellow users.

Not surprisingly, Pinterest drives more referral traffic than Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ combined. And traffic is converting, because pinners tend to use the site when they are actively looking for new products.

Intent to buy

Pinterest is a valuable predictor of consumer behaviour. And brands are fast picking up on this prodigious display of buyer intent. Last Christmas, ASOS was the top UK brand on Pinterest, generating 1,728 shares a week. Its most popular board, ASOS <3s Beauty, has nearly 107,000 followers. Retailer L.L. Bean takes a slightly different tack, with boards specifically targeting holiday season gift buyers: Great Gifts For Guys currently has 75,000 fans.

For marketers in sectors where images have universal appeal, Pinterest is a no brainer. Take travel: Lonely Planet’s Beautiful World has notched up 102,000 followers. Or food: Whole Foods Market was one of the first FMCG brands on Pinterest; its ever-popular Sweet Tooth board holds the attention of 151,000 users.

If you build it…

Meanwhile, under the radar, private boards increasingly popular. London-based poet Karen McCarthy Woolf loves using Pinterest for positive, future-focused thinking: “It’s absolutely brilliant for any form of creative visualisation. There’s something magical in gathering the images together,” she says.

“Looking back at my boards, it’s amazing how much of what I pinned has come to pass. I did a lot on health, beauty and life balance, and I’m a lot closer to that picture of Beyonce I pinned up than I was when I started! As an author, I also use Pinterest as a thematic mood board, to curate and collect ideas.”

The use of Pinterest as a visualisation tool caused Californian life coaches Gina DeVee and Rose Cole to set up a course training people to use the network for “manifesting…an abundant, happy, joy-filled, healthy lifestyle”.

“I fell in love for the first time in 10 years,” says a friend who did the course. “It was incredible. The private board I set up wasn’t just about finding a partner, it was very much about the whole life journey, the emotions I would feel. Adding to Pinterest every day was a great way of focusing: it tunes your brain to what you really want.”

Field of dreams

Does Pinterest tell us what we really, really want? Maybe that’s why boards such as Nordstrom’s Our Favourite Things (4.2 million fans), L.L.Bean’s Woodland Creatures (4.5 million fans) or Etsy’s Cool Spaces (332,000 fans) top the charts in terms of brand engagement. Rather than hard sell, these boards select images from around the web, connecting with pinners’ ideas, emotions or trains of thought. These brands are tuning into the real reason people use Pinterest: as an aspirational showcase and discovery engine.

With a $5 billion valuation earlier this year, Pinterest is fast becoming a leading player of the visual web. I can see the future, and it’s got Pinterest written all over it.

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s poetry collection An Aviary of Small Birds is published this month. Follow her on Twitter.

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Photo: James Box via Flickr