Pinning politics

After GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney made a campaign stop in Rosemont, Ill., a few locals logged onto Pinterest to interact with event photos that Ann Romney, a fellow Pinterest member, had posted. 

Thanks to the image-sharing social media site, Ann Romney was revealing a whole new side to her husband-candidate, who has struggled to connect with middle-class, workaday voters.

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She had become a Pinterest success story after she shared a meatloaf recipe that commenters instantly dubbed “Mittloaf” — her version of the traditional American dish that she makes for Mitt’s birthday.

And she’s not the only political figure connecting to voters via Pinterest.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also began publicly “pinning” on the virtual scrapbooking site in the first few months of 2012. In a sphere that already recognizes the power of social media — about 90 percent of Congress is on Facebook, and 80 percent on Twitter — it’s no surprise that Capitol Hill is hungry to tap into this growing audience.

The mostly consumer-driven site, founded in March 2010 and still invitation-only, has captured an interactive audience that already drives almost as much traffic as Google and Twitter and more than Google Plus, YouTube and LinkedIn combined.

Most of those clicks represent a female audience browsing recipes, wedding ideas and craft tips. Various surveys estimate that women make up between 70 and 97 percent of Pinterest’s users. The female appeal of the site has translated to women in politics, as well; so far, no male politician has officially joined the site.

But McMorris Rodgers said she is “especially excited by the early adoption among women, and the opportunity to connect with them in a new way.”

McMorris Rodgers, the only female member of the House GOP leadership, believes that the “visual and viral nature” of Pinterest will attract more members of Congress to the service. She will likely act as a trailblazer, owing to her role as co-chairwoman of the Republican New Media Caucus.

The highly visual nature of the site is ideal to showcase the infographics and videos congressional committees and party leaders churn out as part of their messaging strategy.

The site has also become an influential driver of Web traffic. Participants typically follow the images, known as “pins,” back to their original source: often a food or a craft blog. Pinterest has quickly become one of the top traffic sources for sites such as MarthaStewart.com, Cooking Light and Country Living.

A digital strategist who works for Republicans in Congress, speaking anonymously in order to comment candidly, said Pinterest has an edge over Facebook and Twitter. On Pinterest, content is organized visually, but that same content can get lost in the endless flow of information on Facebook or Twitter, the strategist said.

To be sure, Pinterest doesn’t have any overtly political functionality yet. The site has no “politics” category to browse, and it’s nearly impossible to search for and find politicians by name or occupation. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t start in the political arena, either, points out Ericka Andersen, a senior digital communications associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of the Washington-based think tanks also using the site.

“I think the future of social media is visual, and I don’t think Pinterest is going to go away,” she said. “If you start talking to someone about a bill or a piece of legislation, their eyes are going to glaze over. But if you show them a picture of a struggling family in Alabama, they’re going to get that.”

The site allows users to browse pages of small, captioned images —  called “pins” — and “re-pin,” or save and share, the ones they like to their own thematic collections, called “boards.” Frequently re-pinned images become more popular, floating to the top of a constant stream of images on the home page where others are more likely to see them. Since McMorris Rodgers and Romney “follow” each other on Pinterest, each can more easily see images pinned by the other in a personalized image stream.

Users can also “like” and comment on images. But the site emphasizes image sharing, so while Ann Romney’s photos of her husband have attracted a few political disagreements, other photos, such as one of her holding a grandchild, get hundreds of “like” votes.

“You have to look at it and say, ‘Let’s make politics more personal,’ and I think you can do that on Pinterest,” Andersen said.

Zac Moffett, the Romney campaign’s digital director, said he sees Pinterest not as a political tool but as “another platform for people to engage with the campaign.” Ann Romney’s pins are a mix of campaign and personality, ranging from behind-the-scenes photos from the campaign trail to low-fat turkey burger recipes and pictures of her husband sledding.

Her most popular “pins” are her food ideas, such as “Patriotic dipped strawberries” and “Independence Punch,” each of which has been re-pinned more than 1,000 times.

President Obama’s reelection campaign — known for its aggressive approach to social media — has reserved a Pinterest page but has yet to add content to it. And the White House declined to comment on whether it has considered adding Pinterest to its already extensive social media outreach.

But Obama’s page illustrates another problem for politicians interested in using the site: lack of verification. Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus have more stringent policies than Pinterest on making sure users are who they say they are.

The site has allowed multiple faux “Michelle Obama” profiles — that contain a “this is fake” disclaimer — to continue posting to boards with titles such as “Places I Visited & You Can’t Afford,” which includes pictures from various Obama outings, such as in Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii, Spain and South Africa.

Progressive blog ThinkProgress has also sought to make use of the platform to campaign against Mitt Romney, with collections of luxury hotels and private jets used by the Romney campaign. ThinkProgress’s boards include one titled “Tragedies of the 1 percent,” designed to make fun of “the indignities that have to be endured by Wall Street traders,” such as the high prices of caring for a Labradoodle dog.

Pinterest, whose founders at Cold Brew Labs Inc. are reportedly still scrambling to monetize what has already become a successful site, declined to comment on political use of the site or future design changes. But in early February, the company reportedly asked another account mocking Mitt Romney to change its username to “fakemittromney” at the campaign’s request.

Until the company implements a verification mechanism, the best way to confirm that it’s the real Newt Gingrich or Michelle Obama pinning is to watch for Pinterest links on the politician’s official page or other verified social media accounts.

With growth, Pinterest will likely become more appealing to politicians and those who work in public affairs. Even several branches of the military — not typically early adopters — are already pinning, and sources in several congressional offices and at least one congressional committee confirmed they are giving serious consideration to launching a presence on the platform sometime this year.