2019
Photography by Peter Kim

Pinning for Purchases

When Pinterest’s Carrie Sweeney, ’11, was looking for innovative ways to expand the social networking company’s ecommerce capabilities, she knew just where to turn: Chicago Booth.

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Pinterest users—also known as Pinners—are avid shoppers. Using the Pinterest app, they save ideas for all aspects of their life, including recipes, entertaining, home decorating, and fashion, which often serve as inspiration for future purchases.

This presents a challenge for the growing platform: How can it give Pinners the information they seek, while simultaneously helping marketers reach an eager audience?

To answer this question, Carrie Sweeney, ’11, partnerships team manager at Pinterest, turned to the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing and to students enrolled in Booth’s New Products and Services lab course. She knew Booth students would dig into the data and study consumer behaviors. Ultimately, the students in the class provided Pinterest with fresh insights and strategies that could help the company generate an additional $10–20 million annually in profit.

For Sweeney, turning to Booth for marketing insights was a natural choice. When she was a student at Booth, she enrolled in a course titled Marketing Services with Art Middlebrooks, clinical professor of marketing and executive director of the Kilts Center for Marketing, and she found the experience transformative. Later, after she earned her MBA and took a job at Google as a senior account executive, Sweeney sponsored a successful marketing lab project with Professor Middlebrooks’s class to develop a plan for YouTube to reach its next $100 million in revenue.

So when Sweeney joined Pinterest, both she and Professor Middlebrooks were excited to collaborate on another marketing lab project. “It didn’t take much convincing,” Sweeney said of her pitch to Pinterest executives. “The caliber of Booth students and the school speaks for itself. The students benefit from real-world exposure, and the company benefits from getting really thoughtful analysis on important topics.”

For the marketing lab project, Booth students spent 10 weeks examining Pinterest’s user data and business model, and conducted research in an effort to understand pinners’ motivations and behaviors, marketers’ preferences, and the company’s objectives. Students brainstormed more than 60 new ideas, then screened those ideas for strategic fit, innovativeness, consumer needs, feasibility, userbase growth, and revenue potential. Three top concepts were then tested in a quantitative survey.

Ultimately, the students recommended that Pinterest add a feature allowing pinners to toggle between two modes in the app. In shopping mode, pinners could click on products to find out where to buy those products—an opportunity for marketers. In browsing mode, pinners could turn off the shopping features and simply explore. The students forecast that adding a shopping mode would produce $10–20 million in profits annually.

The students’ work was highly detailed and targeted, and Pinterest is seriously considering implementing their ideas as part of the platform’s broader shopping strategy. “They really got down to tactical, smart recommendations that we could act on,” Sweeney said. “That’s such a Booth thing.”

For Sweeney, the marketing lab project was another chance to explore the intersection of retail and technology—interests that she first developed as a student. At Booth, her team placed second in the 2010 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC) for Future Simple (later renamed Base, and then acquired by Zendesk in September 2018), a customer relationship management platform for small businesses.

When Pinterest recruited Sweeney for her current job, she recalled the thrill of participating in the NVC, which she said gave her the confidence to leap to a smaller company that was still figuring out its revenue strategy. “It’s a fun challenge when your job is to figure out a platform full of affluent people signaling what they want to buy,” Sweeney said. “Our job is to send them really thoughtful marketing that’s helpful and not annoying, and then to measure it.” Skills she no doubt learned studying marketing as a student at Booth.

—By Amy Merrick
July 25, 2019