In the past few months, advertisers ranging from Tommy Hilfiger to VH1 to Benjamin Moore started spending marketing dollars to promote their brands on Pinterest.

But with a few exceptions, those companies didn’t actually buy any ads on the fast-growing social network, which allows users to “pin” images of their favourite things or places.

Instead, they commissioned Pinterest influencers, or “Pinfluencers,” to help get their messages out to consumers. In such instances, Pinterest doesn’t get paid.

Pinterest has a big audience of nearly 70 million unique visitors per month, according to comScore. The company valued at $5 billion sees itself as a visual search engine for people to use in the course of everything from wedding-planning to buying a new home.

The company launched its first ad product last year, offering select brands a chance to buy “Promoted Pins,” and recently made that service available to the whole industry. But some marketers are finding they can reach Pinterest’s audience and accomplish their goals just as effectively by signing up influencers, a potential threat to the company’s growth.

Joanne Bradford, Pinterest’s head of partnerships, said the social network can build a thriving ad business even as brands tap into influencers on its service — much as YouTube has done. She said the company will roll out new ad products and targeting options this year.

“A promoted pin will scale a great pin, and that will create better results for advertisers,” Ms. Bradford said.

Pinterest’s influencers are individuals–often bloggers–who have been able to cultivate large followings on the social network and are familiar with what resonates with its users. The best “Pinfluencers” attract attention for brands without overtly selling their products.

Many advertisers have tapped the startup HelloSociety, which represents numerous Pinterest influencers, to execute marketing campaigns on the site. These campaigns can start as low as $15,000 and run as high as a few hundred thousand dollars, a person familiar with the matter said.

HelloSociety Chief Executive Kyla Brennan said there are only 300 or so Pinterest influencers today who can claim a following large and influential enough to be worth an advertiser’s time. But that number is growing as Pinterest grows.

VH1 co-created a series of Pinterest boards featuring 1990s fashion for the show “Hindsight,” which in some cases hardly mentioned the cable network at all and VH1 didn’t purchase any Pinterest ads.

In one instance, VH1 says it got 600,000 followers for an influencer-created pin during a single week, and enjoyed a 40 % lift in engagement during the campaign, according to Tom Chirico, the network’s vice president of marketing.

Staples, Clinique, Huggies and Nordstrom are among the other brands that have taken the influencer route, but haven’t purchased Pinterest ads.

Sean Ryan, director of social and mobile marketing for J. C. Penney, said the retailer has purchased some ads on Pinterest, but noted that the influencer approach can be even more effective. “We often see twice the lift in engagement on a product when we use an influencer on Pinterest,” he said.

Mondelez International’s Ritz recently hired some Pinterest influencers to co-create a Pinterest board with pretty images of Ritz “Fresh Stacks” crackers coupled with heart-shaped slices of cheese.

Other social networks, like Instagram and Vine, have their own influencers, but on Pinterest “it’s especially important, because of their ability to get people to ‘repin’,” or share a Pinterest pin with others, said Madeline Vincent, associate brand manager for Ritz.

Target says it has had a good experience buying Pinterest ads. The retailer says traffic from Pinterest to nearly doubled as a result of marketing on Pinterest last year, both with ads and paid influencers.

Sarah Hofstetter, chief executive of the digital agency 360i, has worked with Clinique and the New Orleans Board of Tourism on influencer campaigns. But she sees a bigger role for both tactics, as Pinterest ramps up its ad offerings this year. She said Pinterest has been late in communicating its benefits to brands. “Marketers didn’t know what to do with it,” she said.

Pinterest has founded what it calls the Pintstitute, a program through which brands can get hands-on guidance on what works on the site and what doesn’t.

Credit: World Street Journal edited by ModeMaison PR

Twitter: @ModeMaisonPR

Facebook: ModeMaison PR

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