Marketing start-up Ahalogy pins its future on Pinterest

Search for oat-based recipes on visual bookmarking site Pinterest, and it will bring up a screen of oatmeal porn.

Images of gooey oats covered in strawberries, chocolate chips, drizzled with glistening honey take over the screen.

Click on the top results and the majority probably will have something to do with Quaker.

SIGN UP for the free California Inc. business newsletter >>

The images, or "Pins," as they're referred to on Pinterest, might redirect to a recipe on Quaker's site. They might go to a food blog post sponsored by Quaker. Or, subtly, in the background of an image, there might be a big tub of Quaker oats, hovering behind an enticing bowl of oatmeal.

Coincidence? Not exactly.

Quaker's ubiquity in those oat-based search results is largely the effort of Ahalogy, a marketing start-up that specializes in Pinterest. The company exists to help brands like Quaker, Kraft and Toms shoes get their products in front of Pinterest users, while also not annoying anyone.

Unobtrusive advertising? It's a tough one. That's why Ahalogy co-founder Bob Gilbreath has created a company of nearly 50 people working exclusively on Pinterest. Nothing else.

Some marketers might call Gilbreath and Ahalogy crazy. He would say his company is ahead of the curve.

Some marketers might say he's taking too big a risk. He would say Ahalogy is primed for the reward.

And some might ask: What on Earth is Pinterest, let alone a Pinterest-focused marketing firm? Gilbreath would laugh, sigh a little, then laugh again.

Pinterest is an image-based search engine. Type in anything you want — 2007 Ferraris, knee-high boots, Thanksgiving ideas and, yes, oatmeal recipes — and it will pull up hundreds of pins that people have uploaded. Some might lead to other websites. Some might just be images. If you want to save a pin for later, you can click the "Pin it" button, which saves it to a board. It's like Google and scrapbooking rolled into one.

And Ahalogy believes that there's big money to be made from it. The Cincinnati company has raised $7 million in funding from investors such as Hyde Park Ventures and CincyTech.

It doesn't do other forms of marketing. There's no Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat team. There's no backup plan. If Pinterest ceased to exist, Ahalogy wouldn't exist. At the same time, it does not belong to, nor is it part of Pinterest.

How's that for an existential threat?

Gilbreath laughs. Maybe he is crazy. He's pretty sure he's not.

"I can see this movie playing," he said, spinning his index finger in the air like film going through a projector; someone peering into Ahalogy's office could have easily mistaken his gesture for "crazy," though. "I've seen the same model repeat again and again."

A marketing veteran who got his start at Procter & Gamble, platform skepticism isn't new to Gilbreath. He saw it with the Web in the 1990s, when television advertising was king and "Internet" marketing was thought to be a joke.

He saw it with the rise of Facebook, when marketers were hesitant to figure out social media because they thought it was a fad.

And now he's seeing it with Pinterest, which recently cracked 100 million users.

But Gilbreath knows there is more to it than being first.

Early players in the Facebook game, like marketing firms Buddy Media and Wildfire, were successful (and later acquired for hundreds of millions of dollars by Salesforce and Google respectively) because they bet on the right horse. Being first to, say, Bebo or the now-defunct Piczo wouldn't have helped them much.

A large part of Ahalogy's confidence comes from the belief that, in addition to being first, the firm is betting on the right platform. And, judging by San Francisco-based Pinterest's $11-billion valuation, they're not alone in thinking that.

"In general, I would say it's not a good idea for a company to focus on one platform," said Betsy Sigman, a professor of social media and technology at Georgetown University.

"But I don't think this is risky for [Ahalogy] because Pinterest is an unusual social media company," she said. "It's a premium company in ways, because people go there looking for something; something to do, something to buy."

Pinterest knows this, which is why it created its Marketing Developer Partners program (of which Ahalogy is a member) to point brands in the direction of marketing firms that "get" Pinterest.

The platform is about discovery and the future, said Pinterest's head of marketing developer partnerships, Michael Akkerman, and "Ahalogy produces authentic and compelling content that's beneficial [i.e., not annoying] to both the Pinner and the brand."

And Pinterest really is a game changer, said Raman Sehgal, Ahalogy's vice president of marketing.

Ahalogy's 2015 media consumption study found that 89% of people who use Pinterest daily have bought something they saw on the platform. And 85% of daily users also said they open Pinterest on their phones and look at items they've pinned when they're in a bricks-and-mortar store (Buying oats? Try Quaker!).

More than half of the platform's most active users said they have not seen or noticed ads — "promoted pins," as they're called — on Pinterest. And those who have seen them largely don't mind.

"That's unheard-of," Sehgal said. After all, people hate ads. A 2014 report from PageFair and Adobe found that around 144 million people in the world use ad blockers. Undocumented millions more probably wish they did.

But on Pinterest, it's a different story.

"It's more about the inspiration," said Kim Johnson, an early Ahalogy hire on the client success team. "People use Pinterest like they're curating a personal magazine, so they'll save things from around the Web onto their boards."

Around half of Ahalogy's business is in the software it sells that helps brands optimize their images, track how certain pins are performing and schedule pins to publish at times of high traffic.

This part isn't unique. Other companies have created similar analytical tools, and many digital agencies also offer Pinterest marketing.

Toni Box, senior director of social media and content services at agency PM Digital, said that for some brands, it just doesn't make sense to invest heavily in Pinterest.

"It's really about having that broader view," said Box, whose agency's work includes Pinterest and email marketing. "Working with an agency like ours, you're going to have knowledge from all different verticals instead of just one."

Ahalogy is so far the only firm to offer a singular service: to help a company "win" at Pinterest.

"Say Kraft [one of Ahalogy's clients] wants to advertise its cream cheese on Pinterest," Johnson said. "Putting a picture of a tub of cream cheese on Pinterest isn't going to help."

"Lots of people might see it," Sehgal added. "But then what?"

"So maybe we'd do a dip recipe pin, because that's useful, that's something people would actually save," Johnson said. "And when you click through, it'll take you to a recipe on Kraft's site."

"Or we'll find a blogger who has already created a dip recipe that has gotten really popular on Pinterest, and see if Kraft can sponsor it."

Ahalogy has 40 clients, including Kraft, Kellogg's Town House crackers, Toms and Quaker. For each brand, it will create as many as five to 10 pins per day. Its designers will try them in every variation: a pin with text, a pin without text, swapping out images, tagging them differently, adding a logo, removing a logo.

The company's early results have been promising, driving product sales and raising brand awareness unseen on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. More telling is the fact that many of the big brands that signed up with Ahalogy when it launched in 2012 have stuck with it.

"They've been an extremely valuable strategic partner," said Zachary Wyer, Kellogg's brand manager on Town House Crackers, which has worked with Ahalogy for more than two years and has seen most of its user growth and engagement happen on Pinterest.

"The cracker business is more than 85 years old, and even recently consumers still think of us as a formal, oval cracker," he said. "We're hoping to change that perception of the business, and we think Ahalogy is the perfect partner for it. They have the savvy on the platform few agencies do. That's part of the reason we chose them."

Twitter: @traceylien


Cybersecurity experts warn about ModPOS malware aimed at retailers

Mental competence suit against Redstone raises questions over future of Viacom and CBS

Facebook's 'Most Used Words' app collected a ton of your data. But not more than anything else on Facebook

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on November 29, 2015, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Pinned to Pinterest - Betting that it has picked the right platform, marketing start-up Ahalogy ties all of its work to the image-based search engine" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe