Recent news reports confirm what social media devotees have known for a while: The bulletin-board style image sharing website Pinterest is gaining ground as an online platform. Based on the number of visits, Pinterest ranks as the third most popular social networking site, according to Experian's "2012 Digital Marketer: Benchmark and Trend Report." Ranked only behind Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest can no longer be sidelined as simply a forum for exchanging recipes and decorating ideas.

Indeed, Pinterest’s mission statement reveals a much grander vision for the site, to “connect everyone in the world through the ‘things’ they find interesting." But the rapid rise of Pinterest raises an interesting question for public agencies: Should governments use this tool to engage their citizens?

According to the website fedscoop, U.S. military organizations like the Army, Navy and National Guard have set up Pinterest profiles. Some local governments are experimenting with a presence on Pinterest too.

The city of Tyler in east Texas is out in front of the Pinterest for government movement with a page that gets new pins two or three times a week. Tyler currently has seven boards and 55 pins, featuring local attractions, parks facilities, downtown landmarks and photos of the azaleas and roses for which Tyler is known.

Simple to Maintain

Susan Guthrie, Tyler’s managing director of external relations, explains that the city started using Pinterest about a month ago, after hearing local chatter about its rapid rise in popularity. “With Pinterest, we're learning as we go just like when we first did our Facebook page and when we first did our Twitter page,” Guthrie said in an interview with Government Technology. ”We are learning what people respond to, and what is effective.”

While Pinterest followers haven’t added up as quickly for the city as they have on other platforms, keeping boards fresh with new content is relatively simple. For that reason, Guthrie sees a long-term presence on Pinterest.

Other efforts to engage their audience online haven’t fared as well. Tyler no longer maintains a presence on MySpace, for example, since the time commitment from city staff was considered too great when measured against the potential benefits.

And Tyler’s citizens are very active on social media platforms. Approximately 6 percent of its 100,000 residents follow the city’s activities via social media. Operating with a small staff and limited resources, Guthrie sees social media as an effective means of engaging residents where they are. Tyler’s presence on Pinterest is just an extension of that.

“A lot of people are getting their news from social media, so if you're not there, you're relying upon what other people are saying about you,” said Guthrie. “You've got to be part of the discussion. For us, it's about going where people are getting their information and being part of it.”

Growing Internet Trend Toward Imagery

Internet marketing consultant Jed Sundwall specializes in government use of social media. In an interview with Government Technology, he characterized the rise of Pinterest as part of an overall movement toward visual medium on the Internet. This trend makes the use of sites like Pinterest particularly well suited for agencies with strong visual content.

“What this means for government agencies is that if they can produce content that makes sense to be conveyed through imagery, they need to develop the operations to do that well and in a way that is purposeful and mission-driven,” Sundwall said.

Sundwall cautioned that many government agencies may not have the staffing resources to effectively manage their visual content online. He further advises that governments contemplating using Pinterest and other visually oriented social media should consider developing guidelines for the types of images they choose to represent their organizations.

Copyright Challenges

A recent article on techcrunch.com outlines a potential conflict popping up for Pinterest users. Do users have the right to “pin” photos for which they don’t have permission? While a change to Pinterest’s terms of use to address this issue appears to be imminent, government users already have the issue on their radar.

In Tyler, Guthrie acknowledges that most of the photos they post are taken by city staff. “We are trying to be cautious about it,” she explained.  The city has signed releases from artists whose work is included on their “Enjoy the Arts“ board.

According to Sundwall, the copyright issue is already familiar to governments using imagery online. “As long as you as an agency are producing something that you know you have the rights to, my advice is to put it out there.”

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.