I’ve been thinking a lot about Pinterest for the past year. I first planned to write a report about the social upstart last summer. When that deadline passed, I was certain I’d produce something in the autumn. Now here we are in the dead of winter, and at long last today we published our report on how marketing leaders should use Pinterest.

The reason it took so long? Pinterest is confusing. It’s a bundle of contradictions: at once it offers marketers huge potential and huge frustration.

On the one hand, there’s so much opportunity:

  • Pinterest boasts a fantastic audience. In fact, 21% of US online adults visit Pinterest at least monthly — nearly as many as use Twitter and more than use Instagram and Google+. Those users spend freely online, they’re willing to engage with brands in social media, and when they talk about products on Pinterest they drive vast amounts of traffic to brand sites.
  • Pinterest’s data has the potential to drive more sales than Facebook’s data. After all, Facebook users generate mostly affinity data: information about their tastes and preferences, based on their past experience with brands and products, that’s better suited to targeting brand advertising than direct marketing. But Pinterest users don’t only share historical affinities; they share the kind of purchase intent data that’s more commonly seen on search engines like Google. And just as ads targeted with Google’s data generate outstanding direct response, so will ads targeted with Pinterest’s data.

But despite its great audience and data, the site frustrates marketers:

  • Many marketers just can’t seem to find success on Pinterest. Barely one-half of top brands maintain branded Pinterest boards — and those that do are unsure what to post, collect few followers, and see little user interaction. Witness Coca-Cola: The marketing giant has fewer than 5,000 Pinterest followers and has posted just three times in the past seven months. Coke’s last 50 pins have been repinned an average of just 11 times each.
  • Marketers can’t tap into most of Pinterest’s fantastic user data. Although Pinterest’s paid ads (called Promoted Pins) came out of beta earlier this month, the offering lets marketers use just a few dozen interest-based targeting criteria. The result of such limited targeting is unclear ad performance: Pinterest can’t cite any success data for Promoted Pins aside from an increase in earned impressions.

The bottom line: Pinterest’s marketing value lies more in the future than in the present. By 2016, Pinterest’s ad offering could trump that of other social sites — but today, most brands struggle to successfully use it as a marketing tool. We’re encouraging marketers to put limited resources into Pinterest right now. Once the site broadens its targeting capabilities, though, it’ll be time to spend.

For much more data and detail on Pinterest’s marketing and advertising offerings, as well as our advice on how marketing leaders should use the platform today, check out our new report Pinterest Is Not Ready For Prime Time: Its Enormous Potential Demands Richer Ad Targeting. And if you’ve had any notable experiences marketing on Pinterest — whether positive or negative — we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.