By the faddish standards of social media,Pinterest is already considered a classic. Started way back in 2010, the system has enjoyed phenomenal global growth. According to a recent report by Experian, Pinterest is the third most popular social network in the US after Facebook and Twitter, racking up 104 million visits in March 2012 (trailing Twitter’s 182 million, but beating LinkedIn’s 86 million).

So what’s the big deal? Pinterest is a ‘pin board’-style website where users compile collections of words and pictures based around a theme, be it a hobby, sport, fashion range, recipe series – the list is pretty much endless. Users interact by ‘re-pinning’ content to their own collections, therefore spreading word of the pin in a similar fashion to Twitter’s ‘retweets’ or Facebook ‘Likes’.

Pinterest’s founders say its mission is to “connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting”. This social aspect allows information about products, services and events to circulate around the internet, and it’s the reason why businesses big and small are signing up to Pinterest in droves.

Retailers in particular are taking advantage of Pinterest’s visual layout. The system lets them upload eye-catching images of new product lines while the internet’s trendsetters then preach the retailer’s brand message to anyone who will listen. Pinterest is essentially a super-highway for online referrals.

So which businesses are set to benefit the most? As a website centred around attractive images, Pinterest works best for firms with good-looking product lines. You should also note that the majority of Pinterest users are female. It’s the reason why US retailer The Gap is one of the biggest ‘advertisers’ on the site. By comparison, searches for the keyword ‘accountancy’ currently yield few results. Pinterest is certainly niche, but if your business is located in the social network’s sweet spot then you could benefit exponentially.

A recent study by e-commerce analytics company RJ Metrics found that Pinterest is three-times more engaging than Twitter was at the same stage in its development. Users are interested because the site is arguably better at presenting visual data in a navigable way than search engines. Other studies have shown that the site generates more referral traffic to brands’ websites than LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+ put together. Perfect for major blue chips and ambitious start-ups alike.

As with all social media, however, the benefits won’t come without a sizeable investment of time and effort. Just as people don’t appreciate you clogging your Twitter feed with relentless links to your site, nor can you pin any image you may have to hand and expect people to get excited. The best Pinterest users connect to their audience by cultivating pin boards with lively and relevant content that people will want to share. If your business is a match for Pinterest, take your time, think about what you’re posting, and you’ll reap the rewards.