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Pinterest Is Shooting Itself in the Foot With Its CEO Change

Shares of image-based social media company Pinterest (NYSE: PINS) have fallen more than 75% in the past year, as slowing user signups, a reversal of the trends that accelerated its growth early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and worries about the impact of an economic recession on advertising revenue combined to hurt confidence in the stock. The situation finally reached a head late Tuesday, and Pinterest took the aggressive move of bringing in outside help to take over the role of CEO from founder Ben Silbermann.

Pinterest's stock moved up by 4% in premarket trading on Wednesday, so it's clear that many of those who trade the stock agree with the positive view of the leadership change presented in the company's press release. However, despite the short-term appeal of broadening the skill set of the C-suite to include more direct experience with e-commerce, Pinterest is risking the most important aspect of what made it such a distinctive presence in the social media world to begin with.

Pinterest is Ready for change...

Taking over for Silbermann is Bill Ready, who has done extensive work in e-commerce and strategic planning. Ready was chief operating officer of PayPal Holdings before moving to Alphabet's Google, where he served in an executive role in commerce, payments, and boosting user adoption.

Ready said all the right things from a typical investor's standpoint in the release announcing his appointment. Expressing admiration for Pinterest's brand and platform, the new CEO sees himself building up Pinterest's ecosystem. He specifically emphasized creating value for shareholders as he looks to take the social media company to the next level.

Silbermann echoed the change in strategic emphasis, expressing the goal of "helping Pinners buy, try and act on all the great ideas they see." With 400 million active users of the Pinterest platform, Ready isn't the first person to have seen plenty of potential to turn Pinterest into a massive money-making machine.

... but are Pinners ready for hard-sell monetization?

Yet to be successful, Ready will have to convince Pinterest users that they, too, can get value from the company's monetization efforts. Silbermann is optimistic on that front, noting that Ready wants to preserve Pinterest's positive vibe. Andrea Wishom, who is Pinterest's lead independent director on its board, sees Ready having similar values to Silbermann and sees the new initiatives as part of a broader strategy to inspire users to build the lives they want to live.

Unfortunately for this bullish case, it's possible that Pinterest's opening efforts to boost advertising and monetization have already started to curtail growth. Although revenue rose 18% year over year in the first quarter of 2022, adjusted net income fell 12%. More worryingly, global monthly active users fell 9% to 433 million, with an even steeper 13% drop in the U.S. and Canada, where Pinterest has historically enjoyed much higher monetization metrics like revenue per active user.

It's unfair to attribute the entire decline in user counts to monetization efforts, as at least some of the drop is simply a natural reversal as more people return to off-line pursuits. But more aggressive tactics to boost sales and profits could turn more Pinterest users off if they start to interfere with the positive inspiration they get from the site.

Don't kill the golden goose

eBay serves as a cautionary tale that Pinterest should take seriously. The online auction pioneer had command of its e-commerce niche, but persistent increases in fees have hurt the platform's appeal. User counts have fallen, and after a pandemic-led boom, eBay's stock is back to where it was in early 2018.

Pinterest built something that eBay never was: a positive influence on the lives of millions of people around the world. Silbermann's vision was instrumental in creating that experience for users. If Ready isn't careful, he could end up being the one who lets a remarkable social media company become a massive disappointment for hundreds of millions of users.

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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Dan Caplinger has positions in Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), PayPal Holdings, and Pinterest. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), PayPal Holdings, and Pinterest. The Motley Fool recommends eBay and recommends the following options: short July 2022 $57.50 calls on eBay. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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