By now you may have heard of Pinterest, the fastest growing social media network ever, according to Fortune. Earlier this year the site had more than 17 million unique visitors, and it continues to grow at a rapid pace. In February 2012, Pinterest drove more people to retail sites than Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn and YouTube combined.

What is Pinterest?

Pinterest is a virtual pinboard that lets you organize and share interesting things that you find on the web. You can pin images and videos and organize them into boards, each centered on a specific topic. For example, you can create boards where you share your favorite business books, your favorite clients, pictures from a recent networking event you attended, or videos from a conference.

Users typically pin pictures and links for items, recipes, or decorating ideas they like. While Pinterest started out as a way to organize recipes and home d├ęcor ideas or to plan a wedding, the network is now used for everything from sharing info-graphics and finding retailers to running contests and networking with others.

Pinterest is unique among today's most popular social media networks like Facebook and Twitter in that almost 70 percent of the site's users are women. However, that may change: men are now joining Pinterest at a growing rate. In the U.K., for example, more than half of Pinterest users are male, using the site to share news about venture capital and blogging resources. Compare that to the U.S. where the most popular topics are crafts and gifts and special events,.

One reason Pinterest is great for building relationships and growing your sphere of influence is that most Pinterest users are spending more time pinning than hanging out on Facebook. Even though Pinterest was not initially designed for doing business, with a little creativity you can use it to market your products and services. Here are ten tips to get you started:

1. Install the Pin-It and Follow-Me-on-Pinterest buttons on your blog and website. That way others can easily pin your content to their boards. With the click of a button, your website visitors can easily follow you or your company on Pinterest or pin your most recent blog posts or videos.

2. Create a Pinterest account and start building your following. Pinterest is still in invite-only mode, so you'll have to request an invite directly from Pinterest.com. To build your following, make sure to follow other users who are relevant in your niche and to create boards that have relevant content.

3. Create boards centered around what your target customers are interested in, not simply what you are interested in. It's easy to think that because Pinterest is a way to organize and share your interests, you should create boards around what you are interested in. However, if you are using Pinterest to find like-minded people, create boards around what they might be interested in. Some examples include boards with your favorite movies, cool tech gadgets, social media resources, how-tos, events, customer testimonials and photos, your blog posts, or events you'd like to attend or recommend.

4. Use effective board names and descriptions so that others can easily find your content. Make sure to add detailed descriptions to each board and use the # tag to highlight keywords relevant to your niche. And don't forget to choose a board category. This is important; categorizing your board will ensure that its contents will show up in the appropriate category on Pinterest's home page.

5. Add pin-worthy images to your website. Because Pinterest is so visually driven, make sure to create great graphics for your blog posts and website. If your website is not graphics-driven, you can create graphics with inspirational quotes using a tool such as quozio.com. You can also create info-graphics that share industry news and statistics or how-tos relevant to your business.

6. Connect your Pinterest account with Twitter and Facebook for even more networking opportunities. Each time you pin something it will show up on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. This will drive even more traffic and followers back to your Pinterest page.

7. Start networking! While you can't message users directly, there are a few ways you can network on Pinterest. One way is to browse Pinterest's Most Popular category to find popular pins in your niche. Leave comments on those pins to start a conversation with the original pinner. Another way is to use the @ symbol to tag relevant users. This is similar to using the @ symbol on Facebook and Twitter.

8. Engage your followers by adding calls to action to your board descriptions and to your pins. Tell your followers to "follow this board," "leave a comment on this pin," or "click on the image to get more information." You can also create boards and invite others to pin content to those specific boards. The more engaged and involved you can become with your followers, the more your network will grow.

9. Don't forget the "social" in social media; showcase other people. Take some time to show your appreciation by showcasing your customers, your blog readers, or other Pinterest users in your Pinterest boards. You can create a board titled Customer Testimonials or Amazing Social Media Superstars and pin others' blog posts, businesses, or their experience using your products.

10. Track your activity and conversions by checking out what your followers like. Which boards have the most followers? Which pins are getting the most comments or likes? What kind of traffic is Pinterest driving back to your website? If you keep track of what's working for you on Pinterest, you can make sure to create more of your most popular content. You will also have proof that using Pinterest is truly worth your time, as many other marketers have discovered already.

ANDREEA AYERS is the author of Pinterest Advantage,
a guide on using Pinterest to grow your business.
She blogs on everything from getting media attention
for your brand to using social media to get more
customers. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
www.networkingtimes.com/link/ayers