Pull vs Push: How has the paradigm shifted?

Pull vs. push: how has the paradigm shifted?

The pull vs push strategy as employed in marketing has undergone a paradigm shift. In the old days, it was about pushing products out. Manufacturers had the power to decide what to process, the retailers sold what was handed to them. According to an article in The Frontline, “The push system involved manufacturers deciding what they’re going to produce and then trying to get retailers to buy it and sell it for them.”

Enter Walmart.

The world’s largest retailer isn’t so only in name—“It has over 11,100 stores in ~27 countries. With a market cap of over $275 billion, it ranks among the top ten companies in the S&P 500 Index”. (Analyzing Walmart – The World’s Largest Retailer)

Walmart revolutionized the pull vs push strategy by placing the power in the hands of retailers. “The retailers have more and more say over what is being produced, under what pricing, at what time. They’re basically playing a key role in dictating exactly what will be produced, when and where.” (The Frontline)

Pull vs Push in Publishing

Now let us consider the pull vs push phenomenon in the increasingly digital world of publishing. Allowing readers to pull in the content they wish to read is not only vital but pretty much the only option left to publishers today. “We’re moving to an environment where it will be about consumers pulling rather than publishers pushing a product,” said David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books. Adds Rajiv Jain, chief technology officer of photo-marketing site Corbis: “Discoverability has always been an issue, but there’s now infinite shelf space.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

In the olden days it was a matter of laying content out at the bookstore. Publishers chose the books that ought to make front shelf. This made them further choose the books to publish—which happened to be the ones they felt were front-shelf worthy. There may have been countless novels and stories that never saw the light of day because of such monopoly. Either that or a miraculous change of events led the publisher to see the error of its ways. Following is an example of one of the biggest errors of judgment in publishing history:

The Christopher Little Literary Agency received 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demanded to read the rest of the book. The editor agreed to publish but advised the writer to get a day job since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawned a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million. (Best-sellers initially rejected)

While the traditional routes of marketing books were limited, publishers enjoyed power. But with the emergence of the Web that changed. There is now “infinite shelf space” as Jain put it. Social media platforms emerged to compartmentalize that space quite well. SEO giants emerged to make sure the platforms remained viable and connected. Giant online retailers such as Amazon emerged to capitalize on it further and self-publishing became a glowing testimony to power changing hands.

Enter Web 2.0

Going back to square one for a bit, let us examine the word “push” in detail. The official US poster of Terminator genisys  at a bus stop, advertising both Arnold Schwarzenegger in his full, machine-with-a-soul glory and the dates when the movie would hit theatres is an example of “pushing” content out. It is already there. Terminator fans see the poster and know what they have to look forward to and when. They do not put in any effort to looking up the details on their own. In the “push” case, you are basically shoving matter out and hoping your customer picks it up. This type of strategy works well in cases where the brand is established beyond a doubt. Terminator is a franchise and the mighty and as-impassive-as-ever Schwarzenegger, its selling point. Push in such a case works fine. Fans are bound to hit the theatres.

Now let us look at “pull”. If I want to read fiction involving, say, North Korea, I google the very words: fiction involving North Korea. Google promptly comes up with about 404,000 searches (in 0.51 seconds). The sites that stand out prominently are Wikipedia, Goodreads, Amazon, and even important news sites, in this case, The Guardian. While “pull” here involved a bit of work—thinking up what words to search—the reward was a collection of about 400,000 sites to choose from! That is a lot of content to choose from and conversely speaking, not at all the monopolized rendering or “pushing out” of content as a publisher would have traditionally preferred.

I find something intriguing—The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. A Pulitzer prize winning novel, it deals with themes of propaganda, identity, and power in North Korea, and has been published by Penguin Random House. The very first site advertising the same is Amazon.com and along with this novel, Amazon recommends what other books customers look at—for similar themes or simply by virtue of them all being award winners.

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But it doesn’t stop at that. There is more.

Goodreads does even better. It lists out entire e-shelves of books that have anything to do with North Korean literature.

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Not to be left behind, Wikipedia has its own “Category: North Korea in fictionas well as North Korean literature”. The Guardian weighs in with “The best books on North Korea | World News…” And that’s not all, scroll down a nanometer and you can see The Washington Post proudly brandishing its own list of “10 illuminating books about North Korea”. And this by no way is the end of the list.

But already, I have choices. I now have “Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 years in the North Korean Gulag” by Kang Chol-Hwan and “Nothing to envy: Ordinary lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick to add to my list of intriguing North Korean literature.

Push to pull (by reluctant publishers) to push (by interested readers)

This is where things become more interesting—turning push to pull. Publishers who want to succeed must realize that the time to push content out is past. Readers pull in what they want and in turn, it is the readers who “push” content out further. And this is where the shift comes in—readers choose what to push out. Control has changed hands.

Using social media platforms, publishers make sure everything they have is out there. The Orphan Master’s Son exists on Goodreads, Amazon, Wikipedia; it has a Facebook page, it has been tweeted about, and it has also been bandied about on Pinterest and Tumblr. But from here we enter murky territory. The success of the novel does not depend on the social media platforms that the publisher has used to make its existence known. At least not anymore. And not from a lack of making an effort at pulling readers in but simply because readers now have choice. They can choose if they still want to read The Orphan Master’s Son—even though the publishers think it is the best and even though it now has a Pulitzer Prize to its credit.

In fact, while “pulling” my own content in, I decided I found Escape from Camp 14 by American journalist Blaine Harden more intriguing. So not only do I pull that content in, I choose to push it out further. I decide to pin it on my Pinterest page on books I have read so far. Other interested “Pinteresters” look it up, and repin it from me.  I like its “Facebook” page. My close friend on FB who “follows” my activities, looks it up intrigued. And now it seems he has read it too because the 500 “likes” for “Escape from Camp 14” just increased by one more reader. I vote and add to its scores of 90 and 8,907, respectively, on Goodreads. In all this rigmarole, The Orphan Master’s Son lies forgotten—and not because it is an inferior novel in any way. It must be an excellent book with harrowing themes of love, betrayal, dark underground tunnels, and harsh labour camp laws—not very different from Escape from Camp 14 itself. Yet my choice is all that mattered in the moment I chose to go with Escape from Camp 14 and not the latter. Flustered publishers had already done their bit—they had tried pulling in readers for both books as best as they could.

But this is exactly how the pull vs push paradigm works today. Readers pull in what they like and choose to push it out further. Publishers are relinquishing control.

“In cyberspace, it’s hard to push material in front of readers the way it has been done by a bookstore, a newspaper delivery boy or a mail carrier. But bookstores are disappearing. And readers often reject commercial e-mails from publishers. Many online readers use a search function when they want news or information rather than seek out a particular website.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Fear of discoverability to “infinite shelf space”

The question that emerges is what does the publisher do? Or lets go back a bit and analyze why publishers were so anxious to push out certain types of content while blatantly disregarding other precious gems as discovered by serendipity. After all, Louis L’Armour received 200 rejections before Bantam decided to risk it. He is now their bestselling author with 330 million sales. (Best-Sellers Initially Rejected)

What is it that they feared? Discoverability.

And that has now changed. With Web 2.0 and the relentless social media presence brought on by it, there is immense scope for discoverability. Or rather, with the “infinite shelf space”, publishers are at a loss as to how to control the flow of media.

Initially, plagued by fears of discoverability, publishers chose what to publish, thus maintaining a tight rein on the entire process from tailoring content to choosing the book cover. Now the digital world has made discoverability quite easy and, therefore, even trickier for publishers.

So these are the questions plaguing a publisher these days: How do they ensure their products are discovered when readers have a million others to choose from? How do they make themselves useful? David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books asks, “How do you invigorate that pull?” It gets better, which social media platform do you choose from? Or does all or any of it matter in the end if it all depends on the reader?

Attempts at pulling in readers: the grimaces, the sacrifices

Communities around brands

“According to Conde Nast group president David Carey, newspapers and magazines foster communities of readers that “form around our brands.” For example, Wired magazine hosts events that attract as many as 50,000 people. At the same time, former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz warned that in the digital world, communities based on content producers’ brands are fragile. “It would be easier for publishers to work together to create a New York Yankees website than to get Yankees fans to come to a newspaper website,” he said. (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Why didn’t a publisher buy Goodreads?

The twist came the day Amazon bought Goodreads instead of a publisher! After all, if you want to build a community of readers around your products, a better platform than Goodreads cannot be imagined.

A “social cataloguing” website, it allows “individuals to freely search Goodreads’ extensive user-populated database of books, annotations, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys/polls, blogs, and discussions. In December 2007, the site had over 650,000 members and over 10,000,000 books had been added. As of July 2012, the site reported 10 million members, 20 million monthly visits, and 30 employees. On July 23, 2013, it was announced on their website that the user base had grown to 20 million members, having doubled in close to 11 months.” Courtesy: Wikipedia

Of course, as Hoffelder suggests in his article “There’s A Reason That No One in Publishing Bought Goodreads“,  it could be about “publishers not being able to afford the rumored $150 million that Amazon paid for Goodreads, but they probably could have afforded it when it was smaller.” In fact in 2010, 3 major publisher got together to announce “a new site that would give them a direct digital connection to readers. It’s called Bookish, and it does give Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster a direct connection to readers. But the connection it offers is so very, very different from Goodreads that the differences tell us quite a bit about these publishers’ priorities.”

Goodreads vs Bookish

The contrasting differences here are examples of how publishers realize that the time to “push” content out is long gone but are still living in denial.

“Goodreads was launched to encourage readers to show up and be bookish. The community formed around them.

Bookish, on the other hand, was launched in order to provide Hachette, S&S, and Penguin with “direct digital customer relationships”. The publishers got to build it from the ground up, and the manner in which it functions says a lot about the type of ”direct digital customer relationships” these publishers want to have. The word relationship implies that there is more than one party speaking, and that is not the point of Bookish. This site exists to be little more than yet another marketing channel for publishers.” (Goodreads vs Bookish)

Going after Facebook and Twitter: not exactly a success story

Shareaholic report has shown that Facebook still reigns as king of social media. With an outstanding 22.3% of overall traffic to sites coming from Facebook, it is one of the best places for publishers to promote their content. (Facebook vs Pinterest vs Twitter: What Should Publishers Use?)

In fact, desperate publishers would even team up with rival organizations to pull readers in. In a recent blog, a writer says, “The Daily Dot regularly posts other publishers’ articles on its Facebook page, which featured 40 such articles in the past week. The site works with around 35 publishers, including Mental Floss, Maxim and Wired. Seven of those sites have agreed in turn to post Daily Dot stories on their own Facebook pages.” (In search of Facebook love, publishers form link-sharing pacts with each other)

Earlier last year, “nine major publishers began publishing articles straight to Facebook under the social network’s long-anticipated product, called Instant Articles. Facebook sweetened the deal by letting publishers control the ad sales, branding and content; sell ads on the articles and keep all the revenue; and get data on their readers.” But the attitudes are not as bracing as they seem. Not every publisher is happy about such strategies—after all, who likes to relinquish control.? “BuzzFeed and NBC News were the only ones to go all in committing to using the product. Others, like The New York Times and the Atlantic,” … took “a more cautious approach”. (How publishers are using Facebook’s instant articles)

Moreover, a few thousand “likes” hardly mean that their content is being read or that their books are being bought. Keeping readers engaged on their Facebook page is another matter.

Regarding the success of the “Instant Articles”, a blog post explained how it has led publishers to sacrifice their own site visits for the 1.5 billion pairs of eyes that visit Facebook, not to mention it only means more revenue for Facebook itself. “As TechCrunch eloquently wrote, ‘[they] are in danger of becoming dumb content in the smart pipes of platforms like Facebook and Twitter’.” Moreover, “With channels like Facebook, you’ll never see the full picture. As such, you can’t compare it to your own data, you can’t use it to build your own interest graph, and you have no control over who your content gets matched with.” (Are Facebook’s Instant Articles Actually Beneficial to Publishers?)

There was a time when Twitter was used to tell compelling stories.

“Previously, the platforms were willing to pass people on to a publisher’s website where they could show ads, promote their other posts, and forge a relationship worthy of a subscription fee or frequent repeat visits. The platform just wanted to be a gateway, and run ads between these chances for discovery.”

“Now, the platforms want to absorb the Internet, becoming the destination — a sit-down restaurant, not a take-out counter. The latest example of this is howTwitter’s newspapery Moments feature assimilates the content of tweets it aggregates on mobile, but hides the vital link back to the publisher’s website without users even knowing.” (Twitter And Facebook Are Turning Publishers Into Ghost Writers)

Pinterest might have some hope

As Mary Hiers says, “Pinterest has had an astonishing rise to prominence since it started as a closed beta operation in March 2010. By August 2012, Pinterest was the fourth largest source of traffic worldwide.

According to Matt Crystal, Head of International at Pinterest, “Pinterest is quickly becoming an important part of the audience development and engagement strategy for publishers. Publisher content is a great fit for Pinterest, and because every Pin links back to its source, we drive significant traffic to publishers of all kinds.” (A Publisher’s Guide to Pinterest Strategy)

As journalist Alastair Reid reports, “The notion of saving pins to a board is powerful,” he said. “It signals consumer intent and starts a chain reaction of sharing.”

But this is where the news stops being so good. Pinterest is still heavily dominated by female users, according to a research survey—users into crafts, fashion, lifestyle, and cooking. So this site might not be too conducive for content from every type of publisher. Plus, again content trafficking is solely in the hands of readers. It all depends on which pin they want to repin, which has absolutely nothing to do with which publisher has advertised that pin!

Tumblr? Nah…

“For publishers, social media is mostly about driving traffic… Several publishers report it doesn’t drive much traffic”. Amanda Michel, The Guardian’s U.S. open editor, said it “doesn’t have obvious transactional value.” Another social editor for a large publication said it is “more of a fun, rogue little playground.” (Is Tumblr a Must For Publishers?)


The bond between readers and publishers weakened a long time ago. In a Web-besieged world where content can flow in through apps, devices, computers, tablets, and other digitized screens, expecting a steady inflow of dedicated readers is out of the question. With the emergence of Amazon, bookstores—a publisher’s direct link to readers—already started going extinct.

But that was not all. Amazon’s Kindle Publishing System came along to make things uglier—for the publishers. This system has turned self-publishing into a wholly exciting and global phenomenon. In fact, Hugh Howey, with his hugely popular Wool series, which he initially released as a self-published book on Amazon’s aforementioned platform, is a live example of how a traditional publisher can be rendered completely useless.

Reluctant but still desperate to drive content, publishers started using social media sites to help generate traffic to their own sites. But here they are faced with several challenges, each more complicated than the next. This is the age of the web, meaning an explosion of content and shorter attention spans. Jumping from content to content can hardly ensure a dedicated readership to a particular website. In fact, in this day and age, distraction rules and therefore, quality of content suffers.

As mentioned above, it is totally up to the reader whether they want to follow content to its birth parent or simply forgo it and choose from the million other options. There are hundreds of sites to choose from. Choices offered by social media are endless. Therefore, publishers can hardly have a say in it.

While Fifty Shades of Grey outsold Harry Potter, raking in millions for Penguin Random House, it left more than one mouth hanging open at the incredulity of this phenomenon. Even the parent company could not have anticipated such phenomenal success! In the traditional days, a publisher would have outright rejected such ambitious content. And in the unlikely event that a publisher did risk publishing it, the book could hardly have hit headlines, had it not been for the ease with which its content was picked up—and read discreetly!—on tablets, ipads, and a multitude of other such devices with screens. In addition, let us not forget the enthusiastic reader tweets, retweets, pins, repins, likes, shares, and downloads!

Last but not the least—it is a dog eat dog world out there. Social media platforms themselves cannot only be concerned with the joys of a publisher. This is quite clear with the “Internet absorption” that is going on currently. “Facebook doesn’t need any individual publisher, but they all need the social network. Facebook never wants you to leave, so it’s swallowing up where you might try to go. A few years back, its News Feed brimmed with links to content hosted elsewhere. News articles, YouTube clips, business websites, ads for ecommerce stores.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

Yet these are desperate times. “With way more content than its algorithm can stuff into people’s feeds, supply is high, and Facebook controls the demand. If it’s willing to give publishers a way to stand out in the feed and get more traffic, they’re willing to try it rather than risk being left outside the garden walls.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

The rest is of course up to a reader. There is no saying what will take one’s fancy. These are days of the vampires, werewolves, and shades of gloomy colours!

It is not a pretty picture. But it is all there is. For now.

2 Replies to “Pull vs Push: How has the paradigm shifted?”

  1. This essay really had the potential to describe a new way of thinking about pushing and pulling in publishing. The proposed idea of thinking of acts of social media as pushes is a useful one, and it would have been terrific to see it spelled out for others to use as a new analytical frame.

    However, although the idea and all its pieces are present in the essay, I found the the thread of the piece hard to follow. It feels scattered and meandering. It was difficult to suss out the valuable pieces which I did find in there.

    Have a look at the Hypothes.is comments for more detail.

  2. “Publishers who want to succeed must realize that the time to push content out is past. Readers pull in what they want and in turn, it is the readers who “push” content out further. And this is where the shift comes in—readers choose what to push out. Control has changed hands.”

    Today’s readers are not passive consumers; they are aware and empowered. I liked how you brought these points to the fore.

    I liked that you mentioned the key role a large retailer like Walmart played in shaping our current understanding of “push” vs “pull”, and the impact that the internet continues to have on consumer behaviour–Google, Amazon, and Goodreads were strong examples. Talking about Goodreads and Bookish made the nuances in “push” and “pull” strategies more apparent.

    With the facts as they are, based on your paper, what do publishers do? It is evident that publishers can no longer remain passive, trying to survive on the good graces of Amazon and Facebook. How do they cultivate spaces like Goodreads or spaces that give members of fandoms the opportunity to come together, share about their passion and “push” that out to the public?

    As you mentioned social media throughout your paper, if you get the chance check out the hashtag #TFBBC (The Fearless Book Blogger Chat) on Twitter. It’s a good example of fans “pushing” out content on their interests.

    I think this article could have been made better if you had had more time to organize the points in a more coherent fashion. I would have also liked to see more ideas on how publishers could be more responsive to the change from “push” to “pull”. Yes, the game has changed, but what are some projects/programs they could undertake to keep people interested and possibly coming back for more. Discoverability and engagement go hand in hand–how can publishers engage more with their audiences?

    Video is on the rise. See this Guardian article for further details: http://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2014/jan/14/video-content-marketing-media-online. I think the paper could have benefited from a nod to this and maybe a bit of an exploration of how video strategies with key platforms such as YouTube, Periscope etc. would benefit book projects. Also a brief mention of apps would have been good, Snapchat, in particular.

    I was happy to see an article discussing the importance of marketing in publishing. Thank you for writing this.

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