Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content

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.

“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. “How do you invigorate that pull?” he asked, raising a question shared by many participants at Wharton’s recent Future of Publishing Conference in New York City. Added Rajiv Jain, chief technology officer of photo-marketing site Corbis: “Discoverability has always been an issue, but there’s now infinite shelf space.”

Creating opportunities for content discovery is vital to keeping publishers relevant and helping them hold on to readers who are increasingly moving away from print. Most speakers agreed that the best strategy is to automate the distribution process or build a community devoted to the content.

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. And while book readers are more fragmented and tend not to buy books based on the publishing house, publishers can help build communities around authors.   

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. Diehard Yankees fans won’t limit their reading to a single newspaper website, no matter how thorough it is. “The online world is all about aggregation,” with sites posting links to many information sources, Crovitz added. But publishers need dedicated readers to attract advertisers and amass subscriptions.

Publishers are working with technologists to automatically send their content to readers when they want it, and with marketers to create new communities and find places in older ones to share their content. Part of that effort involves basic search-engine optimization, so that Google, for example, will find and highlight content from a publisher’s site when a user searches relevant words.

But researchers are trying to find other ways to reach readers when they are interested in particular topics. “People want to discover things. We’ll find new ways of discovering,” said Teresa Lunt, a computer scientist and vice president of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif. PARC researchers recently unveiled a Twitter topic browser that analyzes the stream of information that flows into consumers’ Twitter feeds to figure out the most relevant ones, based on the users’ own Tweets and readings. People want to read material in the context of their own activities, Lunt added. For example, when they are planning a business meeting, “there is content they would be willing to purchase” to help them learn about the meeting site or about effective meeting activities. PARC is working on an automated “recommender system” for various content types.

Lunt predicted that “we will be able to create much more accurate profiles of our interests and behaviors, and leverage it across all our life activities.” For marketers, there will be many “selling opportunities through this deep knowledge.” Jain predicted that readers will tolerate automated recommendations for further reading from publishers if it proves relevant. “People want to find what they want with the least number of clicks.”

Seval Oz Ozveren, vice president, business development, at Cuil.com, a search engine that enhances results with social-network recommendations, pointed to “a long tail of search” that may contain exactly what a reader wants. It can sort through Twitter feeds, “80% of which are just noise,” to find good content.

Networks of Friends

But many panelists felt that the best hope of introducing content to people was making it easy for existing customers to share with their networks of friends.

They cited Goodreads and Shelfari, two large social networking sites where book readers can share their likes and see what friends are reading. While Facebook, the largest social networking site, allows people to share their reading habits, panelists said that in surveys, book buyers seldom cite Facebook recommendations as an influence. Copia Interactive, which started earlier this year, provides social networking tools geared to reader sharing on many platforms. Meanwhile, PARC employs ethnographers to “understand people’s latent needs,” according to Lunt. One conclusion: “People want to find out what their friends are reading…. They want to Tweet direct quotations from the content they are reading, and they want ways of sharing and commenting on content.”

Jayson Jaynes, vice president of marketing for Pluck.com, said his company provides tools for media companies to use on their websites to build communities and take advantage of the information people have in their Facebook profiles. “When you log into a site with your Facebook credentials, we can better personalize your experience.” Peter Fader, professor of marketing at Wharton and co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, said WIMI plans to commission academic research on that type of “cross-platform data correlation.”

In the world of books, marketers have been active in using communities to build readership. Authors use Twitter to communicate with readers, promoting new books and discussing book tours. Book groups sponsored by Barnes & Noble, for example, have become important in building pre-publication buzz. Andy Hunter, editor in chief of online fiction journal Electric Literature, notes that “when someone buys our iPad app, we give them free content all the time and we can send them messages. We’re trying to create a relationship that lasts the lifetime of a reader.”

Still, readers are likely to mourn the traditional bookstore and newsstands after they are gone. Jim King of market-watcher Nielsen Co. Said he spends “an obscene amount of money buying books online. But I get ideas in bookstores and then go online. I’m still looking to recreate Posman’s bookstore in Grand Central [Station].”

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