When Should Push and Pull Marketing be Used?

Have you put a lot of time and effort into making your website rank higher, or invested in advertising on search engines, but seen no increase in the number of leads? If you are a startup and you have, it might be time to revisit your broader marketing strategy.

Two Strategies in Marketing

There are two broad strategies in digital marketing – push and pull (also called outbound and inbound).

Pull Marketing

Pull or inbound marketing is analogous to opening a store on a street corner. People walk past the store, and if they have a need for what is being sold in it, they walk in and make a purchase.

When it comes to digital marketing, of course, the store is any online presence. All pull marketing methods are therefore intended to help increase the number of visitors to digital properties.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization), SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and Content Marketing are examples of inbound methods.

Push Marketing

Push or outbound marketing, on the other hand, is analogous to carting products around town to wherever buyers may be found, in an attempt to initiate one-on-one interactions with them that could lead to sales.

There are two variations in push marketing: one that invites one-on-one interaction from a buyer, and one that forces one-on-one interactionon a buyer.

The former approach is analogous to an ice-cream cart ringing a bell to advertise its presence. The sound of the ringing bell is welcome to those interested in an ice-cream. And it is easy and effortless to ignore for those who are not interested in it. This approach is used in many social media marketing tools.

The latter approach is analogous to doing door-to-door sales; the salesman knocks on doors and pitches the product to anyone who answers the door. This approach is usually very annoying to those subjected to it since it distracts them from more pressing tasks and it takes effort to decline the interaction. An example of the latter approach is unsolicited email marketing.

Now that we have understood push and pull marketing, let us take a look at where pull strategies may not work and push strategies need to be used. There are four broad competitive positions that a firm typically maneuvers itself into, and the choice of marketing strategy depends to a large extent on the competitive position that a firm finds itself in.

Four Kinds Of Market Players

In their book “Marketing Warfare”, Al Ries and Jack Trout proposed the concept of a strategic square in terms of competitive positioning.

The four corners of the square consist of four types of players in a market: 1) market leaders 2) the followers 3) small players and 4) local and regional players.

Market Leaders

The market leader is the firm with the biggest share of a market and a clear lead. Taking the U.S. automobile industry as an example, the Ries and Trout say that General Motors with a 59% market share is the market leader (all the other firms in the fray don’t add up to its share of the market).


The follower is the No. 2 firm in the market. For example, Ries and Trout consider Ford to be a strong No. 2 in the U.S. automobile market with a 26% share.

Small Players

The small players are firms with a much smaller share of the market than the top two players, but with sufficient resources to challenge the big players in sizeable segments of the market that the main players may not ignore. Ries and Trout considered Chrysler with a 13% share of the market to be the small player.

Local or Regional Players

These firms are very small firms that do not have the resources to challenge the big players in any market segment large enough to interest them. American Motors with a 2% share of the market (they manufacture the Jeep, a category of vehicle that has too small a market to interest the bigger players) is a good example of a local or regional player.

Marketing Strategies and Competitive Positioning

Now, we can take a look at the marketing strategies that firms in each of these competitive positions should use.

1. Marketing Strategies for Market Leaders

A firm that is creating a market needs to use content marketing. Content creation is essential because of the need to educate people about the new product or service.

The goal of pull strategies is being found. When a market is created, people who benefit from the ecosystem being created will be likely to link to content from the firm creating the market, if such content is available.

The back links to their content will make the content rank higher in searches, which in turn will help make the market originator and leader the firm most likely to be found by prospective customers when they search for solutions to their problems.

So, content marketing becomes a great defensive strategy for market originators and leaders, helping them maintain their lead.

Once a market matures and people no longer search as much for information on a product category, but more for vendors and comparison shopping, because the benefits and manner of use of the product are now common knowledge, then it becomes important to rank ahead of competitors in search results.

This can be accomplished through the use of SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) for the main keywords associated with the products being sold by the market leader.

Push strategies are not needed by the market leader since pull strategies are sufficiently effective in helping them maintain their lead.

2. Marketing Strategies for Followers

Followers have a far lower failure rate than market creators (because most of the risk associated with market size and discovery of solutions to address the key pain points have now been eliminated).

So, it pays to attack the market originator. However, if a follower merely puts out content to attempt to attack the position of the market leader, they are likely to run into the “findability” barrier. The follower’s content will almost never be organically found because the market leader’s content ranks higher on account of the in-links that it has already accrued.

So, the follower will have to focus on finding ways to distribute their content. One method to distribute content is SEM (search engine marketing). This involves taking out paid ads on search engines. Another strategy is SMM (social media marketing) which can involve taking out ads on social media platforms.

Since the follower’s advertisement will be ranked on top for a small percentage of searches, this would give the follower a chance to be noticed ahead of the market leader by a certain percentage of customers.

Followers can also use push strategies to distribute content and get noticed by prospects at times when they are not actively searching.

Over time, as followers get noticed by the ecosystem that has developed around the new market, especially by parts of the ecosystem that would like to have or offer an alternative to the main vendor, more people in the ecosystem will consume and link to the follower’s content.

As a result, the follower’s content will rise in rankings and eventually with sufficient investment of effort and money can lead to the follower becoming more findable than the leader with all the attendant benefits.

Once the follower’s content ranks high enough, it will be sufficient for the follower to fall back to using pull strategies just like the leader. However, as long as there is not sufficient awareness about their alternative and its benefits, followers will have to utilize push marketing in its various avatars.

3. Marketing Strategies for Small, Local and Regional Players

Ries and Trout recommended that small players do something innovative to create new market segments, so that they become the first to enter that new market segment. Clayton Christensen also spoke of this category in his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” where he called them firms that bring about “disruptive innovation”. Most startups fall in this category (it is not every day that startups get to create and own a new market).

Unfortunately, disruptors will not be able to use pull strategies alone. This is because they, like the followers, have neither the audience nor the volume of high-ranking content required to be noticed by people searching for keywords belonging to their product category.

Moreover, being very small, they do not have the funds to pay for effective SEM at very high volumes. Just as SEO favours market leaders, SEM favours bigger firms because they have the funds to pay for a higher ranking for their ads on search engines than smaller firms do.

For small and local firms, push marketing is often the only way to create awareness about their existence and about their innovations, and ought to be used until a critical mass of audience members for their content is built. Once there are enough social media followers, email newsletter subscribers and partners, it might become possible to switch to pull marketing strategies.