Are letters to the Editor an untapped resource for media brands?




James Ralph

Reading the letters pages of the newspapers is one of my guilty pleasures, though some see it as akin to watching tabloid TV talk shows. 

While it is easy to caricature those engaging with the press as “Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells”, the panel discussions at the recent Westminster Media Forum on ‘The Future of News’ made me wonder if they hold valuable insights for the newspapers that publish them.

The panel at the event featured representatives from Buzzfeed and Twitter and was focused on the digital landscape. Terms such as “hyper-sharers” and “social uplift” were raised, sparking the idea that there may be lessons to be learnt in how journalism has traditionally harnessed such engaged individuals.

How much richer are the insights shared over the course of a letter, than the 140 character tweets or instant comments? Looking at a recent Daily Telegraph story on household recycling it is interesting to weigh up the two letters chosen for print, against the dozens of retweets and comments online. I feel John from Ringmer and Paul from Stowmarket, with their comments on the responsibilities of manufacturers and the inconsistencies of council collections, provide views that are likely more representative of the national spirit than Harry’s comments on alopecia, or Das Velk 1’s remark that it is ‘time those criminals in the EU were recycled in to dog meat.’

Marketers, and the media alike, have long shaped their output based upon the insights of individuals keen to share their opinions. Whether it is the school gate mum, or the citizen-journalist, their personal perspectives have long been gathered and analysed, and indeed used as a channel of news promotion in their own right. Within my own industry, the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, made use of such individuals with his ‘torches of freedom’ campaign in the 1920s. While many of us may now balk at women being encouraged to smoke in public, there are definite parallels with today’s celebrity vloggers such as Zoella.

If stories are to reach and influence mass audiences it is clear they must do so with the endorsement of “social sharers”. As the medium of quality journalism evolves from print and paper, to pixels and ipads, upping “social-sharing” scores is a matter of concern for media owners and brand owners alike. I believe that letters archives will unearth further evidence for a point discussed on the day, what are the core ingredients of a sharable story? Buzzfeed’s mantra of ‘exclusive, different or funny’ is equally held by the editors of our letters pages. They understand that great journalism communicates the truth by bringing an authentic voice to a story.

Quantitative number crunching and big-data analytics have been revealed as powerful tools. Cookies can track individual preferences, providing the understanding to refine commercial targeting and improve the likelihood of readers sharing stories. I’d argue that in an age of contextual search, the opinions of the doctors of the shires, expressions of disgust and points of pedantry are too valuable to be ignored in building empathy and understanding of the great British public.

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