Friday, March 23, 2007

Better ways to keep in touch

Quick quiz. In which national newspaper today could you have read the following:

"The one bit of the budget forecast that appears to be indisputable is the buoyant rate of economic growth"

and

"The IFS said families are paying an average of £5,600 more in tax in real terms than when Labour came to power...However the growth in the economy meant they were also £11,700 better off - meaning the average household is £6,100 in credit"

and in its main editorial, entitled 'Chancellor Brown plays a trump card':

"All credit to Mr Brown who, unlike some of his colleagues, hasn't forgotten the principles for which Labour once stood. [We] are not overly fond of taxation, but this is one tax we heartily endorse"

Not the Daily Mirror. Not the Guardian. Not the Sun. It's...

The Daily Mail.

(The tax in question, in case you were wondering, is gambling duty on betting websites).

One of my many unsound views is that any Labour activist writing newsletters should read the Daily Mail to see how they cover stories. Usually, Labour newsletters are either glossy ones with as few words as possible, or extremely wordy, attempting to imitate either the Sun or the Guardian (usually badly in either case).

The idea with the glossy newsletter is that people should absorb the key content of it between picking it up and throwing it in the bin six seconds later. There is some merit in this, but the problem is that it means that the newsletter isn't very interesting for people who do take the time to read it, with soundbites and slogans which appear like spin. People will read it quickly and then bin it. This is still better than the newsletters which make no attempt to engage the reader and have long and boring articles about things which interest some activists but not voters, such as details of routine council meetings. These in turn are better than not producing and delivering newsletters at all. But I digress.

The Daily Mail has a completely different approach. Compared to the Sun on which New Labour bases its way of writing leaflets, its stories are much longer and more detailed. This makes it appear more trustworthy than the way the Sun presents stories, which means more people believe it and repeat the line that it sets out.

When I was a councillor, the Daily Mail was the most widely read newspaper in my ward (my local papershop sold one copy of the Guardian each day, increasing to two by 2006 because of popular demand). I modelled my newsletters on the layout of the Daily Mail, with headlines about issues people cared about (though the stories were about positive local things rather than negative national stories), and then a proper explanation of what we'd been doing and what we were trying to do (50-100 words for a short story, 150-250 for a main story), with a couple of pictures per page but mainly text, and a 'useful phone numbers' column which we encouraged people to hang on to and keep by their phone. These were a mixture of 4 sided and 2 sided. The result was that while most people binned the newsletter without reading it (as with all newsletters), a significant number of people, particularly older people, actually sat down to read through it, and valued it as a source of unbiased information about what was happening in their area, and quite a few kept it by their phones for weeks or months (our production of newsletters was not as regular as it perhaps could have been).

It won't work for every area, but when campaigning in Middle England or in one of those supermarginals, I think we should learn the lessons of the success of the Daily Mail, and use them for good, rather than evil. I find a lot of the effort in writing newsletters is in the editing stories down to meet the word limit, and in the design, and it is also cheaper to produce newsletters which are more text based than ones which only look good if they are done in colour and are glossy.

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