the year of social bunnies
the year of social bunnies

Firstly, let me explain where I’m coming from. I’m writing this on the eve of Chinese New Year, as we say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger and celebrate the Year of the Rabbit. And it has just occurred to me that the Tiger Mother story is a great analogy of a larger trend that is happening in our industry.

When I received the provocative Wall Street Journal feature “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” from my American father-in-law (who probably realizes that I don’t qualify as one of these superior mums), I in turn e-mailed it to my Chinese friends who were also mothers, to get their opinion. Some posted the article on Facebook. I then read and watched a good few of the 57 million odd stories that metastacized over the media in the coming week or so, including the related stories in our own pages of the South China Morning Post, the leading English newspaper in Hong Kong — home of more Tiger Mothers than probably anywhere else in the world.

The story was one that any newspaper could have run. What made it so successful was that it not only piqued the interest of every Chinese mother reading it, but also appealed to the current fascination in the Sino-U.S. cultural divide. A divide that has philosophically very different pathways to success: one based on liberal freedoms and personal empowerment, the other based on authoritarian discipline and a “failure is not an option” ideal.

The first measure of its success was its ability to engage its reader’s interest through personal relevancy and topical freshness. Yet that alone doesn’t account for a fraction of it. The key to its success came with the story’s ability to engage readers across multiple media formats, stimulate conversations and dialogue, and provoke further side stories and considerations. It may not be the first time a story in print has done this, but it’s a great example of what a different world we now live in. We all know TV has been rapidly moving to a more interactive multi-media platform for a long time. Eye reports, citizen journalism, having your say; it’s all becoming a part of a quality TV news offer, and yet most of the world’s newspapers are a little behind in the trend. You could say that many papers are still relying on a Tiger’s growl to get them noticed, rather than igniting the twitching whiskers of a million bunnies to spread the word around and fire up a colony.

As we enter a new year, the onus is on newspapers to engage our readers in conversations and matters of personal relevance. Long gone are the times when we are truly delivering news for the first time to someone’s ears. “If it’s printed, it’s yesterday’s news” were the words of a particular respondent in a focus group I participated in recently. “Tell me tomorrow’s news, not today’s.” Before we head down to the trusty clairvoyant for a glimmer of hope in our future, what it means is that we need to generate conversations that live and breathe, conversations enabled by the platform of our print, online, mobile, iPad offerings, and played out between them all, seamlessly, together with the voices of our readers.

As marketing departments, we can also help the process along, by providing ways our readers can feel their voices and opinions are heard. Events are an obvious opportunity for our editorial teams to engage a two-way dialogue with the reader, and may even make for great follow-up reading across our many newspaper platforms. Pitting a panel of local Tiger Mothers against Mother Rabbits and educational experts might be good sport for a revenue-driving paid event. Or one that helps readers with investments to support the funding of all those must-have extra-curricular and further education costs.

Within the pages of our daily newspaper and online, we also have the opportunity to run surveys and opinion checks to create new news on prevailing topics. Newspapers also print letters from readers. When’s the last time you wrote a paper letter? Of course, these usually come in as e-mails, but placed into the print environment, they suddenly feel one-way, and closed. Our job is to open up dialogue on those letters, by creating a way for readers to have their say and share their opinion on someone else’s opinion. That might be on our more interactive Web sites, or in the next day’s newspaper, or through our mobile apps.

If the Year of the Tiger has highlighted anything, it’s the fact that we are all, in fact, social bunnies. And no one wants to be told what to think. The days of one-way communication are long gone, and we need to open up the pathways for dialogue and discussion.

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Good health and prosperity to you and your newspaper in the Year of the Rabbit!