Practical analysis for investment professionals
13 June 2014

Yes, You Can Have a Serious Policy Discussion on Twitter (Just Ask the Bank of England)

Leading central banks have been engaged in a multiyear effort to demystify their operations by overhauling how they communicate with the public. On 30 May, the Bank of England added a new chapter to the unfolding story on central bank transparency by hosting a live Twitter chat with the general public. Anyone with a question for the bank could tweet it, using the hashtag #AskBoE, to the bank’s head of notes, Victoria Cleland, who looks after the integrity of the United Kingdom’s paper currency. It was at least the second such Twitter chat hosted by the British central bank.

The BoE’s experiment was bold to say the least. Twitter chats have become all-to-frequent case studies in the law of unintended consequences, with recent Q&A sessions hosted by a range of organizations — from the National Football League in the United States to British Gas in the United Kingdom to global bank JPMorgan Chase — ending in embarrassment after Twitter users “hijacked” the chat hashtag to tweet their ire, poke fun, or unleash a torrent of ironic criticism. So many Twitter chats have gone so badly lately that some social media professionals have recommended that organizations avoid them altogether.

So how did it go for the world’s second-oldest central bank?

At first glance, perhaps not so well, given the volume of parody questions (“how long do you think it will [sic] it take to destroy the final 1% of Sterling’s purchasing power? I have a Prussian friend who is asking“), conspiracy commentary (“What’s it like working for a criminal enterprise, stealing ordinary people’s money?“), and jabs at the bank’s handling of the global financial crisis (“Why can’t I print my own money if I’m insolvent (like the Banks) too?“). Indeed, the third-most retweeted question, put forward by influential blog @zerohedge, was a sarcastic swipe at the BoE related to its alleged complicity in the recent foreign-exchange rigging scandal in the UK.

The BoE’s Twitter foray even inspired a limerick-writing contest between Twitter user The Limerick King and Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Battle of Bretton Woods.

This is probably not what the Bank of England had in mind, as one observer seemed to suggest as the Q&A unfolded:

But first impressions are not everything. In fact, after analyzing the Twitter data, the BoE’s live chat looks like a pretty big success. Perhaps most importantly, it shows that serious financial institutions can have a serious dialogue with the public via social media, while softening their image in the process.

Consider first the reach and engagement the Bank generated: From 26 May to 2 June — a reasonable, eight-day period surrounding the live Q&A — Tweets related to the discussion generated more than 10 million Twitter impressions and reached nearly 1.4 million unique Twitter user accounts, according to data from TweetReach. Perhaps most importantly, the BoE remained firmly in control of the dialogue: The Bank’s Twitter handle, @bankofengland, was the most-mentioned account during this period and delivered both the highest-exposure tweet and the most-retweeted tweet.

Network analysis based on #AskBoE tweet activity helps visualize the bank’s effective stewardship of the dialogue. In the image below, each account that participated in the chat is represented as a dot and each retweet action is shown as a line between the relevant dots (it follows that dots with no connecting lines represent tweets that were not retweeted). As shown below, the largest single nexus of engagement is centered around the Bank of England’s twitter handle:

#askBoE Tweet Network

Here is another visualization showing a selection of accounts that generated the most retweet impressions:

#askBoE Top Retweet Impressions

So what about all that activity that’s not connected to the BoE? Is it policy, parody or something in between?

Some additional network analysis provides the answer. In the diagram below, I’ve isolated the 50 twitter accounts that generated the most retweet impressions and thus were most influential in the discussion. I then categorized the content of the relevant tweets as policy-oriented, parody-oriented, or just plain critical of BoE policy or conduct. The resulting visualization highlights the relative tenor of the discussion and shows the connections between influential users. Policy retweet activity dominates:

#askBoE Influencer Typology

With so many big institutions experiencing so many social media failures, what explains the BoE’s relative success? I can think of at least two plausible explanations. First, unlike many big brands that consumers love to hate, including many banks whose actions (think foreclosure) were closely felt by the public during the financial crisis, the relative opacity of what central banks do may have worked in the BoE’s favor. People were curious and engaged with serious questions about the British currency.

Second, the BoE did an excellent job managing the live Q&A. Not only did the BoE put forward an actual person to take questions, helping to humanize the institution, those managing the chat (Victoria Cleland herself?) weren’t afraid to selectively engage, sometimes playfully, with the critics and would-be comics at the periphery. All of this made for an entertaining and informative live discussion.

Bravo, Bank of England.


Please note that the content of this site should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute.

Photo credit: ©iStockphoto.com/stockcam

About the Author(s)
Len Costa

Len Costa was head of communications and content strategy at CFA Institute, where he oversaw global social media, mobile products, and digital content strategy. He previously served as director of interactive media at the Institute for Private Investors (IPI), a peer networking organization for ultra-high-net-worth families and their advisers. Costa also wrote a private wealth column for the Financial Times and, prior to joining IPI, he held senior editorial positions at Institutional Investor and Worth magazines. His writing has also appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Slate, and The New York Times. Costa holds a BA from the University of Virginia, a diploma in French language from the Université de Paris, and a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

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