What the Hackney Rat can teach us about online engagement

I’m sure you will have seen something about the Hackney Rat this weekend, it has been a popular news story on Twitter, Facebook and national news. The story, and how Hackney Council chose to respond to it, can teach us a lot about effective online engagement.

The story really took off on Friday lunchtime when the Evening Standard newspaper posted this tweet, which generated 116 retweets and 39 likes.

Unsurprisingly, the replies were mostly from people disgusted at the thought of a giant rat, with a couple of skeptical comments as well.

The power of a Twitter reply

The paper repeated the tweet about 90 minutes later, that one was retweeted 37 times and liked by 18 people. One of the replies was from Hackney Council, with this now famous response:

Their reply received 314 retweets and 357 likes, more than three times as big a response as the Evening Standard’s original tweet.

It’s a great tweet, funny, with an eye-catching image, exactly the tone people use on Twitter and with a clear message that they are taking action; but was it a bit risky? It can’t have done much for their relationship with the Evening Standard and it has certainly drawn widespread attention to the fact that there are large rats of some size in Hackney.

Deciding how to respond

Burying your head in the sand isn’t really an option with the internet. People will be talking about you online and your absence allows them to control how people feel about you.

In the case of the Hackney Rat, the story was already reaching a large audience without the facts being challenged. For example, one of the people sharing the story on Twitter was Lauren Laverne, who was moved to capital letters to express her feelings to her nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.

The first thing Hackney Council did well was monitoring social media so that it quickly identified the story. On the Digital Action Plan we show people how they can use free and low cost tools such as the Hootsuite dashboard to focus on what’s most important to them.

After identifying the story, Hackney Council was able to evaluate it and decide whether or not to respond and, if so, what approach they should take. The blogger @citizensheep has produced a helpful flowchart [pdf] which can help you decide whether responding will only fan the flames and when to use a serious or more lighthearted voice.

Assessing the effectiveness of Hackney Council’s reply

The Evening Standard like many news organisations repeatedly tweets links to their stories through the day. One way to assess the impact of Hackney Council’s response is to compare the replies to the paper’s final tweet linking to the story, where far more of the replies are skeptical, and only a couple of people are horrified, a real turn around from the replies to the paper’s earlier tweets.

From outside it looks like the risk was worth it in this case. The Evening Standard’s story has remained unchanged on their website, but via a well executed tweet, that made it easy for supporters to share another side of the story Hackney Council have managed to get their message, with its key information, to a huge audience too.