Smart Investors Are Social-Media Savvy

Social Media
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Many investors have a hard enough time reading 10-Ks and keeping up with corporate earnings releases. Now they're going to have to monitor Facebook and Twitter, too.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced dramatic changes that made social media fair game for companies looking for ways to get information out to investors.

How this is all going to work is still the subject of debate with companies, consultants and lawyers. Companies are now considering how they will adopt the SEC's blessing to use social media as a way to share important company information.

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But one thing is for sure: Investors will need to reconsider their sources of information and potentially widen the places they go to. Some also worry investors will be overwhelmed if they have to be on the lookout for financial data coming from multiple sources, be it Twitter and Facebook, in addition to traditional places. The concern is that once again, professional investors with the means or tools to survey the expanse of data sources will have the edge.

"The landscape (for investor information) has become more varied," says Anna Kipchuk, senior director at CEB, a company that consults with companies about disseminating information. Social media "is just one more forum investors will have to be watching."

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No matter what companies ultimately decide to do with social media, investors can start coming up with their strategies to deal with this new world, including:

Finding out what companies are planning to do. The biggest caveat to the SEC's permissiveness with social media is that companies must inform investors specifically how they plan to use social media. It's unclear how companies will relay this information, though.

One likely option investors will need to be on the lookout for would be disclosures at the bottom of earnings news releases, in quarterly reports and annual reports listing the social-media platforms they plan to use and the identifiers, says Joel Greenberg, a partner at law firm Kaye Scholer.

If there's to be a model, that's likely to be Netflix. The company, which sparked the changes when CEO Reed Hastings shared non-public information on his Facebook page, put out a disclosure that may be the pattern for other companies to follow. Netflix on April 2 put out a news release and a filing with the SEC that described, in detail, the company's social-media sources. There, Netflix told investors it posts to five social-network channels, including the Netflix Blog, the Netflix Tech Blog, the Netflix Facebook page, the Netflix Twitter feed, and Hastings' public Facebook page.

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Other companies to use Twitter, primarily to direct investors to their regulatory filings or news releases, include GPS maker Garmin (@GarminStock), glass maker Corning (@Corning) and online auctioneer Ebay (@ebayinc).

• Know the rules. Perhaps even more dangerous than missing out on a post from a company, is following a source that appears to be a company but really isn't. Investors were reminded of this again on April 23 when the market briefly plunged after a false report on the Associated Press' Twitter feed. Make sure the Twitter feeds and Facebook posts being followed are the official ones from the company. Some companies may get special badges to confirm they are official, such as the Twitter Verified tag. Other companies, such as Microsoft, list the coordinates of their official Twitter and Facebook feeds on their own websites. And if the news is major, confirm it's also on the companies' website.

• Don't assume all companies will turn to social media. While social media may be a great way to follow the latest happenings with news and celebrities, many large investors aren't exactly pushing companies to use the medium, says Patrick Quick of Foley & Lardner. Having to follow dozens of Twitter and Facebook pages is not appealing to large shareholders, and "most companies won't do that to their investors," he says. Many companies will likely use their social-media outlets, for now, as just another way to direct investors to their news releases presented in traditional places such as websites and on the SEC's own website.

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Over time, services designed for professional investors will likely cull the social-media data for professional investors, taking much of the hassle away, Greenberg says. Even so, the spread is likely to be slow. "It wouldn't surprise me if investors talk to companies and say, 'We don't want you to do this,' " Foley says. "I don't think it will catch on."