WHEN Dell Inc. (NASDAQ:DELL) reported its Q4 2011 financial results yesterday it broke new ground for online investor relations communications and set the stage for an era where companies and executives can use social media with as much confidence of compliance as traditional disclosure channels.
While many companies have been using services like Twitter and Facebook in parallel to their normal disclosure channels, Dell’s IR and social media team is the first to fully harness the StockTwits financial network to take the company’s message far beyond social media boundaries to reach mainstream financial portals that previously were accessible only via expensive PR wire services.
Managed from the company’s social media command center (below) in Round Rock, Texas, Dell’s two-hour social media campaign also leveraged an impressive array of popular social media services, including Twitter, YouTube, SlideShare, and its own investor relations blog, potentially reaching a measurable audience of several million.
According to Dell’s own internal statistics, yesterday’s campaign generated 1,169 posts mentioning the company’s financial results compared to 111 posts in the prior quarter. The potential audience for those posts was 3,458,658 people versus 243,590 in the last quarter.
However, even those numbers don’t tell the full story because they do not include the reach achieved through mainstream financial websites Yahoo! Finance and CNN Money, which carried Dell’s messages thanks to their integration with the StockTwits financial social network.
This article documents Dell’s activities around yesterday’s announcement and will help other companies that want to include Dell’s methods in their own online financial disclosure campaigns. Also see our post on HP’s use of StockTwits for additional ideas.
Telling people what to expect, inviting questions
A week before yesterday’s announcement, Dell began telling people how they could access information about its scheduled results. Messages were posted to the company’s DellShares Twitter account and on StockTwits.
A key component of Dell’s past quarterly announcements has been a video interview between Dell’s IR vice present Rob Williams and CFO Brian Gladden. I mentioned these videos last week in CEOs and CFOs rocking YouTube: 10 examples and said that it would be good for the company to source questions for the interviews from investors.
Within hours of that post Dell did exactly that when it posted messages on StockTwits and Twitter inviting investors to submit questions for the interview. The next day, Dell followed up in a blog post that explained how it is using Twitter for IR and again asked for questions.
I researched the public timeline and I don’t believe Dell received any investor questions, but that’s not important. They made the offer and it’s up to investors to take advantage of it.
Traditional news release with links to Twitter
Like most companies, Dell announced its earnings in a traditional full-text earnings release at 4:01pm ET yesterday. Much of Dell’s earnings release is standard, except for a paragraph near the end that advises investors that they can get highlights from the eanings call by following Dell’s Twitter account.
The release also includes the hashtag for the day’s earnings campaign, which in this case is #DellEarnings. A nice touch is that the hashtag links to Twitter’s search results for the tag so investors have easy access to all tagged messages from the company and other users.
The only issue I have with how Dell announced the release on its social media accounts is that the company wasn’t first to break the news. Several investors with access to professional financial information services tweeted the headline numbers a minute before Dell could get the word out itself.
The problem here is that PR wire services are not simultaneous and professional services typically get news releases before the rest of the market gets them on the public web. The solution is for Dell to move to website disclosure and post the news on the company’s website first and schedule a tweet linking to it. This requires some detailed planning and the right technology otherwise things get messed up, so I can’t fault Dell’s team for not doing this yet if they don’t have the right technology in place.
While some might say that a one-minute difference in access is irrelevant — especially during a trading halt — the issue is not so much about trading handicaps but about how real or perceived uneven access to information undermines public confidence in the integrity of financial markets.
Blog post, video and SlideShare embed
There is an hour between the time when Dell issues its earnings release and when it holds its earnings conference call and webcast at 5:00pm ET. It’s during this period that Dell’s YouTube channel and blog come into play.
At around 4:30pm ET yesterday, Dell published a video on YouTube containing an interview with CFO Brian Gladden and Steve Schuckenbrock, President of Dell Services. As in the past, the questions were posed by Dell IRO Rob Williams.
The timing of the video’s release is good because it gives investors and analysts additional insight ahead of the earnings call and allows the company to get management’s key messages out before the call begins.
And since the video is provided on YouTube, it’s exposed to a large potential audience, while online journalists and bloggers who are covering Dell’s results can embed the video into their stories if they wish.
Yesterday was also the first time that Dell included its quarterly investor presentation in a SlideShare embed. This was provided in the quarterly results blog post, which went live at 4:40pm ET. Again, this is content that online journalists and bloggers can use in their stories, while the availability on SlideShare expands the potential audience for the information.
Live-tweeting via StockTwits to Yahoo! Finance, CNN Money (and Twitter)
Live tweeting earnings calls has become a popular practice among public companies on Twitter. However, Dell is the first company to fully leverage the additional exposure that can be achieved if companies initiate tweets on StockTwits rather than on Twitter.
StockTwits, which strictly enforces quality standards and does not permit messages to be deleted, has distribution agreements with CNN Money and Yahoo! Finance. It also has separate agreements with Bloomberg and has been in discussions with Reuters about using the StockTwits stream for market sentiment analysis.
However, while companies can direct messages to StockTwits from their Twitter accounts or vice versa, only tweets that originate on the StockTwits website or desktop application are distributed to Yahoo! Finance and CNN Money, which substantially expands the potential audience for the information.
Yesterday, Dell used StockTwits as its primary onramp to Twitter as well as to direct its messages to Yahoo and CNN. The company’s messages, combined with those of investors using StockTwits, resulted in Dell being the most actively discussed company on Yahoo!’s Market Pulse pages, which likely extended the reach of the company’s information.
By bridging social media and mainstream financial websites, StockTwits has set itself up to become an essential tool for investor relations departments and company executives who are using social media.
The wider distribution StockTwits offers provides an extra level of comfort to executives and IR departments because any information they share is less likely to be considered selectively disclosed than if it appears only on Twitter, a company website or a company blog. Companies can gain further comfort by adding the StockTwits widget to their websites so that their tweets will also appear there.
Through its earnings announcement campaign yesterday, Dell has offered a glimpse into a future where a simple tweet by a company representative is no longer an isolated event unlikely to be considered public for regulatory purposes, but rather an indelible, real-time and broadly accessible disclosure.
(Disclosure: I have in the past advised StockTwits on its IR services, but do not have a current consulting arrangement with the company.)