Following a board meeting in March 2012, Gene Morphis, the at-the-time CFO of clothing retailer Francesca’s, tweeted a short message from his private account that said, “Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board.” He was fired shortly after for “improperly communicating company information through social media” because the numbers he tweeted about had not yet been released to all investors, which made his tweet a piece of insider information.
Mr. Morphis’ experience is illustrative of the strict legal and regulatory framework that governs financial firms’ communications. By the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, every communication, including social media, must be recorded and archived. Furthermore, firms may be held liable for an employee’s off-the-clock tweets or Facebook likes. Nevertheless, despite the challenges inherent in having an active social media presence, financial firms can set regulatory-compliant policies to benefit from using social media as a way to inspire confidence and attract new customers.
Social media is changing the traditional, privacy-driven hedge fund landscape.
According to a survey conducted by Peppercomm, a leading New-York based communications and marketing firm, just 11.1% of the world’s largest 314 hedge funds used social media in 2015, up from 9.9% in 2014. However, social media conversations about hedge funds jumped by 46% from 2014 levels to an unprecedented 1.1 million conversations. September 2015 alone saw the highest level of conversations ever, with the total reaching 116,000. Four other months also saw conversations about hedge funds exceed 100,000 per month.
“Every time hedge funds shy away from the social media conversation, they throw away important thought leadership and content opportunities for themselves and for the industry,” said Jacqueline Kolek, a Peppercomm partner. The formerly private world of hedge funds is “becoming more public every day,” she also observed.
With so many conversations about hedge funds out there, Peppercomm suggests that hedge fund executives Google themselves and their companies to see whether the story that is being told about them is the one they want audiences to see. If it is not, and even if it is, Peppercomm further encourages companies to take the time to communicate with their customers.
Social media is helping hedge funds bring in investors.
Since launching in 2014, Woodford Investment Management has raised £14 billion in capital in part thanks to social media, and without using any traditional advertising. Part of the firm’s success is attributed to the lure of Neil Woodford, its fund manager, but the rest is a result of social media presence. “We wanted to use social media to educate and inform, but also to communicate and engage. You can’t get the message across in an ad,” Woodford said of the firm’s approach in using sites like LinkedIn and Twitter.
Bison Interests, a Houston-based fund that launched in 2015, secured $20 million by using social media. The fund’s manager, Joshua Young, used a social network called SumZero, described as a combination of LinkedIn and Match.com where institutional investors can choose to fund based on quality analytics, to secure the money.
A combination of the right policy and technology can help create an effective social media compliance strategy.
First, a company should outline how it wishes to interact with people through social media. A collaborative effort between executives and employees often yields the very best policies, as employees interact with the public most often and can have valuable input for executives as a result. Once a policy is in place, a firm’s marketing department should outline the scope of a firm’s messaging while the IT department should frame the technology and devices that will be used. Finally, the legal or compliance department should ensure that the policy complies with all regulations.
Training employees to follow regulations is also essential. Firms can be sanctioned for failing “to provide sufficient and appropriate training to employees” for using such sites as LinkedIn and Facebook. For instance, employees may not know that all static content such as Facebook and LinkedIn profiles need to be pre-approved before they are posted. However, interactive content such as Twitter and LinkedIn updates do not require pre-approval, though they must be supervised. Furthermore, these rules apply to all business content, even if it is posted from an employee’s personal social media account.