Corporate Use of Social Media

James Naughton is Assistant Professor of Accounting at Northwestern University. This post is based on an article authored by Professor Naughton; Michael Jung, Assistant Professor of Accounting at New York University; Ahmed Tahoun, Assistant Professor of Accounting at London Business School; and Clare Wang, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Northwestern University.

Social media has transformed communications in many sectors of the U.S. economy. It is now used for disaster preparation and emergency response, security at major events, and public agencies are researching new uses in geolocation, law enforcement, court decisions, and military intelligence. Internationally, social media is credited for organizing political protests across the Middle East and a revolution in Egypt. In the business world, social media is considered a revolutionary sales and marketing platform and a powerful recruiting and networking channel. Little research exists, however, on how firms use social media to communicate financial information to investors and how investors respond to investor disseminated through social media, despite firms devoting considerable effort to creating and managing social media presences directed at investors. Motivated by this lack of research, in our paper, Corporate Use of Social Media, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we provide early large-sample evidence on the corporate use of social media for investor communications. More specifically, we investigate why firms choose to disseminate investor communications through social media, whether investors and traditional media outlets respond to social media disclosures, and whether potential adverse consequences to the firm exist from the use of social media to disseminate investor communications.

Our analysis focuses on earnings announcements through Twitter for four reasons. First, our comprehensive data on social media usage for all firms in the S&P 1500 from 2010 through the first quarter of 2013 reveal that Twitter is the preferred social media platform for investor communications and that earnings announcements are the most commonly “tweeted” item. Second, the extant literature generally finds that earnings announcements are of first-order importance in disclosure policies directed at investors. Third, Twitter provides a clean research setting to examine the effect of social media disclosures because we can identify the precise time that the information was disseminated. Fourth, we can control for the information content of earnings announcements more effectively than the information content of other financial disclosures, such as those related to board turnover, executive turnover, new customers or new products. As a result, we can isolate the effect of social media more effectively using earnings announcements than other types of disclosures.

We first examine the determinants of social media adoption for dissemination of earnings news. We find that firms who tweet earnings tend to also issue more press releases, consistent with the idea that these firms are trying to publicize their activities. However, we also find that firms who tweet earnings have less traditional media coverage, consistent with the practitioner view that social media usage can compensate for a perceived lack of traditional media coverage. Larger firms are more likely to use Twitter to disseminate earnings news, which is contrary to the notion that smaller firms benefit more from using social media. We find evidence that firms are opportunistic in their use of Twitter as firms are less likely to disseminate earnings news through Twitter when the earnings miss the consensus forecast. This result extends the prior literature, which shows that firms use voluntary disclosure (e.g., conference calls) to portray themselves in a positive light by showing that firms will also strategically disseminate positive news.

We next examine whether social media disclosures are associated with changes in a firm’s information environment. Our analysis shows that there is a reduction in spreads when the firm tweets earnings news and more followers receive the earnings announcement tweet. In contrast, we find that information asymmetry increases as more of the firm’s followers retweet the earnings news to an audience that may not be familiar with the firm (i.e., the followers’ followers). We further investigate whether there are adverse consequences associated with retweets of a firm’s earnings announcement by examining whether retweets affect media coverage. We find a positive association between the number of retweets and the level of coverage in traditional media. However, when we separate positive and negative media coverage, we find that retweet activity is only associated with more negative press coverage. Our finding suggests that concern about the viral nature of social media for financial disclosures is warranted.

Next, we examine whether capital markets respond to the corporate use of social media. We find modest price- and volume-based capital market responses to earnings announcements disseminated over Twitter during the three-day earnings announcement window. However, when we use short-window intraday tests focused on firms that tweet earnings news during market hours, both trading volume and trade size respond to earnings tweets. We find a significant increase in the mean and median abnormal volume, and that this increase is primarily due to an increase in large trades. These results are unchanged when we isolate those tweets that had no contemporaneous news during the 15-minute event window. Therefore, while social media is commonly viewed as a dissemination channel that provides timely access to information for all investors, our results suggest that larger investors react more quickly to earnings-related tweets.

This study contributes to the disclosure literature by providing large-sample evidence that dissemination of earnings information over social media has capital market consequences and an effect on the firm’s overall information environment. More importantly, we show that the capital market effects differ for firm-initiated versus non-firm-initiated social media communications. Firm-initiated tweets reduce information asymmetry, whereas non-firm-initiated retweets increase information asymmetry. In addition, we contribute to the literature that investigates whether managers’ disclosure strategies are designed to “slant” news about firm performance in a particular way (e.g., call on analysts who are more likely to be favorable during a conference call) by identifying the strategic dissemination of earnings news.

The full paper is available for download here.

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