Welcome to the Golden Age of Social Listening

If the Reddit “meme stock” episode proves anything, it’s that financial services companies and others that once thought of themselves as immune to the vagaries of the crowd can no longer ignore social media–and indeed some are actively changing as a result.

“Our plan is to take advantage of the volatility,” says Haris Khurshid, founder of Fate Capital Management, a one-year-old Chicago-based hedge fund that, starting in the second quarter, plans to invest 5 to 10 percent of its portfolio in the options of trending stocks. To discover the trends, the company has developed software that, Khurshid says, browses relevant Reddit forums for the most talked-about stocks–listening for overall sentiment–then acts to either exploit the heavily shorted stocks from the batch or take advantage of the volatility in some other way.

Fate is just one of a handful of companies that are ramping up social listening–that is, the process of tracking, analyzing, and responding to conversations about brands on social media. The concept, which has been around as long as social media itself, isn’t new. But it is gaining steam after members of the Reddit group WallStreetBets collaborated to drive up the stock price of troubled companies, including GameStop and AMC, that had been targeted by well-known short sellers.

The ensuing meme-stock surge forced trading-app Robinhood to restrict trading on certain stocks, infuriating the WallStreetBets investors and prompting calls from lawmakers to investigate the behavior. The companies involved in the episode, including Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, testified before the U.S. House Financial Services Committee on Thursday.

Even so, social media will not be cowed. At least, that’s the overarching sentiment among financial services players, after the hearing this week. Hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin, who also testified before congress, noted that his industry would have to adapt to stave off another Reddit-fueled stock rally, which cost his firm, Melvin Capital Management, billions. “There will be a lot closer monitoring of message boards,” said Plotkin, whose firm was the target of a short squeeze.  

But the enhanced focus extends well beyond financial firms. Exhibit A: interest in Affogata’s services, which include social listening, shot up 22 percent in the wake of the trading frenzy, says Sharel Omer, the San Francisco- and Tel Aviv-based company’s CEO and co-founder.

Many of those new leads are coming from fintech companies, yes. But Omer insists that brands from other verticals are also paying increased attention. Further, Omer says, the company is getting greater interest from firms that want help evaluating acquisition opportunities, and venture funds looking to get insight about their portfolio companies and potential investments and competitors. “There is a heightened understanding of the role of brand image and online communities in corporate value creation,” he says.

And what happens on Reddit–among other social sites–matters. If WallStreetBets didn’t prove that, Elon Musk has made it abundantly clear. The day after the Tesla CEO tweeted that he would host his first Clubhouse audio chat on February 1, the Financial Times reported that the stock for the wrong Clubhouse–Clubhouse Media Group, a health care services provider–soared. Clubhouse, the audio-chat company Musk was referring to, is privately held.  

Of course, small businesses have long understood the power of social media as a means for marketing. But as LJ Suzuki, founder and CEO of CFOShare, a Denver-based business consultancy, points out, the tools have become increasingly fickle in recent years. “The demonstration of Reddit’s power is just the latest chapter in the continually shifting social media landscape, which continues to challenge marketing strategies,” says Suzuki. By way of example, he points to the waning popularity of Facebook and Twitter, which have seen their fortunes shift after adopting censorship policies during last year’s presidential election. The changes to Facebook once Apple starts requiring users to grant tracking permission to every app they download on their iPhones, also will be important for the industry.

“The cost efficiency of these efforts is becoming increasingly difficult to measure and predict,” Suzuki says. The change, he adds, “is a shame, because that was one of the great advantages of social media advertising over print media, radio, or television.”

That complexity may drive companies to outsource their social media efforts in greater numbers–which is good news for companies like Affogata, but bad news for small companies in need of such services, as costs could rise accordingly. So even if you’re not now changing your strategy in the aftermath of the whole meme stock affair, one day soon, you may have to.

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