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Revolutionary Social Media IR: How Zillow Made Digital History with a Q1 Earnings Call

By Talia Sinkinson, Editor, Media Relations, Bulldog Reporter

Top brands like Twitter, Netflix and Yahoo! are taking to an IR approach that was born in the offices of a lesser known but incredibly cutting-edge company. On April 2, 2013, when the Securities and Exchange Commission announced new rules allowing companies to use social media to disclose material information, Zillow’s communications team was first to think big. They saw this change as a huge chance to amplify their commitment to information transparency and to add social DNA to their investor relations strategy. Of course, there were logistical hurdles and legal considerations, but in the end, Zillow hit upon IR gold—and established a new standard for broadcasting behind-the-scenes information. Read on to find out how Zillow increased transparency, surged social media audiences, made media headlines and developed a thought leadership platform, all with one earnings call.

The Challenge: Embark on a whole new kind of investor relations. Social media isn’t new to Zillow. From the company’s social CEO @SpencerRascoff, who responds directly to site users day or night, to the company’s blog and owned social media channels, Zillow already had a digital following across social networks. But there were four key challenges Zillow had to overcome before they made their earnings call truly social:

  • Legal and finance departments needed to be comfortable with the level of transparency.
  • Investors and the broader public had to be aware of the new call format.
  • Social media infrastructure needed to be in place to triage questions and comments in real time.
  • Zillow had to face off against the “old school” expectations of financial firms.

The team prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. Whitney Curry, Zillow’s senior marketing manager for the social media team, helped spearhead the campaign.Nobody likes surprises,” she says. “Communication and cross-team collaboration are a critical component of any integrated marketing campaign. This was no exception.”

“Companies looking to foster deeper synergies between investor relations, public relations and social should first focus on aligning their strategic objectives. Then, they should develop an internal workflow and secure buy-in from key stakeholders from conception to execution.”

The Strategy: Social media takeover. Zillow designated its Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the company blog, as channels to post information for investors. “Taking full advantage of the new rule, our social media, investor relations, legal and public relations teams worked together to develop a communication plan offering unprecedented engagement with investors and the public during our earnings call on May 7, 2013, naming the campaign #ZEarnings.” The #ZEarnings hashtag was apt, leveraging Zillow’s NASDAQ stock ticker symbol “Z,” and was evergreen, suited to each quarterly call in the future.

Pitch the #ZEarnings call to reporters. The Zillow PR team worked on two media pushes.

The first focused on the financial aspect of the Zillow earnings call and the success of the company’s quarter. The second touted the innovation of the call and the use of Twitter and #ZEarnings. This strategy gave Zillow a twofold opportunity for coverage while creating a sensation of the earnings call.

Build buzz online leading up to the call—among investors and the general public. “Zillow’s social media footprint is deep and wide, with over one million followers across our consumer social media channels,” notes Curry. “We announce #ZEarnings to our core social followers, and also work collaboratively with PR to secure media coverage of the social event. It’s a team effort.”

The Call: Make earnings an engaging experience for all. The heart of the campaign challenge was turning complex, hard-to-digest financial data into simple statements (in 140 characters or less). The PR team needed the right balance of technical and consumer-friendly messaging.

Curry’s advice: “Mine your quarterly earnings reports for digestible data nuggets that are interesting to your everyday site users, beyond financial metrics such as EBITA and GAAP results. Ask yourself ‘What factoids can the average person take away from this report to reinforce their affection and loyalty to my brand?’”

Make infographics out of earnings numbers. Zillow worked closely with its in-house design team on a series of compliment infographics that communicated particular concepts and key messages. With this tactic, the earnings story was tailored to each channel and audience.

During the call, the images were shared on Zillow’s Twitter and Facebook, and after the call, a custom Twitter timeline was created to merchandize the assets on Zillow’s investor relations website.

“At Zillow, one way we accomplish [engagement] is by unpacking our massive mobile usage stats into snackable, sharable factoids. For example, [when] more than 460 million homes were viewed on Zillow Mobile, we created a simple, sharable visual to share via #ZEarnings to reinforce this with our consumer audience.”

Answer questions in real time. Zillow used social media management software to systematically follow the hashtag and move messages into pre-set queues. This way, executive teams on the live call could follow up with the audience. Prior to the call, the Zillow team sent 43 tweets from @Zillow during the week of earnings using #ZEarnings to encourage question submission.

“Social media empowers Zillow investors, big or small, to ask questions of Zillow’s executive team,” Curry explains. “The Zillow executive team addresses as many questions as possible on the call, and Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff heads directly to Twitter after the formal call ends to address any outstanding questions. This level of transparency, and a deep organization commitment to consumer empowerment, aligns directly with Zillow’s core values.”

Two additional questions were also answered in a follow-up post on the Zillow Blog. This drove traffic back to Zillow while furthering conversation about Zillow’s successful quarter.

Employ best social media practices for C-level executives. “Social is a key component of Zillow’s company culture. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff leads by example, infusing a passion for social media into everyday interactions. The Zillow leadership team is constantly showcasing social product highlights, as well as user feedback from social, with employees and our investor community.  Employees are also encouraged to serve as informal brand ambassadors and share Zillow news with their personal social networks.”

The Results: #ZEarnings increases transparency, audience engagement, media coverage and thought leadership.  One of the biggest wins was bringingtransparency and a fresh new approach to Zillow’s earnings calls. Because of the new format, more questions from investors were answered, giving them a greater access to Zillow and a chance for their voices to be heard by others.

Zillow also saw a spike in Facebook and Twitter followers on the day of the call and twice the number of active call participants compared to previous quarters. The campaign resulted in major media coverage of both the earnings call and the social innovation of #ZEarnings. Outlets include CNBC, USA Today, Xconomy, Forbes and The Street. Finally, the campaign positioned Zillow as a thought leader within the social IR industry, as Zillow was the first company to take the leap into the social realm during an earnings call. Due to its incredible success, many other companies have followed suit.

Secrets for Success: Curry offers advice and explains why ZIllow won Gold in “Best Integration of PR and IR in a Business Campaign” at the 2014 Bulldog Media Relations Awards.

  • Nobody likes surprises.Over-communication is key to executing a cross-functional marketing campaign.
  • Keep it simple.Identify snackable, sharable key messages that consumers will be excited to share with their social networks.
  • Think big.Look for opportunities to empower consumers with increased transparency and information.

Winner’s Profile

Zillow, Inc. (NASDAQ:Z) operates the leading real estate and home-related information marketplaces on mobile and the Web, with a complementary portfolio of brands and products that help people find vital information about homes, and connect with the best local professionals. Zillow’s brands serve the full lifecycle of owning and living in a home: buying, selling, renting, financing, remodeling and more. In addition, Zillow offers a suite of tools and services to help local real estate, mortgage, rental and home improvement professionals manage and market their businesses. Welcoming nearly 79 million unique users in April 2014, the Zillow, Inc. portfolio includes Zillow.com®, Zillow Mobile, Zillow Mortgage Marketplace, Zillow Rentals, Zillow Digs®, Postlets®, Diverse Solutions®, Agentfolio®, Mortech®, HotPads™ and StreetEasy®. The company is headquartered in Seattle.

Zillow.com, Zillow, Postlets, Mortech, Diverse Solutions, StreetEasy, Agentfolio and Digs are registered trademarks of Zillow, Inc. HotPads is a trademark of Zillow, Inc.

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