S1E07 - IR Innovators: Creative Tactics for Standing Out and Engaging Investors with Alyssa Barry & Caroline Sawamoto, irlabs

This episode of Winning IR explores the innovative ways that modern companies are seizing the attention of institutional and retail investors. Alyssa Barry and Caroline Sawamoto, Principals and Co-Founders at irlabs, join Mark Fasken to share the tips and tricks they use to create value and interest for issuers.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript to learn more about:

  • How can IROs incorporate untraditional and creative elements into their IR programs?
  • What makes for a compelling story? 
  • What differentiates a compelling story from a bland one? 
  • What can IROs do to improve their storytelling?
  • How often should you revisit or revise your company story?
  • What can IROs do to cut through the noise and differentiate their company?

About Our Guest

Alyssa Barry and Caroline Sawamoto are both Principals and Co-Founders at irlabs. Each boasts over 15-years of investor relations and capital markets experience. An activist by nature, Alyssa has raised over $1 billion of capital, led some of Canada’s most successful activism campaigns, managed M&A transactions and enhanced board governance frameworks. Caroline has supported numerous financing activities, both public and private, and helped raise over $650 million of capital.

Episode Transcript

Fasken  

So Caroline, and Alyssa to kick things off. I wanted to talk about an article I read recently talking about how IR needs a "creative director". And it got me thinking what creative elements can IROs incorporate into their programs that are sort of different from the traditional way of doing things.

Barry  

I love this question, Mark. And it's one that we talk about all the time and often refer to the investor relations profession as "the junk drawer job", where you're wearing so many different hats, and we're expected to be the analyst, we need to understand the financial statements inside and out, we need to be an excellent copywriter, we need to keep our C-suite organized, we're influencing strategy. I think a lot of IROs are now wearing the ESG hat as well, or those mandates are landing in the IR departments. We also need to be creatives and we need to know social media inside and out. There's just so much that is evolved over the last several years that I would say since we started our careers 15 plus years ago, what our responsibilities are, the scope of responsibilities is just expanded in such a great way. 

We on the creative side, I really like how you phrased it as a creative director, we're often refer refer to ourselves as the quarterback or the orchestrator, we try and do things a little bit differently. And I'll give you a bit of a flavor of some of the interesting ways we've tried to create visibility and engage investors over the last couple of years, and especially during these challenging markets over the last year. And we often refer to these as the "investor relations stunts". And we know there's a lot of really great things we can do from a digital marketing perspective, and getting earned media. But one of the things we've done, we did eight IPOs this past year, and some of our clients actually have products or services that are tangible, or that we would really like to put in front of, call it the retail or the broker community. And so just to give you an example, we took a company public that had a particular product, and we put it in goodie bags with a nice little postcard and a QR code about the company. And we dropped it off at all the brokerage houses. And all of a sudden overnight, you've got 1000 investment advisors who know who the company is. And I think it almost comes back to, and not to get too philosophical, but I think in 2023, we're going to see a lot more of the fundamental investors come back, who actually want to know and understand and touch and feel the product or the company that they're investing in. So that's just one example of us trying to think outside the box and find new ways to get in front of that community specifically.

Fasken  

That's awesome. I love that. It's interesting that you that you brought that up, because I was on a panel recently, and somebody was talking about road shows. And one of the things that they said was that they're finding that the reverse-roadshow is really popular right now, that a lot of those whether it's its investors or analysts or whatever, they want to come to your office, or they want to go to your factory or your lab or whatever it is, and like see what it is that they're investing in. And I think it totally makes sense. Maybe it's just people want to travel.

Barry

I really liked that. And I agree and I think the the investor days we see them as this huge production that needs to happen with a ton of planning and great big budgets. And yes, sometimes if you're going to take a group, you know to Europe, for example, know that there's a price tag that comes with that, but now we have this great technology that we've been able to leverage over the last couple of years where we've been able to do virtual investor days, we've had a client that did a site tour and brought investors through the back the back of the lab to give them a behind the scenes tour. There's just so much we can do now really creatively. And you're right, I think people are just tired of sitting behind the screens. 

Fasken  

...As we record this on screens... That's awesome. Thank you. And so the next piece kind of kind of gets into the storytelling side of things. And I mean, I think irLabs does an amazing job of this, both I know, for your clients, but also just just for yourselves, looking at your social media presence and all the work that you do. And, you know, a big part of investor relations, is that storytelling, right? It's how do you position the company? What's the opportunity? How do you communicate that to all these different stakeholders? So in your opinion, what sets or what makes for a compelling story? And what differentiates a compelling story in a bland one? And what can IROs do to improve their storytelling?

Sawamoto  

Yeah, exactly what you said, Mark, like storytelling for Investor Relations is so important. And you want to be able to articulate it in a concise and clear way, you know, the why the what, where, when, and making sure that it's also engaging to the audience, and and it's relevant, and it's timely. And it's something that the investor is looking for, in that messaging, right. And you also want to make it exciting with, you know, graphics or videos, that's, that's a trend that we're seeing these days, because people's engagement level is  you know, very quick these days. So, yeah, I think we do want to make sure that it is very creative and engaging and to the point.

Barry  

And Mark, I think there's an opportunity for the IR professional to brand themselves. And I think there's a bit of a missed opportunity, probably, because we're wearing so many different hats, as I referenced. But one of the things we really want, we think this is the best career, and it's the only job really, that gets like full access to the C suite. You're in the boardroom. You're influencing strategy and direction of a company. And and we're really, we geek out on investor relations all the time. And we're really passionate about it. But I think for the IR professional themselves, there's a really neat opportunity to be that thought leader on LinkedIn and engaged and really share your story of what goes on behind the scenes. We don't need to be too academic we can obviously without breaching our material nonpublic information, obligations, but sharing what's what's going on behind the scenes, what is the day in the life of an IRO look like? And that's what we're trying to disrupt.

Fasken  

I like I like that idea of, of timeliness. For sure. The relevance factor is a big one. One of the questions a kind of a follow up question I had to this is, how often do you find you are revisiting the story, if we want to call it that or sort of revisiting the positioning of one of your clients? Like, is it a weekly? Is a monthly is a quarterly?

Barry  

Yeah, that's, that's a really great question. So I think it's important to regularly evaluate how the message is resonating with your audience. And we actually were just on a call earlier today with with a client who is having a challenge in telling the story to particular VCs and family offices, and we worked through kind of peeling back the layers of maybe let's try this angle instead. But I do think it's really important for across the organization, for the company to have the core 4, 5, 6, whatever it may be a small number of the key pitch points, and even for your board of directors, and for your senior management team, and really everyone across the organization can kind of speak to what the company is all about. I don't think there's enough emphasis on revisiting those points regularly. But we also don't need to reinvent the wheel on a regular occurrence as well. Sometimes we're talking to some of our issuers who are perhaps challenged in breaking into certain audiences or certain strategies aren't working. Sometimes it's the strategy, not the the messaging or maybe we're going to the wrong type of investor. So I think the question is a great one and think it's a little bit complex, and it really depends on a number of different inputs.

Sawamoto  

So just to add I think it's also important to see what milestones you have ahead and making sure that you can kind of foreshadow certain things or, you know, showing investors that you're working towards these goals and, you know, lay lay out the goals in advance, and then, you know, execute as you go along and and announced that right. So, yeah, I think it's important to show those goals and achievements.

Fasken  

Agreed. Yeah. And I, it's actually a theme or trend, if you will, that's come up few times in these podcasts interviews, which is keeping it simple, right, like you start going into all this detail about, let me explain our whole industry and all the competitors and the business... Like, I think sometimes it's like an investor's eyes glaze over. It's like, why it's just too much information. But it's like, to your point, what are those key points that you want them to walk away with? Or it's like, if there were only three things that you're going to take out of this meeting, or make sure that you're driving those home?

Barry  

That's it, who you are, how you're different and how you're going to make investors money, like how you show me, show me the pathway to growth and profitability, it's really that simple.

Fasken  

For everybody that can't see I'm doing the like money rubbing my fingers thing. So, as we talked about, you've done some of the IR stunts you've done, you've done some some great ones over the over the years. What would you say was some of your most memorable work? Like what was one of those projects where you really felt like you, you went above and beyond it was really differentiated?

Barry  

I think the the biggest we get asked this question from time to time. So the biggest achievement for us over the past year, we took public one of the first all-women board and C suite companies based out of Chicago called the Planting Hope Company, and we really were able to come out with a bang. And that was just a really, it's just a really nice opportunity to be a part of something that diverse and groundbreaking for the exchanges in Canada. So that was definitely a key highlight for us in terms of our work over the last year. I don't know, Caroline, if you want to add anything?

Sawamoto  

Yeah, no, I love it was very fun and taking the company public and getting front page Globe and Mail article about the company because it is so groundbreaking. Right? So yeah, and we've done a lot of IR stunts related to multiple clients, for example, we did an virtual investor day where we featured, you know, some clients, and we did giveaways, for example, right now we're doing a 12 Days of  Giveaways for, for the holidays and featuring some of our clients products, you know, we're just trying to put our clients in front of as many eyeballs as possible and in creative ways. So yeah, it's a lot of fun doing it, too. 

Fasken  

That's great. Awesome. We, we recently did a survey with all of our clients. And I guess it actually went beyond clients, it was just sort of a more general one. And one of the top challenges that we heard, especially for smaller mid cap companies go into 2023 was finding some of these creative ways to stand out. You know, we've talked a little bit about sort of like virtual investor days, we've talked a little bit about the giveaways or sort of getting like the tangible product in people's hand. Any other ways that or any other things that IROs can do to sort of cut through the noise?

Barry  

Yeah, this is a another really great question. And I wish we had the magic answer to how to be able to get in front of every investor possible. But one of the things that I think a tactic or tool, if you will, that's not leveraged enough is the thought leadership, the ebooks, the downloadable white papers, there's so many things so many companies are issuers doing in very disruptive industries doing things differently. And to the extent that you can lock those down where you get an email address that you need to enter before you download it and following up. That's, that's one unique way. We've been trying to incorporate some of that with our clients. But haven't seen a ton of that really being leveraged but find a lot of success in it. And one of the things we also do, and this is gonna sound a little archaic, but building relationships, the good old fashioned way, so everyone wants to spend, you know, a lot of money on digital marketing, and hopefully it solves all of our problems and we have all these investors that come and hopefully they're sticky, but some will be and a lot won't be actually getting out there and meeting investors, but nurturing and following up with leads as well. There's so many often we find there's so many names in the database that you've met at conferences, and they showed up to your investor day, and they were part of the investor roadshow two years ago and we consider these warm leads. And often they end up in a database where now they're getting your your news. But being able to actually follow up with that person and say, you know, even a call it a "handwritten email", wanted to share with you, we've had a really successful quarter. Here's a few of the key highlights. Wondering if you're still following the work that we're doing. Let me know if you want to catch up, making sure we spend the time with that TLC. It's a it's extra work. And it's hard. But we think that it's it's worth the effort. Yeah,

Sawamoto  

We've heard from portfolio managers getting a thank you email from the CEO, you know, after the meeting or after the conference call, or even after the raise the financing, they've done and then participated on getting that personalized, thank you email is super helpful.

Fasken  

You, you actually brought up, it's sort of a small thing, but I feel like it does really make a difference on a call that we had the other day, Caroline, which was, you said even having an email that goes out when somebody signs up for your newsletters, that has just a summary of, you know, hey, thanks for subscribing. And here's some information on the company, maybe recent things that have happened, like those little touches. It's almost like thinking about it adds like a customer experience, right? Like everybody who's interacting with your brand. Like, what are those little ways that you can like what the surprise and delight sort of thing? I think that that those are awesome. And I think sometimes you know, people, it's like, you throw up the IR website, and you start doing your press releases, and you put everything on the site and feel like sometimes it can get forgotten a little bit.

Barry  

Well, that's why we leverage Irwin, Mark. You, you meet an investor and they say, you know, what, call me in, in two months after the quarter is over. And then you actually call them in two months, because we put our notification in and log on notes. And there you go. Yeah.

Fasken  

Awesome. So another thing, and we were just talking with this before we started, but you are both extremely organized, and concise, and which made planning this podcast much easier. And so the next thing I want to talk about is the IR plan, because you're going into a lot of these companies, and you're basically building these programs, in some cases from the ground up. And I feel like there's been a fair amount of instances lately where I've heard people asking, what goes into an IR plan, like what are people putting in there? So what are some of the things that you're often adding to the IR plan that you think are really important? Or maybe things that you think get overlooked?

Barry  

I think the the way that we approach investor relations plans with any company, whether we're taking them public, or they're already an existing public issuer, we want to know and really understand who owns us today, and who do we want to have own us? And it's the most simple question, but enough emphasis  is put on this. And I think it's really important for the investor relations professional to have that conversation with the C-suite. And sometimes there can be very, very big debate or have different differing views on on how that shareholder base should look. And I say that because the tactics that we implement, are going to be relying on whatever the response to that is. 

I met a company recently that they have very, very, very strong institutional ownership, and and really not enough retail. They admit, but that was very much by design. They built that shareholder base deliberately for specific reasons that have actually worked extremely well for them. And in terms of the investor relations plan itself, I think, of course, we want to address and work through what are the key objectives and targets and as I are professionals, we're always trying to struggle with how are we proving our value and how do you how do you deliver on that often, you know, liquidity and trading prices are the only two things that you know, often we hear but there's so much other work that we're doing to nurture relationships. And to get other things prepared as well, in terms of the plan itself, other areas that were, you know that you're, there's your typical plan of, you know, conferences and events and different initiatives like that. But adding in some of these extra out of the box activities that we've referenced. So, you know, maybe there's putting the old fashioned marketing hat on, maybe there's a really neat sponsorship opportunity, that will get really great visibility, because there's a lot of investors there, I think that thinking outside the box category is one that we really need to try and incorporate a little bit more, and it's one that we add to our plans for our issuers.

Sawamoto  

 And yeah, just to add to that, I think, in terms of key messages, you know, creating, you know, once you understand, you know, what the company does, and who are the investors? What's the story? What are some of the key milestones coming up, and you want to be able to create that strategic messaging for the company that, you know, we can always look back to, and draw upon whenever we write news releases, or, you know, when we update their corporate deck and making sure those key messages come through, we also look at the competitive landscape of the company, peer analysis, and, you know, look at their competitors, and do a pretty thorough research and analysis on on their peers, their analysts looking at, you know, analysts targets and investor targets. So, yeah, I think that should all be part of your your plan. So you can keep track and make sure that you execute against your plans.

Fasken  

Awesome. Sort of going back to something that Alyssa was saying earlier, which was just this example of his client, who felt that they should have more retail, but retail has been a huge topic over the last year. So a lot of companies that I think are trying to understand how do we engage with our retail audience? How to we better understand who they are? And we hear that a lot from our clients who are pulling NOBO lists and doing a lot of digital marketing. And it's really cool solutions that have that I've cropped up around that? What are some of the ways some of the sort of successful ways you've seen companies engage with that retail audience?

Barry  

Yeah, cracking the retail nut is a really hard one. And we've seen some really great work on the digital marketing side, we're working with a couple of clients right now, where we ourselves are putting together some really great drip campaigns, and getting a lot of really great traction. So what we're finding in those, because we can see the analytics, the call it the retail, the brokers the high net worse, the day traders, they're forwarding this information on to their friends as well. So having a really strong call to action, that and developing content that is, has that little sense of FOMO or excitement around it where you know, you want to send it along to get someone else's thoughts or to say, look, I think there's something here, take a look. So that that's that's one way. And I think leveraging the earned media side of things, really putting in the effort and the time to properly pitch and choose wisely, where you're spending your time and your dollars, there's some really decent pay to play type of newsletters that, I still really do believe newsletters are a bit of a thing of the past. But there's a few out there that call them the legacy publications that are that are really good as well. I think all of that needs to be part of part of the various plan. There's no one tactic, it's really leveraging all of these different tactics and trying trying a bunch of different things. If you're able to get on BNN Bloomberg, God bless you. And that's, that's wonderful. But a lot of these top tier ways of getting earned media also require certain market cap and revenue to be able to achieve. So it's not easy, but we try and get very creative and really try a bunch of different things to see what's going to work best for the client.

Fasken  

The drip campaign just kind of going back to that for a second because I recently spoke to a company who was, I don't know how we got into the topic, but we were talking about their database of newsletter subscribers. I think they said that they had something like 15,000 And when I asked what they were doing with that audience, like they said, nothing really just updating, you know, when we put out a press release, we send the email or if we have any news, we send an email, but it just seemed kind of a standard stuff. So what sort of things would you put in that drip campaign? Is it more product information?Is it company updates? Is it ore of from an investment angle? Or is it all of the above?

Sawamoto  

So there are different ways we do drip campaigns. So for example, one, we would send you the welcome email to the new subscriber and then on. And then after that, we follow up with a personalized email, saying that, hey, if you would like to set up a meeting with us or talk to the management team, please let us know. And then there's also another, you know, campaign that we would encourage people to look at the deck. So we'll set up you know, a nice email talking about the company, the investment highlights, you know, and then we put buttons for people to click on, you know, check out the deck or check out our website. And so there's many different ways where you do drip campaigns. And then once they click, then we know Oh, wow, this person is interested in then we do follow up email asking, Hey, would you like to have a one on one meeting with management team? So yeah, there are different ways. One other drip campaign that we've done is forwarding it to a friend. So you know, here's a little bit information about the company kind of, like tease them a little bit. And, and, and then, again, it's got buttons like forward to a friend. And that also helps with the lead on growing your database. Right? So yeah, lots of different ways.

Barry  

When we have special events, we also put in there, you know, come join, you know, coffee with Mark, and you know, you do, you're there for half an hour to give a bit of an informal investor update. Those are really easy wins in our in our view.

Fasken  

Yeah, I think that's great. And as you both know, like a lot of retail investors feel like they don't get those opportunities, right, they don't get the opportunities to speak to management. So that idea of like a coffee chat or fireside chat or office hours or something like that, I think is is kind of cool. And at the end of the day, when we talk about retail, it's just a lot of work. Right? Like it takes that effort and Caroline to your point of like, sending a personalized thank you and doing that follow up and it just takes time, but I think it bears fruit if you do it. If you do it consistently.

Sawamoto  

Yeah, even with digital Right? Like if you're responding to every Twitter missed-message you want to if you were trying to get engagement, that's how you have to do it, you have to comment on every single message and engage with them, follow them, you know, comment on their post, and so they can follow you back and you know, engage with you. So yeah, it is a lot of work.

Fasken  

I'm just like picturing you having like all of the different clients on your various Twitter accounts, or having like 50 different phones that you're having to manage. All right. Alright, so we're almost up on time. And so my, my final question is, which is sort of ask everyone, which is we've covered a lot of ground, a lot of different things for people to think about in terms of how they can be more creative when it comes to their IR program and sort of marketing program. For somebody who's listening, what would be one or two tips that you'd want them to take away from today's podcast? Caroline?

Sawamoto  

We know markets are tough, and we always encourage all of our clients or anyone we talked to, to be engaged with your current shareholders, and you know, people who are in your community who know of you, your partners, your stakeholders, because you want to be able to keep them engage and nurture those relationships. And because we know it is it is tough markets, but if you nurture relationships, now that you can, you can always develop that and you know, when the time is right for you to raise money, then you know, you can go back to those relationships, right? So just make sure you you nurture those relationships that you have today

Barry  

And I'll throw in something we haven't talked about yet as a one last hurrah. One of the things that I think needs a little bit disruption and we've had some fun with our issuer clients is the earnings call and, the old way of reading a six page script, and we know that everyone just wants to catch the Q&A, they just want to hear what's going on at the end. And there's a lot of them are still done via conference call, where to me I don't, I don't even know how to set up conference calls anymore. Everything is Teams, and Zooms, and all of that. So I think there's a real neat opportunity to make sure that we're incorporating that virtual component to those earnings calls. And the best way to build relationships, not just with investors, but you know, even all of us with friends and, and personally is seeing people face to face and kind of seeing the white in their eyes. And to the extent that you can incorporate that video piece to the earnings call, I think would be really interesting. The reason why a lot of people don't do it is because you can't you don't want to look at someone reading a six page script for half an hour. So my perspective on this is throw away the script every refer to your MDNA and press release that everyone presumably would have taken a peek at and just jump right into answering questions and engaging with your investors. 

Fasken  

I couldn't agree more. I recently have listened to a few of these earnings calls and yes, they can be very scripted and very dry. And I'm sure there's lots of ways to make them more interesting. Awesome. Well, this has been great. Thank you so much for the time. I love following what you're doing at irLabs. I think it's awesome. And hopefully we'll be able to do this again soon.

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About Winning IR

Winning IR is a podcast exploring the diverse insights within the investor relations community. Join host Mark Fasken as he discusses the winning strategies, tactics, and shifts in thinking with innovative investor relations professionals who are redefining the profession.

Each episode features a different challenge, innovation, or perspective on the ever-evolving role of IR, giving you real, actionable insight you’ll be able to use to build a better investor relations program. 

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S1E02 - Winning the Battle for the Boardroom - Navigating the Do's and Don'ts of Proxy Fights with Michael Verrechia, Morrow Sodali

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Winning IR: The Most Frequently Asked Questions About ESG with Victoria Sivrais, Clermont Partners
ESG

S1E01 - The Most Frequently Asked Questions About ESG with Victoria Sivrais, Clermont Partners

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