Marketing Meets Private Equity Business Development
A decade ago, putting up a basic website and issuing a press release after closing a deal was the extent of a typical shop's marketing activities—but no longer.
Marketing has not historically been top of mind for middle-market private equity firms. A decade ago, putting up a basic website and issuing a press release after closing a deal was the extent of a typical shop’s marketing activities. Some firms didn’t even have websites, or if they did, they purposefully didn’t include their contact information on the site. “It was a badge of honor to be elusive,” says Mark Gartner, principal and head of investment development at private equity firm Clearlight Partners.
No longer. Ten years ago, firms didn’t have to market themselves because the competition wasn’t nearly as intense as it is now. “Firms could be reactive, waiting for deals to come to them or to see if they prevailed in the auction process. That’s not the state of the game right now,” Gartner adds.
“It’s the BD role that’s pushing firms to put dollars behind marketing to improve the brand awareness of the firm.”
Founder and Managing Partner, MiddleM Creative
“We’ve seen a complete reversal in how private equity views marketing,” agrees Jordan Selleck, CEO and co-founder of 51 Labs, a marketing agency for the lower middle market. As capital, operations and many of the other levers that private equity previously relied upon to source and close deals have become commoditized, digital marketing has emerged as a powerful differentiator. Selleck estimates that fewer than 5% of lower middle-market funded sponsors have even the basics of digital marketing, like regular LinkedIn and video content, a polished website and email marketing campaigns. Even if the numbers are slightly higher for middle-market firms, which may have more resources and be earlier adopters, there’s still a huge opportunity for firms to enter the space and get ahead.
THE EVOLVING BD ROLE
Business development professionals are by and large the ones driving the push toward marketing— and those who aren’t adapting run the risk of being left behind.
The rise of the dedicated business development professional is itself a response to the hyper-competitive private equity market. There is currently more than $750 billion in dry powder available to buyout funds, according to a 2021 Ernst & Young report. “Every year there are more dollars raised and more private equity groups in the market,” says April Simile, business development partner at private equity firm Incline Equity.
As the market has become both more competitive and more fragmented, BD professionals play a crucial role in maintaining relationships with intermediaries, keeping firms top of mind, and managing the influx of data available in a digital deal environment. A 2019 poll by Navatar reported that 4 out of 5 private equity firms were considering hiring a dedicated business development director, while half already had one in place.
Now that the lion’s share of firms have siloed BD as a separate function, the responsibilities of the business development professional are expanding. Intermediary outreach has traditionally been the bread and butter of middle-market private equity business development—a way to develop personal relationships and nab proprietary deal flow. But this strategy has become standard practice, so firms are looking for new ways to gain an edge. “Marketing provides private equity firms the opportunity to communicate more frequently and efficiently to a crowded, fragmented and geographically dispersed set of audiences,” including intermediaries, business owners, and potential or current limited partners, says Simile.
Rich Grant, who joined private equity firm Northlane Capital Partners in February as the firm’s first dedicated business development hire, says that marketing is a core part of his responsibilities. “Marketing definitely falls under the business development umbrella at our firm. It’s a never-ending process to connect with the market in the industries and sectors we’re focused in.”
The expansion of the business development role has made clear that the way firms are thinking about marketing is changing rapidly. “It’s the BD role that’s pushing firms to put dollars behind marketing to improve the brand awareness of the firm and ensure they are represented appropriately in media and creating personal relationships through digital marketing,” says Joanne Verkuilen, founder and managing partner of MiddleM Creative, a business development and marketing agency for the middle market.
“Marketing provides private equity firms the opportunity to communicate more frequently and efficiently to a crowded, fragmented and geographically dispersed set of audiences.”
Business Development PartnerIncline Equity
The coronavirus outbreak has only intensified this shift, as in-person events and intermediary strategies premised on regular travel became impossible early in the crisis. “COVID changed the way private equity looked at digital marketing,” says 51 Labs’ Selleck. While private equity is and will always be a relationship business, travel bans gave many firms a much-needed push to experiment with developing these relationships via marketing strategies rather than relying strictly on in-person meetings and events.
“PE firms now have to be media companies. You can’t get away with just the old-school BD strategies anymore,” says Selleck.
The expansion of the BD role means that many firms are looking for new skillsets when hiring. “Anyone who wants to get into private equity business development would benefit from having some type of marketing exposure,” says Simile, though the necessary level of expertise varies depending on the target role and the maturity of the firm’s marketing strategy. “For a head of BD, where you’re coming in to start an effort, a strong marketing skill set is a requirement. At a firm with a more mature platform, that skillset is additive and there’s an opportunity to teach and grow.”
Believing in the value of marketing is one thing. Conceiving and executing an effective marketing strategy that will truly differentiate a firm is another.
“What works in our industry is authenticity. But authenticity is very hard to communicate through a company brand,” says Selleck. Company branding—touting a firm’s experience, closed deals and industry connections—is where private equity firms have traditionally focused their marketing efforts. Focusing instead on individual partner branding is how firms can distinguish themselves from others in the field.
When Simile joined Incline to head up business development, the firm was focused on traditional marketing strategies like printed collateral, non-interactive websites and general public relations initiatives. “It’s very difficult in these mediums to truly engage with your audience,” Simile says. Under her leadership, Incline has built out a video-focused content strategy that “gives us an edge and gets people to remember us. We have a story to tell that transcends the attributes of our investment criteria— everybody has those. Of course, our investment strategy drives our success, but we get at that by talking about who we are, what we’re passionate about, how we’ve supported our companies, and how we’ve had fun along the way.”
“What works in our industry is authenticity. But authenticity is very hard to communicate through a company brand.”
CEO and Co-founder, 51 Labs
Incline’s videos—ranging from case studies from portfolio companies to quarterly news wraps to Christmas videos featuring partners in themed pajamas—help business owners, intermediaries and potential limited partners get a better sense of the team members’ ethos, and by proxy, that of the firm. Incline measures the return on investment of their videos and other marketing efforts not only based on traditional quantitative metrics (like website traffic, time on page, social media reach and engagement, email campaign conversions and more), but also on qualitative, anecdotal feedback from bankers, management team members and others in their orbit.
“It’s 2021,” says 51 Labs’ Selleck. “PE not having video is like someone still using an AOL account. Video has emerged as one of the most effective tools for conveying trust.”
Long-form content can serve a similar purpose. “The key is to produce content that’s actually useful to your audience, not just more about your criteria,” says Clearlight’s Gartner. “If you can think of one person who you want to respond to your piece, write it for that person. You’ll find that there are more of those people out there than you think, and they’ll respond to it.”
Focusing on the tenets of good storytelling, staying away from “hyper-sanitized or inauthentic corporate speak,” adapting posts to your audience’s limited attention spans (e.g., with bullet points and headers), and emphasizing quality over quantity are some of Gartner’s top tips for building out an effective content library.
“LINKEDIN WILL NEVER BE THIS GOOD AGAIN”
There are numerous ways to distribute content both online and off—direct mail, websites, email campaigns, paid bylines, social media and more. But right now, LinkedIn provides the most powerful opportunity for deal-makers. “LinkedIn will never be this good again,” says 51 Labs’ Selleck. “Those who get in early will reap the benefits down the road.”
Selleck says 9 out of 10 private equity professionals he speaks with are reluctant to post on LinkedIn. According to an internal 51 Labs study of 335 private equity partners conducted in 2020, 77% had never posted on LinkedIn and 88% either had never posted or have done so rarely. “Where others are reluctant is exactly where the opportunity is. Partners don’t post on LinkedIn, but they check it daily. LinkedIn is like Facebook was in 2010. There’s a huge deficiency of content. That’s why our clients can get ten, twenty, even thirty-thousand views on a single post,” says Selleck.
The most effective posts tend to be those that transcend simple closed deal announcements or job openings. Ryan Grand, principal of deal origination at private equity firm HKW, got 75,000 views on a LinkedIn post all about how, as an introvert, he never expected to survive in the deal-sourcing world. Dan Lee, partner at investment firm Comvest Credit Partners, got 40,000 views after posting about a time his partners said he “wasn’t cutting it as a manager.” This type of personal vulnerability is not necessarily what audiences expect from private equity partners, but it clearly resonates.
“LinkedIn has become a platform for self-promotion,” says Clearlight’s Gartner. “It’s all selfies and promotion announcements—a narcissistic beast that keeps getting fed. My philosophy is to be the show, don’t be the commercial. If you can do that, you can really stand out.”
It’s a philosophy that’s applicable not only to LinkedIn, but to all marketing efforts—something today’s business development professionals should take to heart.
Meghan Daniels is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn.