Middle-market dealmakers have been slow to warm up to general-purpose social networks, but in recent years, deal professionals have been drawn toward more specialized online communities catering to their needs. One of the more successful social networks aimed at middle-market dealmakers is Axial Networks Inc., a New York startup founded in 2010 and backed by venture capital firms, including Redpoint Ventures and First Round Capital. In August, Axial raised an $11 million Series B round of venture capital, led by Comcast Ventures. Billing its service as "a network of relationships, a marketplace of transactions," Axial boasts 17,000 members, including M&A advisers, investment bankers, private equity investors, lenders and family offices. The specialized social network partnered recently with virtual data-room provider Merrill Datasite, enabling M&A practitioners to move from deal sourcing and business development activities to deal workflow management. We turned to Sam Jacobs, Axial's senior vice president of sales and business development, to learn about today's best practices in social media for deal professionals. (See "12 Dealmakers You Should Follow on Twitter")
Why do many middle-market dealmakers shy away from social media?
It's true that many dealmakers are hesitant to embrace social media fully. The advantages are not always straightforward, while the risks are more apparent. The biggest hindrance we see is concern for reputation and a reticence toward building relationships in less formal ways. A long tradition of meeting prospects at conferences or advancing deal conversations on the golf course leaves some dealmakers wary of starting conversations online.
What are the benefits of social media for middle-market dealmakers?
Successful deal professionals are characterized by the breadth and depth of their relationships. Broadly, social media and online networks have changed the way people meet, interact, communicate, evaluate and transact. Filtering information to engage in more meaningful conversations and multiplying that effort can be powerful for dealmakers with little time and lots to accomplish.
In using social media to expand one's professional network exponentially, dealmakers can enhance business development and deal sourcing efforts. As more and more of their "customers" and counterparties move online, reaching audiences in this way will eventually be ubiquitous. Today, however, deal professionals who use social mediums can realize a competitive advantage.
Give us three tips that middle-market dealmakers can use to leverage social media.
1. Answer the question: Where do my audience and influencers congregate? Who is most important for me to connect with, and where can I find them quickly and efficiently? Use the platforms where these people gather so your efforts have as much leverage as possible.
2. Be a specialist. Specialization is an increasing trend in the deal community. The best way to stand out on social media is to document and establish specific expertise in categories such as industry or geography to make you more searchable and reputable based on your key areas of focus.
3. Be proactive. Many deal professionals use social media to listen and follow, versus share and contribute. By actively engaging, you're more likely to uncover the relationship that leads to your next deal.
What are some of the mistakes you see dealmakers commit with social media?
Doing the opposite of No. 3, above. You get out of social media what you put into it. Dealmakers should treat social channels as a way to offer up advice and expertise, focusing on contributing their insights and education rather than self-promotion. Establishing a voice and presence within your relevant communities will help to build your reputation, make you more searchable and eventually realize return on your social investment.
Not counting Axial, what social networking platforms and tools should middle-market dealmakers take advantage of?
Of traditional mediums, we see LinkedIn and Twitter as most useful to deal professionals. Lately, we've seen a number of platforms crop up aimed specifically at the investment and advisory communities that are directly applicable to the profession's day-to-day work. Examples include Gerson Lehrman Group, a network connecting deal professionals with industry experts, or Loopnet, a commercial real estate listing service. There are a number of early-stage crowdfunding platforms for dealmakers that have that flexibility -- Angelist and Kickstarter are two that come to mind. Some offline membership associations, such as the Association for Corporate Growth and the Small Business Investor Alliance, also have online networking components.
Why should middle-market dealmakers consider specialized social networks, such as Axial?
Platforms like LinkedIn are amazing, but supplementing that with usage of vertical networks that are optimized for your specific workflows and whose membership is pre-qualified ensures you're connecting with like-minded peers and increases the likelihood that you'll achieve a successful outcome. Axial is focused on being at the start of every private market transaction, connecting investors, buyers, advisers and bankers not only to each other, but to CEOs of private small and mid-sized businesses to discover deals. Members of Axial increase their productivity, close more deals and grow their revenues. So the obvious answer is that adopters of specialized social networks, when used in the right way, are driving powerful return on investment and creating massive commercial opportunity.