While I've Got You...

Say the phrase 'proprietary deal flow' to most people in the private equity market, and you're likely to get a smirk, a raised eyebrow or maybe a wistful look that says, 'Wouldn't that be nice?' A smaller contingent-exclusively PE sponsors-will tell you about their unique deal-sourcing strategy that has afforded them spectacular opportunities, despite their strategic avoidance of any deals in which the seller's advisor is driving the process.

To be sure, not everyone's definition of proprietary deal flow is the same. Even in a standard auction, many PE firms believe having a prior relationship with the seller can influence their chances. That helps to explain why Trivest Partners' Jamie Elias said during Mergers & Acquisitions' April roundtable on private equity that his firm has a team of people contacting companies who may be looking to exit.

Trivest isn't alone. Some firms have telemarketers who spend all day cold-calling thousands of companies. Other funds are on the road constantly, attending trade events in targeted industries.

But despite these efforts, what's interesting to me is how little the PE community has done in order to drive potential sellers to its websites. Many of them have aesthetically pleasing websites with modern home pages, but too few of them appear to have architected or outfitted the house so the content is optimized for search engines. Sites have few entry points; the content is stale, typically updated only when a new deal is announced; and for the overwhelming majority of firms, there is no call to action on the site, outside of the passive 'contact us.' I'm equally surprised at how few PE sponsors-and their investment banking brethren, for that matter-leverage paid search-engine marketing.

Perhaps it's too much to expect a thinly-staffed PE firm to spend a lot of time and money on website architecture, or populate the site with timely content. But in 2012, when improving market conditions are prompting more and more boomer entrepreneurs to divest their businesses, the importance of a financial sponsor's online presence can't be overstated.

An increasing number of our clients understand this and are using their websites to build engagement. Visit Oracle's home page, and you'll see multiple calls to action, with phrases like "Learn. Watch. Join." Most of those links take you to a registration page for something informative that Oracle is hosting. Oracle gets your demographics, finds out what you're interested in and can send alerts. If Oracle seems like an unfair comparison, consider Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. LP, which now offers blogs, video, email alerts and RSS feeds.

Let me give you a real-life application. A 60-year-old founder of a chemicals company decides to exit his business. He decides he'll contact a few private equity firms to see how they would value his business, so his first move is to jump online. He goes to Google, inputs "private equity" and some terms from his industry and finds two private equity firm websites at the top of the search results. The first takes him to a nice-looking site with a list of the firm's recent investments. He does some quick research and concludes (wrongly) that his company is too small, relative to those companies. He decides not to contact this firm.

The second site features a white paper on recent trends in the chemical industry that looks interesting, as well as an RSS feed with updates from the firm. He registers for the white paper, answers a couple of specific questions on the form, and the next day gets a call from one of the general partners. They connect on LinkedIn and agree to talk in six months-all because the website had relevant content and a proper conversion architecture.

The private equity market has always been about relationships. Those who understand how to create relationships on their websites will be in the best position to succeed. And who knows? It might even lead to a proprietary deal.

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