The strategies underlying acquisition activity have been shifting markedly in the past few years, as documented in a new report from Accenture Strategy.

Traditionally, the primary motivations for acquisitions have been direct opportunities to drive market synergies or expansion. Companies bought others that were similar to themselves, had complementary product lines, or did business in complementary geographies.

Today companies are still focused on acquiring for growth, but many are doing so less directly, Accenture’s research indicates. The choice of acquisition targets is often based to a significant degree on their technological prowess, with the expectation that bringing in new digital capabilities will in turn foster growth.

In the consulting firm’s survey of 1,100 C-level executives in seven countries, 84% of respondents said their company had made at least one acquisition in the prior two years. Among the acquirers, nearly a third (30%) described themselves as “traditional companies acquiring digital companies or assets,” Accenture said in its survey report.

And the greater the zeal for acquisitions, the more likely that digital strategies are behind them. Among companies that acquired five or more businesses in the prior two years, 64% reported that at least half of the deals were related to the addition of digital capabilities.

“It’s not that companies are no longer acquiring for the traditional business reasons — those deals will always have a place in M&A,” Accenture’s report says. “It’s just that digital needs are fast rivaling [the traditional motivations].”

Asked what factors are typically triggering M&A events these days, 43% of survey participants cited “acquire new digital capabilities” and 42% cited “need for next-generation technology.” Virtually the same share of respondents pointed to “expand into new geographical markets” (42%), “expand into new industries” (42%), and “expand within the same industry” (40%).

However, Accenture stresses, it’s not enough to merely acquire digital savvy. To maximize an acquisition’s value, companies must spread that know-how across the broader organization.

About two-thirds of the survey participants whose companies have already acquired a digital business have kept it as a stand-alone organization. There’s a good rationale for that, Accenture acknowledges: “Harvesting the digital and cultural DNA of agile upstarts without making them conform to the legacy culture is of value.”

However, that strategy may need to be rethought as a company continues to acquire such businesses, according to Accenture. “Stringing them together to create a new capability and meld the best of all cultures could create a competitive advantage,” the firm says.

Technology is also changing the nature of pre-deal due diligence and post-deal integration. More than half (58%) of the survey respondents said analytics and artificial intelligence tools are increasingly allowing deal analysts to sort through vast amounts of data, from financials to company communications to social media and customer sentiment. That enables faster identification of targets and quicker value-capture following a deal.

If companies don’t have the in-house expertise to use such tools effectively, they bring it in from outside, the report notes.

Further, many companies are seeing “digital deals” as so different from traditional ones that they require an entirely different approach. Three in five (61%) of respondents said their companies use different pre-deal and evaluation criteria when targeting such deals. More than half (56%) of them employ different valuation and cost models, and 49% use a different M&A playbook.

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