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Account-based marketing (ABM) is not a new concept in the B2B marketing sphere. But like many buzzwords and emerging marketing technology categories, interest has been heating up globally as marketers look for ways to better target messages and content to customers, while supporting sales teams to close ever-more complex deals.
In its State of Account-based Marketing Study in 2015, research firm, SiriusDecisions, found 92 per cent of B2B organisations saw ABM is extremely or very important to their marketing initiatives. And while only 20 per cent had full programs in place for at least a year, 60 per cent planned to invest in technology to help drive ABM in their organisation in the next 12 months and 52 per cent had pilot programs in place.
Here, we look at the concept of ABM, what makes it distinct from other B2B demand generation activities, and how to work out whether this resource-heavy, data-driven and labour intensive approach to marketing is worth it for your organisation.
What ABM is all about
In its most straightforward form, account-based marketing is about treating an individual client account as a market in its own right. It’s about adopting a strategic approach that coordinates personalised marketing and sales efforts to deepen engagement within a specific account.
ISTMA pioneered the concept more than 15 years ago, and director, Bev Burgess, says the first gained traction in large consulting firms, such as Accenture, who applied the end-to-end marketing framework to individual accounts.
“The difference with ABM is you use the end-to-end process just for one account,” she says. “Think about the size of these accounts: They can be bigger than some countries. It makes sense to put a marketer on one or more of these enormous accounts.”
Since then, ABM has gained nuance and Burgess agrees there’s lots of hype. “As people tried to scale the program, they’ve slightly diluted it,” she claims. “At the same time, technology has come along to help personalise at scale. A more clustered approach is being called ‘ABM light’, but marketers are also using the term for targeting advertising, where you might have 500 accounts, and through digital tools, you target your messages at them.
“For me, the clue is in the name. If it’s not dedicated to one account, it’s not ABM.”
Burgess also distinguishes ABM from traditional bid marketing, where marketing assisted their organisations to look good for a specific opportunity or tender on the table. “ABM is a strategic, long-term campaign – it goes beyond one year and is not linked to one specific opportunity or bid,” she says.
Demandbase CMO, Peter Isaacson, positions ABM as a growing B2B strategy that sees sales and marketing efforts finally better aligned. Demandbase offers an ABM platform solution based on proprietary IP technology that helps identify and target strategic accounts.
“The best part of ABM is that it doesn’t just address one or two of your challenges but solves for the challenges across the entire customer journey,” he says. “This helps bridge the gap between sales and marketing so the two teams can focus on accounts rather than individuals. This is key since, there’s an average of 5.4 decision makers involved in each B2B sale.”
SiriusDecisions has a clever three-letter acronym for ABM: Retain, Acquire and Develop (RAD). The research firm sees ABM as a shift from general, market-based approaches, where sales and marketing team share little account data and insights, to account and contact-specific marketing, where sales and marketing collaborate on account needs.
“We often hear…sales would like more specific support for the key accounts where they expect growth to come from,” SiriusDecisions service director, Matt Senatore, comments. “It’s important for B2B marketers to align their focus and resources to where they expect the growth to come from. If there is significant opportunity in growing enterprise accounts, for example, marketing needs to be doing more than just trying to fill the funnel with ‘leads’.”
What ABM is ultimately about is moving to a customer-centric approach to marketing, Senatore says. “When done right, it also helps buyers navigate through a complex selling process more efficiently, as well as ensuring they get the most out of the relationship, fostering retention and advocacy,” he says.
Why ABM is gaining traction now
So if it’s a 15-year-old concept, why has ABM become increasingly palatable to B2B marketers globally in the last year or two? Isaacson puts it down to the automation of marketing functions, the plethora of publicly available data on customers and market trends through digitisation, and the ability for B2B marketers to implement ABM across the funnel, interest is rising exponentially.
“Innovations in marketing technologies make it possible for B2B marketers to implement ABM across the funnel,” he says. “They can leverage existing marketing programs more effectively, so content is tailored to the target accounts, and help prospects convert to customers.”
Burgess believes the changing marketing technology landscape is giving ABM a leg-up. Up until 18 months ago, automation technologies, such as Marketo and Eloqua, could help with digital marketing to massive audiences and support lead nurturing, scoring and targeted marketing at scale, she points out. What they didn’t do is provide a clear view of the array of people in a single account.
It was when ex-Marketo founder, Jon Miller, launched Engagio as a technology platform to bridge the account gap between sales and marketing automation that Silicon Valley investors started paying attention and investing. Today, a number of vendors focus on the ABM space, such as Demandbase and Terminus, and they’ve received millions in funding to build out their platforms.
That’s just the campaigns side. Burgess sees significant movement on the insight and intelligence front, too. “You have companies like Agent3, which you tell about the companies you’re interested in, and which does all the social listening for you and hooks onto any keywords you are interested in,” she says.
It’s also worth pointing out the symbiotic relationship between marketing automation and account-based marketing tools.
“ABM complements marketing automation by ensuring marketing campaigns are personalised for each account and the delivery of relevant materials, such as emails or other marketing collateral, are instantaneous,” Isaacson says. “It leverages data gathered by CRM systems, and allows companies to plan, implement, measure and optimise campaigns across the funnel more efficiently.”
Technology-led innovation around ABM is helping evangelise the term, Senatore agrees. But he warned against treating ABM like a platform. “It’s important to note ABM is a strategic approach, and not just a tech-install or tech-led tactic,” he says.
Burgess also sees the rise of line-of-business technology buyers fuelling ABM’s take-up.
“The people spending money on IT are increasingly lines of business, and companies we work with, like IBM and Microsoft, are much more interested in talking to buyers outside of the IT function but haven’t had those relationships,” she says. “A more focused approach to those accounts was needed.”
ABM in action globally
As an example of one client using ABM successfully, Isaacson pointed to Atmel Corporation, a manufacturer of semiconductors and microcontrollers. In looking to drive engagement among vertical-speciﬁc accounts, its marketing team piloted the Demandbase Website Personalisation solution, based on the vendor’s IP identiﬁcation technology.
According to Isaacson, Atmel served up a unique Web experience for each of its 200 target companies, customising the homepage experience, messaging and content each saw.
“The pilot was very successful, hitting triple digits in website engagement and 2X the industry benchmark for conversion, which Atmel deﬁnes as any interaction with messages on their site and gated content accessed by form ﬁlls,” he said. “In fact, Atmel was able to boost the number of sample devices ordered by 34 per cent, one of its key predictors of opportunity generation.”
SiriusDecisions’ client, SAP, another ABM convert, saw increased customer engagement and improved relationships with sales thanks to ABM, leading to an overall positive impact in key categories. Results included 1200 new contacts, $227 million in touched opportunity, $57m generated in marketing progressed pipeline, and 49 new opportunities worth $27m.
“We’ve seen everything from revenue growth to new boardroom relationships and more senior level relationships, and reputation shifting to a real trusted advisor to the business,” Burgess says of ABM’s impact.
A numbers and metrics game
Yet it’s the challenges around measuring ABM that can it a hard sell for marketers to the rest of the organisation. One of the big things marketers have to recognise about ABM is that it requires a complete shift away from traditional metrics, such as clickthrough rate, to a focus on metrics like pipeline and close rates, Isaacson says.
What all industry commentators agree on is that the ultimate success of ABM comes down to a strong and collaborative relationship not only with the sales team, but also operations and anyone with ownership of key data assets.
It also requires organisations to move away from traditional mindsets of quarterly sales targets and ROI by campaign, and see the longer-term game.
Burgess uses three areas of metrics to understanding ABM known as the ‘3Rs’: Improving relationships, driving reputation, leads to more revenue.
“This is not a campaign approach – this is a 1-2 year approach into an account,” Burgess stresses. “If you put all that effort in for six months then swap your focus, those accounts are going to notice your marketing is slipping.”
One way Fujitsu has addressed this issue is by specifying a transfer window, where teams can swap out up to 5 per cent of accounts each year, Burgess says.
As ABM is about quality, metrics used to verify its impact need to reflect this longer-term game, Thomas says.
“You shouldn’t have an ABM strategy, you should have a marketing strategy that incorporates ABM,” he adds. “There’s no reason why you can’t do both. We have big accounts where we know we can go in and have champions in those companies; we’re also publishing ebooks, sponsoring Twitter posts and webinars. You can add ABM into the mix.”
Data’s impact and significance
Like most elements of marketing today, data is both an inhibitor and an enabler of customer success for ABM. According to Leadscape senior director of inbound marketing, David Thomas, the big challenge marketers must overcome around ABM is one of data hygiene.
Leadspace offers a predictive analytics platform for B2B demand and lead generation and is positioning itself as an enabler of ABM. The vendor works with 120 companies including major software vendors such as Microsoft and Adobe and is the data quality engine integrated into Engagio’s ABM platform.
“The place where ABM – and most marketing – falls apart is that data,” Thomas claims. “It’s about being able to access reliable data to connect individuals to their companies. You can’t have ABM if you can’t connect and reach people in these accounts.”
Leadspace’s approach is to provide leads to account matching using a combination of data and predictive analytics to understand how organisations might be listed or categories.
In one data consolidation exercise with a telco client, a huge increase in conversions and tens of millions of additional pipeline was generated, Thomas says. “It also saved them $1.8 million per year in data costs.”
Burgess points to the plethora of data and market research available to marketers via public sources online, as well as through social listening and behavioural insights. All of this can be used to craft insights about targeted accounts and individuals.
“You need to know how that account is performing, issues, industry trends, macroeconomics impacting that organisation, what is happening to the account, what its strategy is and what it’s trying to achieve,” she says. “Then you need to understand who is in that account and profile them. You need to know who is relevant for you, how they make decisions and their background, who do you and they know and who influences them. It’s a lot of insight and data upfront to craft the right plan for the account.
“The other thing is you must keep capturing that data - there’s a second raft of data around how they respond when you engage using your marketing programs. It’s about ongoing data collection.”
Resourcing and skillset
While there is some discrepancy around how companies tackle ABM, what is clear is that resourcing and skills make it a labour-intensive exercise, even with the automated technologies now on the market. Burgess says some organisations have tweaked how ABM is approached in order to get it off the ground.
“What we have seen people do is make ABM part of everyone’s job. So the retail marketer takes the lead on retail accounts, for example, but everyone has one account they keep an eye on,” she says, pointing to one ITSMA client, Fujitsu, as an example of a brand that’s taken this approach.
Burgess also describes ABM as being “the CMO of one account”.
“It’s a good training ground for marketers who want to be CMOs, as it gets you right across the marketing process. You have to do insight and research, come up with compelling value propositions, have the right strategy to position yourself in an account and the main opportunities you’re going to go after, then build marketing programs that integrates with sales and delivery - it’s the whole end-to-end marketing process,” she says. “Many marketers don’t have that.
“On top of that, you need commercial acumen, and be able to challenge senior account managers if you think they’ve missed something or are not taking something into an account, or there’s a particular innovation approach you want to take when they’re after a newsletter. So there is a unique skillset for this and people are finding it hard to recruit them. Within 2-3 years, sadly many burn out.”
The other issue Burgess highlighted is marketers trying to do ABM in isolation.
“If you aren’t doing it as a business initiative, they won’t get funding, or buy-in of the sales team, and effectively they’ll just be doing marketing in a cupboard,” she says. “You always have to do this as a business initiative with sales leaders on board.”
Checklist: How to do ABM
Based on the vendors and industry experts CMO spoke to, here are a number of dos and don’ts when it comes to building out an ABM strategy:
Make sure it’s the right strategy for your organisation: There is lot of hype around ABM right now, much of from people wanting to sell technology, Burgess warns. So you need to make sure it’s the right technique for your organisation. “The big thing is to sit down with your business, and see if it’s even right as a strategy,” she advises. “It has to be worth it in terms of deals, otherwise question it. You may be better just doing very good targeted marketing.”
Put dedicated focus and effort onto ABM: Successful ABM programs are no accident, they require dedicated focus and effort, SiriusDecisions points out. The analyst firm identifies three steps necessary to get ABM off the ground: Commitment, in terms of ABM leadership and dedicated, interlocked teams; Execution, or a structured approach and excellent communication; and Results, or a clear understanding of what success looks like, and the systems in place to measure and share results.
Take a staged approach: Isaacson suggested a staged approach, starting with ABM from a high-level perspective. “Broadly, you can identify companies you’d like to see convert into customers or go granular and focus your efforts on understanding the common attributes your customers share,” he says.
“Once you understand the key fundamentals of ABM across the funnel, getting started, making progress, and measuring results become more accessible — and a gateway to broader, more successful ABM programs. Although there are a number of touch points across the funnel where ABM will play a big part, before you can execute on these things, you need a plan to identify, market and measure your target account list.”
Build programs that focus on accounts and move them through the funnel: Once a list of target accounts is established, Isaacson advises building marketing programs that focus on accounts and moving them through the funnel. “You’re likely already doing persona-based marketing, so you’re familiar with the idea of tailoring your demand gen and outbound marketing to a particular group,” he said. “When you’re targeting multiple stakeholders at an account, you need to rethink the way you approach each individual stage of the funnel. Marketers need to abandon the idea that they should reach as many people as possible.”
Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to content: Marketers engaging in ABM need content that speaks to the companies on their list and then serve it to them automatically. Burgess points to an example taken by one of ITSMA’s clients to win business with the BBC, by helping the broadcaster reduce the amount of total licencing fees spent on back office functions from 12p to 9p for every pound. “To the finance function, it shared content about driving efficiencies specifically across the financial function,” Burgess says. “It’s really about the context of the person and account you’re targeting. If you were just doing targeted advertising, you’d provide media pictures and content focused on issues facing media companies today, but it won’t be as tight in terms of understanding their context. ABM leads to a whole new level of content.”
Measure your results correctly: Much like the customer lifecycle represents a continuous circle, so too does ABM marketing, Isaacson says. This makes results analysis and action vital for ongoing success. “Your data will impact decisions – including iterations and tweaks to both your outbound efforts and content,” he says. “You need an account-based view of site traffic, engagement and conversion rates and the ability to connect siloed datasets across the funnel. As you do this, you demonstrate that ABM is more than a best-practice for the marketing team, it’s foundational principle that should impact operations across your organisation.”
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