Is ABM really a better mousetrap?
Account-based marketing (ABM) is being positioned as the next great breakthrough, but can it actually help your business? Columnist John Steinert explores the ways successful marketers are using ABM to enhance sales and marketing.
Almost every day, it seems like a new marketing software or services vendor pops up positioning itself as “The ABM Company.” But riddle me this: When you examine these account-based marketing vendors closely, why is it they all seem to do something different? If Account-based Marketing (ABM) is a particular marketing technique, shouldn’t it be, basically, the same thing for everyone?
The truth is, just as the word “marketing” can be used to mean anything from product strategy to brand-building to sales enablement, ABM is an umbrella term comprising a host of possibilities that share one important characteristic: they shift the marketing unit of attention from individuals to the companies these contacts play a role in.
So, if you are doing ABM but finding it to be tough sledding, or if you have been hesitant to try because a vendor’s offering didn’t make sense in your situation, it’s time have another look at the concept. Why? Because you can drive real value for your business with an ABM approach that’s right for you.
Think before you promise
One of the biggest challenges for today’s marketers is grappling with the breadth of assignments and activities we all take on. Adding ABM into the mix can easily turn it into just one more task we have to get done to placate some special constituency. The first thing that distinguishes successful ABM marketers from those struggling with it begins with this:
Successful ABM practitioners don’t jump into a program without significant preparation beforehand.
And part of your ABM planning should include a close examination of what you already do well. Rather than try to use ABM as a new remedy for an area of weakness, you will see greater success when ABM is applied as an enhancement to something that’s already working well for you.
The reason for this should be obvious. It starts from the organizational differences between most marketing departments and sales.
Most marketing departments are constructed to support one-to-many processes. By this I mean that they are a relatively small team that creates a relatively small set of materials and distributes them to large numbers of targets.
Contrast this with mature sales organizations. Their team is relatively large in total number, and they are primarily focused on turning a smaller number of leads into opportunities and then working those opportunities into deals. It’s a one-to-few process.
(For this discussion, I’m setting aside the exceptional case of certain early-stage growth companies that may in fact build out an ABM structure with relatively balanced numbers of marketers and sales professionals out of the gate.)
Reflect before you commit
Because ABM has the word “account” in its name, there’s a real risk that when you start promoting an ABM-related idea within your company, it will sound very familiar to your sales colleagues. After all, many sales organizations already think of their world in terms of accounts. But linking your ABM program to an existing account concept before you can really deliver is a misstep you will want to carefully avoid.
If, like most of us, you are in a one-to-many marketing organization, it’s unlikely that you will be able to resource a significant new commitment to a relatively small set of accounts. For many marketing teams, the resourcing issue alone is reason enough to avoid creating ABM as a net-new approach with a whole new set of promises to keep.
Instead, successful ABMers are using it in one of two basic, but very different forms. They approach ABM either as an enrichment of an area where they are already pretty good (overlay approach), or they are looking to contribute significant new impact in an exceptionally well-defined and limited area (marketing value-add approach).
ABM as an overlay
The Overlay approach begins from an area of existing strength. One example of this would be to layer on account-based segmentation over already successful demand generation capabilities, then work intently to drive better conversion rates across the funnel for these specific accounts. The promised improvement of ROI here comes from a relatively minor increase in content quality that then delivers disproportionate performance gains from the targeted accounts.
Before the tactical implementation can begin, though, success with this methodology depends very much on the establishment of a strong partnership between executional marketing and upstream players in product/solution marketing or product management. To improve conversion rates from any specially identified group — any ABM segment — you’ll need to work hard to make your content better than ever. That’s right — just like any new strategic approach, ABM cannot simply be about doing more of the same. To succeed, something needs to change.
You’ll want to focus on content quality because that’s the most powerful variable you are able to directly impact. And to accomplish this change, you’re going to need help. To make better content — content that’s more useful to your prospects as they travel their buyer’s journeys — you will need better inputs than you’ve ever had before. So, it’s those tasked with really knowing the market and the prospects who should be your closest collaboration partners.
If neither you nor your upstream partners have the necessary inputs for creating better content, you’ll need to build that requirement into your must-have list before you commit to ABM. This is a remarkably common challenge and a common point of failure, so don’t try to implement without solving it.
Moving successfully from contact-based demand gen to an account-based marketing strategy requires real insight into what is going on in prospect companies at the account level; otherwise, it simply turns into demand gen with a smaller list.
ABM as marketing value-add
Different from the Overlay approach to ABM, instead of creating partnerships with upstream teams, the Marketing Value Add (MVA) model looks downstream for ways that marketing can add specific value to the efforts sales is already pursuing. The key here is to make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you intend to try to directly impact inside sales or (even harder) field sales, be very sure that you can deliver.
But, as in the upstream example, success with this approach depends a lot on your ability to partner with colleagues in a different area of your organization. To partner successfully, you will need to understand their processes and figure out where you can truly add value that’s tangible to them.
Adding value by addressing gaps in sales territory coverage
Faced with the challenge of covering markets that are dispersed over large geographies, most enterprise tech companies deploy a variety of go-to-market strategies to more effectively cover large numbers of potential accounts with widely varying success.
Whether your company relies primarily on direct selling, using some combination of inside and field sales, or you deploy via an indirect sales channel through different partners, the challenge of geographic coverage remains very real.
At the same time your demand generation efforts are covering the market searching for leads, your sales resources are out prospecting for business as well. They are usually assigned to a territory or an industry, and they’re tasked with finding or creating opportunities within it. Too often, salespeople spend a great deal of time probing accounts that have no intention of buying anything soon. It’s a difficult and often unproductive part of their work.
That’s why marketing’s direct contribution to sales shouldn’t start and end at the delivery of marketing qualified leads (MQLs). Since sales is already doing prospecting on their own, the Marketing Value Add approach looks to help them in doing exactly that.
Shared critical success factors
Though very different in execution, MVA and Overlay share two critical success factors (CSF). First is simply the idea of accounts as the critical unit. But different from Overlay, in the MVA approach, instead of a limited set of accounts, we use the complete account lists already defined by territory or partner assignments. Here, marketing’s ABM role becomes helping sales prioritize the right accounts to focus on within that territory at a specific point in time.
The second shared CSF is around the data and insight that’s needed to bring the strategy to life. Assuming that, as part of its ABM program setup, marketing can gain access to better account-based inputs, it can enable itself to demonstrably assist sales in prioritizing their activities. With better account intelligence from marketing, sales is better able, and far more willing, to effectively adjust its account calling patterns.
What we’re seeing more of recently is that as marketers establish new ABM-focused sources of insight, precisely because they have done the work necessary to establish a closer relationship with sales, they are now better able to quickly communicate valuable information directly to the people for whom it will be most useful: sales.
By providing insight about purchase-oriented account activity — even in the absence of leads qualified through classic demand generation methods — marketing is alerting sales to information they can use to prioritize the accounts they call on in any given week. Different from a campaign approach where marketing must spool up a campaign, this MVA method harnesses sales’ natural agility and strengthens it with actionable insight.
When marketing can tell sales exactly which accounts are showing real purchase intent behavior, sales can prioritize these accounts in their weekly coverage plans. Even better, when marketing can show which individuals within these accounts are active, or what exactly the activity is about, sales can be much more productive in who it reaches out to and what information it can leverage into the conversation.
Is ABM a better mousetrap?
Right now, a lot of vendors are out there promising that ABM is the next great breakthrough, even while many marketers are finding it difficult to navigate the landscape. But is ABM a better approach than traditional demand gen models? That’s really the wrong question.
Instead of comparing the two, I recommend understanding ABM as an additional strategy to improve performance of your content marketing, your sales productivity or both. Like any strategy, it comes with a new set of requirements, but if you’re thoughtful and methodical, you can manage these quite tightly. And by considering your additional needs carefully, a company like yours can set itself up to deliver real value at a variety of very specific points in your existing end-to-end marketing and sales processes.