What is account-based marketing or ABM and why are B2B marketers so bullish on it?
Interest is surging as technologies to target key account improves and relevant data becomes more accessible.
Account-based marketing or ABM is a B2B marketing strategy that aligns sales and marketing efforts to deliver targeted advertising, as well as personalized content and messaging, to high-value accounts.
An ABM strategy recognizes that B2B purchase decisions are often made by a group of individuals within the company, and ABM tools automate many of the data and workflow processes that enable this approach.
ABM isn’t new, though. It has been used by B2B marketers for well over a decade. But rapid advances in the sophistication and accessibility of relevant data – and in technologies that enable ABM – are now fueling widespread interest and adoption of this approach.
Types of account targeting
A successful ABM strategy aligns sales and marketing departments to focus on a select number of high-value accounts that represent the highest potential business opportunity. ABM “flips” the typical sales funnel by starting with a small group of accounts (rather than casting a wide net at the top) that widens as accounts are nurtured down into the funnel to create greater value to the organization.
Many factors go into choosing targeted accounts, including the account’s history with a business, and whether the account is growing or in a growth-oriented market. One of the most important criteria is whether the account fits the business’s Ideal Customer Profile (ICP).
An ICP is typically developed using machine learning-based predictive analytics and scoring to determine if an account (not an individual) is an ideal fit for a company’s product or service. The ICP should consider relevant account characteristics including industry/vertical, size (both employee number and annual revenue), budget, geography and technology used.
Once sales and marketing teams have agreed upon the list of high-value accounts, there are three types of ABM targeting that can be executed. They are not mutually exclusive, and many B2B companies use more than one of the following:
1-to-1. Also called “Strategic ABM” by ITSMA, marketers work with account teams to develop and execute highly customized programs for each target account. These can include face-to-face or virtual meetings to deepen the account relationships.
1-to-few. Also called “ABM Lite” by ITSMA, marketers execute less customized programs for clusters of target accounts with similar needs or business attributes. These can include email marketing campaigns as well as in-person or virtual roadshows and events geared toward groups.
1-to-many. Also called “Programmatic ABM” by ITSMA, marketers use machine learning to send highly targeted and personalized messages to individuals at hundreds (or thousands for enterprises) of key accounts. Media used can include email, web content personalization, digital advertising and retargeting, as well as live or virtual events for large groups.
What ABM tools do
A wide variety of ABM tools are available to automate and execute ABM strategies. These include tools that provide B2B data enrichment, AI-based predictive analytics and recommendations, interaction management (i.e., digital advertising, direct mail, websites, events and sales outreach), and ABM infrastructure and orchestration.
Since data enrichment is a chief capability of ABM tools, it’s first to understand the types of data these platforms work with:
- Technographic data: Identifies the hardware and software systems that accounts use to run their businesses. For high-tech companies, technographic data is vital because it can highlight accounts that already have complementary technologies installed or rule out accounts that use incompatible systems. Data can be sourced from social media forums and job boards, as well as competitive intelligence and/or web scraping firms.
- Firmographic data: Provides quantitative business information, including vertical market, company size and number of locations, number of employees, annual revenue and growth. Firmographic data can be sourced from annual reports, LinkedIn and third-party vendors.
- Intent data: Identifies company actions or signals that indicate whether or not an account is “in-market” for a solution. Intent data can be sourced from B2B forums or job boards (to view account participation in them), first-party content downloads or ad clicks, as well as third-party vendors.
Now, let’s dig into all of the capabilities and the key considerations involved in choosing an ABM tool.
Effective ABM begins with robust, accurate account data. While many B2B companies collect vast amounts of first-party data, there are often gaps that can negatively impact efforts to customize content and offers to target accounts for ABM. Some ABM tool vendors and their partners provide very specific types of business data, as well as broad-based business data, that can provide important insights into purchase intent.
Vendors also append data to existing customer database files to enrich or expand what is known about them. These data types include technographic and firmographic at the account level, and demographic and psychographic at the contact level. As we said above, ABM data vendors source their data from publicly available information (i.e., annual reports), third-party data vendors and proprietary web tools that monitor social media, online forums and job boards.
ABM programs can target key accounts at the 1-to-1, 1-to-few and 1-to-many levels. The targeting precision needed will depend on the size and scale of the ABM efforts: SMBs may need a 1-to-many approach because of the number of contacts or influencers at their target accounts, while larger enterprises may find that 1-to-1 targeting allows them the customization necessary to successfully nurture a key account. Most ABM tool vendors provide machine learning and the granularity to enable more than one level of account targeting. In addition, ABM tool vendors offer machine learning-based predictive analytics and account scoring to help develop a company’s ICP and the lookalike accounts that should be included in any ABM programs.
Personalization and/or predictive recommendations
B2B buyers expect personalized messaging and offers from the companies they do business with. Some ABM tool vendors use proprietary machine learning and AI to allow customers to create and execute highly personalized ABM campaigns and programs. On the other hand, many vendors integrate with third-party personalization tools or CRM platforms that drive these types of customized programs.
Machine learning-based predictive recommendations enable B2B marketers to provide content and product suggestions unique to each account decisionmaker’s preferences. Most ABM tool vendors offer recommendation engines that ingest and analyze customer firmographic, technographic, intent and engagement data to score target accounts, create an ICP and identify lookalike accounts. Recommendations can be dynamically generated based on known account data, account scores and real-time analysis of visitor behavior and preferences.
B2B marketers must increasingly engage target accounts on multiple channels with highly customized and consistent ABM programs. Effective B2B channels include both offline (direct mail, events, roadshows and in-person/phone-based sales outreach) and online (email, websites, virtual events, webinars and paid/organic search, display and social) media. Many ABM tool vendors manage ABM interactions, including offering CPC-based paid ad programs across search, display and social media.
ABM is new for many B2B organizations, and, even for those that have been doing ABM, there’s still plenty of room for expansion and integration (See Table 3). As a result, measuring and reporting on program success will be vital for ongoing C-suite support, as well as securing sales team buy-in. ABM tool vendors are expanding their reporting capabilities through investments in AI to provide faster, deeper and more visual analytics that can highlight performance trends and patterns (highest performing geographic locations or company characteristics, for example). In addition, more vendors are providing reports at both the account and individual/contact level.
Third-party software integration
ABM tool vendors are aggressively expanding their application architectures through native integration and APIs to offer B2B marketers streamlined access to the third-party systems already in their technology stacks. Native or out-of-the-box integrations are most commonly available for CRMs and marketing automation platforms, although many tool vendors also offer plug-and-play access to event platforms and content management systems (CMSs). Several tools are specifically customized for Salesforce integration and use. API integration may incur additional charges, generally on a per-call basis for each data download.
Explore platform capabilities from ABM vendors like 6sense, Demandbase, Salesforce, Integrate and more in the full MarTech Intelligence Report on account-based marketing platforms.
The benefits of using ABM tools
Automating ABM data, analytics, campaigns and workflow processes can provide numerous benefits, including the following:
- Improved sales and marketing alignment. A successful ABM strategy requires marketing and sales organizations to work together to identify key accounts to target. This includes agreeing on the definition of a key account, as well as coordinating campaigns and outreach. Because of the strong collaboration required between the two organizations, both are accountable for the results.
- Shortened sales cycles. The B2B sales process is notorious for its length and the “hiccups” that can occur when it’s time for prospective customers to get internal buy-in. ABM solves this problem by putting the right messages in front of key decision-makers at target accounts. As a result, ABM opportunities move through the pipeline more quickly because they more accurately target the buying influencers and decision-makers at the account.
- Increased marketing ROI. Seventy-six percent of marketers say ABM gives them “somewhat higher” or “significantly higher” return than other marketing initiatives, according to ITSMA. That’s because ABM efforts focus on growing pipeline and revenue from companies with a high propensity to buy more and more often from you. Marketers can focus their resources more efficiently and run campaigns that are optimized for target accounts — creating a bigger revenue impact with each ABM program.
- Expanded account value and revenue. Companies that implement ABM experience a nearly two-fold increase in annual contract value (ACV) according to research conducted for the ABM Leadership Alliance. And the gains are not limited to enterprise-level companies.
- ABM provides a significant boost to pipeline velocity and closed rates, which often outweighs the many smaller deals sourced through traditional demand generation.
- Enhanced customer experiences. ABM isn’t just about acquiring new target accounts, it’s about retaining and growing target accounts through cross-sell, upsell and advocacy programs. As a result, ABM is more personalized and delivers more consistent customer experiences across channels.