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How the Martech Industry Is Overselling You on ABM

Posted July 25, 2018

We’ve been there before. ABM is overhyped by marketers over-marketing to other marketers, just like predictive marketing before it. In this post I’ll go back to the roots of ABM — the business strategy, not the tech category. I’ll talk about why 90 percent of the market isn’t going all-in on account-based marketing, and show you why ABM is a data problem that you can solve with existing technology (and some external help) for a fraction of the cost and time of big overhyped platforms.



A few weeks ago, I received an email from an ABM vendor with the headline: “Gain Your Independence from Lead-Based Marketing.” It also included phrases like “Give me ABM or give me death!” and “to your ABM liberties.” I’ll admit, I’m a product guy, not a marketer. For the past 10 years, I’ve helped thousands of marketers solve real marketing problems in data, analytics, personalization, campaign management and more using technology. In fact, some of my best friends and colleagues are in martech.


And while I have tons of respect for marketers, when I see a marketer who’s over-marketing, I get the itch. This ABM marketer was clearly violating one of the core tenets of account-based marketing. Ironically, he was “pitching” to me instead of truly “engaging” and trying to understand where ABM fits in with my business.


ABM: Here, There and Everywhere

In the last few months, the ABM space has turned into what Seth Godin calls Gorilla Marketing.


“Today, because noise is everywhere, we’re all surrounded by a screaming horde, an open-outcry marketplace of ideas where the race to be heard appears to be the only race that matters. And so subtlety flies out the window, along with a desire to engage for the long haul. Just a troop of gorillas, all arguing over the last remaining banana.”
— Seth Godin


I did a quick count in my spam folder and saw that a few ABM vendors consistently hold the top spot. And not just in my inbox, but on my social feed, as well. Talking ABM video heads on LinkedIn. Nonstop retargeting on Facebook. A constant drip of spammy ABM direct mail. And wasted swag collecting dust and cluttering up my desk. It seems not a day goes by that I don’t hear about a new ABM program, vendor, certification, event, book or framework. Apparently, ABM has become the best thing since sliced bread.


But let’s not forget a few things:

  1. ABM isn’t really new.
  2. ABM isn’t a tech category, but a business strategy (even though Forrester just published their first ABM Wave report.)
  3. ABM isn’t for everyone. Most of the market will never go all-in on ABM.
  4. ABM is oversaturated. More than 37 new ABM vendors and $500M in other-people-money are going after the same few thousands of buyers.
  5. ABM at its core is a data problem, not a media problem. It’s one you can solve with best-of-breed tech and a simple fix.


Let’s explore further.


5 Important Things To Remember About Account-Based Marketing


1. ABM isn’t really new.

According to ITSMA, account-based marketing began with the release of the book The One-to-One Future by Martha Rogers and Don Peppers. Published in 1993, the book introduced the concept of personalized, relevant customer experiences. During that time, more companies began using personalization to meet the needs of customers who expected more from the brands they interacted with.


A few years after ITSMA coined the ABM term in 2003, the organization introduced its three-phase model for ABM program development which covered program planning, account-specific planning and program assessment.



It wasn’t until 2011 that automation and technology came into play, but since then, the MarTech scene has exploded, including specific solutions that help companies carry out their ABM initiatives at scale. For those new to account-based marketing, the whole thing can seem monumentally complex, requiring a huge stack of technology before you can even get started.


As I know from experience, that’s simply not the case. ABM doesn’t have to be hard, and you don’t need every popular tool. You just need to structure your initiative carefully before starting. Instead of investing in a huge stack of expensive marketing technology, start with a clear strategy.


2. ABM isn’t a tech category, but a business strategy.

While many now refer to ABM as a tech category, it started out as a business strategy, as I noted in the previous section. Businesses that use ABM dedicate sales and marketing resources to understanding and nurturing a targeted set of their most valuable customers.


The idea is to focus on those customers who can generate the highest customer lifetime value so you’re using your resources in the most effective way possible, with less waste and higher ROI. And with limited budgets and more B2B decision-makers to convince with each sale, this is a good thing.


ABM can help your business:

  • Better align sales and marketing
  • Provide personalized experiences at scale
  • Keep sales and marketing strategies focused
  • Make better use of limited resources
  • Help you demonstrate the value of your investment


But before any of this can happen, you need to get to know your customers first. That’s where your ideal customer profile comes in. By getting a holistic view of your customers — from their online buying behaviors, to their specific likes and dislikes — you have a solid foundation from which to launch your ABM strategy. Sprinkle in a little tech to help you pull that customer data together, automate your workflows, and measure performance against your goals, and you have the makings for a successful way to execute your strategy.


3. ABM isn’t for everyone.

ABM comes in different shapes and sizes. In fact, according to a recent study by ITSMA and The ABM Leadership Alliance (formed by ABM vendors), only a small fraction of companies (8 percent) are all-in on ABM. Close to 27 percent are doing only demand generation, and the vast majority (65 percent) are doing a mix of both. The Emperor has no clothes.



For marketers doing a mix of both demand generation and account-based marketing — aka Hybrid ABM, or Double Funnel — the question is this: Do we really want or need to buy a new ABM platform and spend months in implementation, training, and maintenance — not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in total cost of ownership just to target a few hundreds or thousands of named accounts?


That’s after we’ve already spent lots of time and money on our CRM, marketing automation, content, analytics and who knows which other platforms. How do we justify another big platform to the CEO or CFO? From my conversations with marketers, I suspect that for 80 percent of the market, the answer is: No, we don’t need or can’t afford an ABM platform.


4. ABM is oversaturated.


“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
— Winston Churchill


While conducting research for this post, I went back to the 2018 Marketing Technology Landscape to look for the Predictive Analytics category. (Thank you Scott Brinker and Anand Thaker!) Guess what? That category is gone! More than 50 vendors and $300M in VC money dissolved into 21 other categories between 2017 and 2018. That’s because predictive analytics is a feature, an algorithm — not a tech category.



Now let’s look at the new kid on the block: ABM, a new martech category that didn’t exist a few years ago. The 2018 landscape lists 37 vendors in the category with over $500M raised in just the last three to four years (Source: Crunchbase), not counting traditional social and marketing automation platforms also doing ABM. A few of those vendors dissolved from predictive analytics, and four merged or were acquired halfway through the year. That’s lots of vendors and other-people-money chasing pretty much the same small market size.



How small is the market? Let’s do a quick exercise:


A quick look at the State of Marketing Automation and some public records gives us a general idea of the size of the market: a few tens of thousands companies, mostly in the US B2B tech market. Not all of them, of course, are doing ABM.


In fact, ABM is usually only good for:

  • Teams that sell to mid-market and enterprise
  • Selling to a buying center, not just an individual
  • Long sales cycles which last months, not days


5. ABM is a data problem, not a media problem.  

At its core ABM is a data problem, not a media problem. The traditional CRM & MAP systems used by more than half of marketers today were never designed to handle the new complexity of B2B buying. Their system architecture and data schema is built around individual leads, not accounts.


As a result it’s hard for marketing and sales to get an account-view world, score accounts versus leads, and attribute marketing activities at the account level. That means sales doesn’t fully engage accounts, and marketing doesn’t get up to 80 percent of the attribution credit.


Traditional CRM and MAP also can’t measure and report on account-based activity, so marketing’s hard work goes unnoticed. That problem actually has a simple and elegant fix that takes days, not months to implement and represents a fraction of the total cost of ownership.


My colleagues Mark Ogne and Patrice Greene framed the data problem really well:


“Marketing data, the people and response, are the most valuable yet most frequently squandered asset of a marketing organization. This ‘digital exhaust’ is more valuable than any predictive or intent data a vendor can sell but has become lost across siloed platforms and poor data management practices. Prioritize the process of cleaning your own house. Focus on connecting company and people level data across platforms. Learn what your audience is already telling you.” — ABM: The Latest Swing Of The Martech Hype Pendulum


And finally, here is Seth Godin’s advice to you, the ABM marketer: 


“What actually works in a noisy environment isn’t more noise — it’s the challenging work of earning the benefit of people telling people.” — Seth Godin


We don’t need more hustle. We need to take the time to understand our customers on a deeper level so we can give them what they want in the moment they need it.

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