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What Exactly Is Account Based Marketing?

Posted May 15, 2024
Revenue Marketing Report What Exactly Is Account Based Marketing

Jeff Loeb, Fractional CMO at Chief Outsiders, joins our host, Camela Thompson, in this episode of the Revenue Marketing Report. Jeff shares his definition of ABM, the variations of ABM, and why cross-functional alignment is a non-negotiable with this strategy.

Jeff is a B2B SaaS and technology CMO with a strong track record helping companies become category leaders and grow internationally from startups to billion-dollar businesses. He works closely with sales, product, and customer success teams to develop and execute winning go-to-marketing strategies. 

I have had the benefit of seeing your ABM strategy come to fruition. I would love to hear from you and this is an area we see questions online about a lot, what exactly is ABM? And then almost more importantly, what it isn’t?

“That’s such a simple question with a complex answer. Let me start with a textbook definition and then we can shade in some tolerance from there. The first thing I would say about ABM is that it is a strategic go-to-market approach and I would use the word “strategic” strategically in the sense that it is not something you can take lightly if you want to do ABM or ABX properly. It has to be very deliberate, a very strategic go-to-market motion. The second thing I’d say about it is that a key feature of it is the orchestration. Orchestration means the way that different go-to-market teams work together, so the alignment between sales and marketing, the product team, and the customer success team is super critical. What distinguishes good ABM programs from the maybe not-so-good ABM programs is the level of orchestration. 

“The third piece I would say is a level of personalization. It’s a very tailored program and there are different levels of personalization based on whether it’s a one-to-one, one-to-few, or one-to-many program. There’s a level of personalization, and the whole purpose is to drive new customer acquisition and expansion to a targeted set of accounts.”

 You may have seen me wincing just a little bit during the alignment part because I’ve joked with friends in the past that account selection with sales is where ABM often goes to die. That might not be fair, but.

“Well, alignment. If you read any survey that Gartner or Forester have done or anyone has done over the last ten years, perhaps even twenty years, they talk about the biggest challenges in go-to-market, it’s always alignment. It’s always a sales and marketing alignment question. That is one of the things I like about ABM programs is they drive a level of alignment, specifically between sales and marketing that is so critically important. And it covers all areas that Camela mentioned in terms of account selection, but just being close around every stage of the process, what the buying team looks like, what type of content is going to resonate with buyers, how well do you do hand-offs, what’s qualified, what isn’t and the measurement as well. It’s just an awesome way to drive a superior level of alignment.”

There are so many places we could go, but I’d like to stick with the alignment piece since like Jeff said we are still talking about it because it’s still a big problem. I have seen you masterfully work cross-functionally, and I’ve seen it involves sales in every step of the process. Can you talk a little bit about where you involve them and why?

“Sure, maybe I will start at the very top and go back to the first point that I made about it being a strategic go-to-market approach since, to me, what that strategy piece means is there has to be agreement and we’re walking shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip with the executive team, the CEO, the sales team, the marketing team, and the customer success team. That level of alignment has to be there. We have to agree that we are going to put a big investment into this motion for it to make sense. We have to have buy-in and alignment of these teams. So it is built into the process that there’s this high level of buy-in and specifically it depends a bit on the size of the organization and what have you. However, in small to midsize ones, there just has to be alignment between the CMO and the CRO that this is important and we’re going to put the necessary resources into it.

“It starts off with that alignment at the highest levels. Then you have to figure out the team that is going to be involved. I will bring in another thought here because after doing this for a long time in the context of implementing strategic go-to-market programs in general, but then ABM programs specifically, I’m such a big fan of doing a pilot, getting started very quickly with a pilot. A big part of that approach that I advocate is, let us start with a three-month pilot period. What that does is it avoids over-engineering and paralysis because as you get into it, there are a lot of different components to the program, and, man! You can get wrapped around the axle. Therefore, let us start small. Let’s take a crawl, walk, run approach. I like to have the program launched and running in less than three months. Once you’ve got a shorter time period, it’s easier to get engagement with the sales team and with the customer success team.”

Those are such great points and I think it’s important. I’ve run into situations where sales wants to do ABM and we talk about what ABM is and I want to email all of my accounts, this isn’t usually ABM, or here’s a list of 250 accounts that I want to target, that’s always a hard conversation to have. Plus the prospect of narrowing things down to a very narrow thing for a team that is compensated on immediate opportunity closures can be scary. How have you successfully balanced that? Is there reassurance that we’re not going to discontinue some of the larger scope things? What is effective and convincing to sales that this is a good idea?

 

“Let’s unpack that. That is a great question. In general, there’s a two-part funnel. For most organizations, now, some organizations, there might be ten accounts that you’re going after and your whole business model is to go after these ten accounts. It’s just 100% ABM all the way. Yet, most organizations have a bifurcated strategy where they will have a named account list, a set of strategic accounts and it could go anywhere from fifty to two thousand accounts and we’re going to put an ABM program to go after those accounts. But more often than not, there’s also a volume play. There is also an inbound component or more traditional motions as well. Typically, you want to run these in parallel. Again, every company is a bit different, but the most common scenario is that you’ve both of these streams running with respect to, well, what is ABM exactly? What is all the stuff that you have to do to warrant the moniker ABM versus a targeted account program or something?

“It’s an interesting question because a lot of people will make the point and say, gosh, this ABM is a fine new name even though ABM has been around for twenty years. But they will say isn’t this a renaming of this thing we’ve been doing forever called strategic account marketing? I’ve been part of teams that have an enterprise team and they go after the top one hundred accounts, isn’t this the same? Well, directionally, it is, they’re in the same family, but it’s sort of the level of activity and it goes back to some of that orchestration and personalization stuff that we talked about. Another dimension of this puzzle is there’s intensity of the ABM program and you can start with a more traditional strategic account-targeted program.

“Over the years, I have softened on this. I was a little bit of a purist, perhaps in my early days of doing ABM, but I’ve softened a little bit and think of ABM as a range. There’s ABM lite and there’s hardcore ABM. That’s part of the process, defining how hardcore we want to be. Currently, with one of my clients at Chief Outsiders, we are doing a survey-based program, we’re working with an outside agency and we’ve targeted 150 customers. Our approach to them is, hey, we’re doing a study and we’d like you to participate in it. That is the way we’ve engaged with them. That’s the first part of the program. Once they engage with us, it goes into a sales-led motion. I would consider that to be an ABM lite-type program.  There isn’t much orchestration and isn’t super targeted, but it’s a pretty good lightweight way to get into an ABM motion.”

I am hearing in my mind that the way I separate targeted account campaigns and ABM is the collaboration that’s required across departments and the amount of strategic vision that goes into it. To me, a targeted campaign is marketing, and then sales will do what they do. To me, ABM is collaborating on here are the assets, here’s the strategy that marketing is going to be doing, and here’s about the time we expect it to go over to sales and they’re going to proactively doing outbound as well. So it is a big commitment potentially depending on like Jeff said, there’s an array and there’s the light and the heavy, but even in the light, I see the potential for sales to be tailoring their approach based on what they’re interacting with that survey. Is that fair?

 

“I think that’s fair. If I define my prototypical ABM motion, you start off with that alignment around our target account, what’s our ICP? What is the buying group? What does the buying committee look like? What set of accounts do we want to go after first? Etc. Then, you recognize, unlike inbound, where the beauty of inbound, and ten to fifteen years ago the reason that there was so much excitement about it, it’s an interruption-based marketing. But people find you better in the market when they are interested in your product. And how awesome is that if buyers in market are coming to us, pretty cool. That is the positive side of inbound, but there’s a big negative side as well, which maybe, we can talk a little bit about later. With ABM, you’re proactively doing outreach to your target set accounts.

“Only a small percentage of those accounts are going to be in market or not. You have to recognize the types of numbers that are typically thrown around that 2% to 3% of accounts are in the market at any point in time. You are going after accounts that fit your ICP perfectly but may not be in market. This is where intent data becomes super important because if you could help to shape your target account list with intent data, then perhaps if you can raise those odds and rather than 2% or 3%, being in the market, maybe it’s 5%, 10% or 20% in market. But you have to realize that first of all. Then, you say, okay, these people aren’t coming to us as they would inbound, so how are we going to reach out to them?

“I typically think about these programs as going through different stages where initially there’s an awareness stage where we want our target accounts to become familiar with them. We want to surround them with our name and our message, a very soft sell probably using LinkedIn advertising for targeting and other things like that. Eventually,  when we reach out to them, the perfect reaction is, man! I’ve been seeing you guys everywhere! You guys must be doing something, you must be hot because everywhere I go I see your name. That’s the first stage.

Then we move into this whole series of orchestrated steps where maybe next marketing will do some outreach via email. Perhaps there will be some executive-level outreach through LinkedIn. It’s moving down from establishing awareness, beginning to plant seeds about what the value proposition is, starting to hit on the pain points, and then starting to drive engagement. We want to do this in this orchestrated way where the Nexus starts with a lot of marketing motion and moves down to more of a sales motion.”

Gosh! I like Jeff’s point about intent because vendors like G-2, Trust Radius, and Capterra, a lot of times they will provide you with specific keywords and product families that people are searching for. To find them already lower down in the funnel, it seems like such a smart thing to get in front of as opposed to trying to push them through. I mean the awareness makes sense, but trying to proactively push them through in a short period of time seems a little bit less effective.

“The thing you have to realize and I always have this conversation very frankly with CEOs and with sales executives, that the beauty of this is, it’s zero-waste marketing we’re going after our ICP. Everyone we connect to is going to be a perfect fit. Sales is going to love the leads, all that is wonderful, and they might not have an active purchase cycle. Unlike an inbound lead that may close in 30 days, 60 days, or even perhaps a few months, many of these opportunities are going to take longer, are going to take three months, six months, or maybe a year to matriculate. You have to go into this with eyes wide open that this isn’t a quick hit, okay, we’re going to spin up an ABM  program so we can hit our targets by the end of the year and it’s September now. This is a strategic program that we’re connecting with our very best prospects, engaging them, and meeting them where they are and it may be a longer sales cycle.”

It is such a great point and emphasizes why it’s important to layer on. You cannot stop doing everything else and get myopically focused. This has to be integrated with your other plays. That makes so much sense.

“Going back, to pick up on the thread around intent, the more that you can tap into that intent data, the more we can pull things forward. We can find more prospects that are in market or closer to being in market. Then, you have to look at the various types of intent data and it’s tricky. There are a lot of vendors out there that have different approaches to intent, some better than others. In some markets, there is more intent data publicly available. For instance, if you’re in an established category where people are actively searching in volume for your type of solution, there’s pretty good intent data. However, if you’re a younger company, maybe creating a new category, there isn’t as much intent data available so you’ve to get a little clever. 

“One thing I have learned to appreciate is that there’s the third-party intent data that  signals some third-party publications that you can buy data from. However, there are also first-party intent signals. These are signals coming from your own website. Don’t forget the people that are coming to your website and of course, those who convert. We’ve got a very well-oiled machine to follow up with those with SDRs and nurture programs, etc. But the interesting thing to me is to go after the anonymous folks, the folks that haven’t yet filled out a form, that we don’t know who they are and there are a lot of the anonymization vendors out there that will tell you at least at the company level, who is coming to your website? Those are valuable signals to feed into an ABM program for target accounts.”

I’ve been in organizations that have all that configured, oh! It’s so powerful! And in the tiny companies I work with, I love them, but I do miss the big tech.

For more content on B2B marketing trends, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.

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