Account Based Marketing:
The Next Evolution of B2B Marketing

Inbound, content marketing, lead nurturing, marketing automation, analytics, email, social media, and native advertising are great for high-velocity, low-value deals with a single decision maker. Cast a wide enough net, and almost any marketing strategy will surely catch some leads.

But what about landing (and expanding) deals with named accounts or enterprise-level brands? In complex B2B sales cycles, the buyer is rarely one, isolated individual. In fact, purchasing decisions at large companies can involve as many as 17 decision makers! So which corner office should marketing communications pursue? What tactics will best reach the right people at the right companies? How do you personalize interactions so each decision maker and influencer gets the right message over the right channel?   

Traditional demand generation is fishing with a net.
Traditional demand generation is fishing with a net.
Account Based Marketing is fishing with a spear.
Account Based Marketing is fishing with a spear.

Major, complex deals with long sales cycles depend on a much more targeted approach—think spear, not net. Account based marketing (ABM) is the spear. ABM is a powerful combination of people, processes, and technology that allows marketers to land the big fish by focusing on quality over quantity.

What is Account Based Marketing?

The account based marketing (ABM) approach applies time-tested B2B marketing and sales principles to the challenge of selling to businesses by targeting company accounts rather than individual sales leads. ABM creates hyper-personalized interactions—far more specific and relevant than traditional marketing—that enable sales and marketing teams to land more accounts and expand existing ones, even in the most complex sales environments.

ABM focuses on the unique perspectives and positions of each relevant decision maker within an organization to drive marketing and communication efforts that speak directly to each member of a purchasing team.

Account based marketing in a nutshell:

Salespeople never talk about how many leads they’ve closed. They talk about how many accounts they’ve closed.

Benefits of Account Based Marketing

Account based marketing recognizes that targeting big business means communicating personally with decision makers and influencers in a business or department, not as isolated individuals but as part of a collective whole. It takes the personalized, one-to-one communication model that buyers are used to experiencing as consumers, and applies it to the B2B marketing landscape to create:

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Greater efficiency—ABM focuses 100% of time and funds on a smaller number of accounts that are most likely to close sales.
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Bigger wins—Contract value for targeted accounts is generally 40% higher for mid-market accounts, and 35% higher for enterprise accounts.
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Increased close rates—One study reported close rates 285% higher for targeted enterprise accounts, and 165% higher for mid-market accounts.
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Better ROI—97% of marketers who have tried ABM report a higher ROI than other marketing activities.
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Sales and marketing alignment—ABM forces marketing and sales to work together. 70% of ABM users report that their marketing and sales departments are mostly or completely aligned.
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Improved customer experience—84% of ABM marketers report improved customer relationships that led to retaining or expanding accounts. 65% say ABM provided significant benefits to attract new customers.

As a B2B brand starts implementing account based marketing, it becomes evident that ABM is more than a marketing strategy. At its most mature, ABM becomes a strategy for organizing and coordinating all customer-facing resources.

The Six Account Based Marketing Processes

There is no one-size-fits-all ABM process, but most successful practitioners follow a distinct, six step process.

1. Select Accounts

2. Discover and Map Contacts

3. Develop Account Insights

4. Generate Account-Relevant Content

5. Deliver Account-Specific Interactions

6. Orchestrate Account-Focused Plays

1. Select Accounts

Selecting accounts to target is a crucial first step to an effective ABM effort. Sales and marketing need to sit down together and agree on a relatively short list of high-value, high-potential target accounts. Creating the perfect list will optimize sales and marketing resources by focusing all of them on the accounts that will yield big revenue.

As marketing and sales create a list of target accounts, they need to also agree on a tier structure for those accounts. It’s important to align on what percentage of resources will be dedicated to each tier, as well as how much revenue can be expected from each.

Tiers for an ABM strategy might look like this:  

Tiers for an ABM strategy

Selecting the right accounts is both an art and a science. The selection process will combine manual selection and three levels of data and analytics—basic data, advanced data, and predictive analytics.

Manual Selection

Manual Selection

Let each sales rep create his or her own list of ideal target accounts, and then create a master list. Sales knows their markets, so this will be a valuable list on its own. ABM will deliver value with a manually selected list, but key accounts can easily be missed without insights from key data points.

Basic Data

Basic Data

Enhance manually collected data with firmographic insights purchased from third-party vendors like Datanyze, Dun & Bradstreet and more.

Advanced Data

Advanced Data

Bring in advanced firmographics, such as “technographics” (e.g. what technologies a company uses). Consider other insights that indicate purchasers’ intents, such as topics they are researching, and those that indicate how engaged they already are with the sales team.

Predictive Analytics

Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics programs compare the data compiled and scored for a list of target accounts, and uses it to identify other, similar accounts. This process can identify valuable target accounts that manual research and scoring would never have found.

The account selection process can mature over the life of an ABM program. A manually created list can start reaping the benefits of ABM strategy, and then be expanded with data at a later date.

Tip: ABM takes time. A list of accounts will need targeted attention for longer than most sales and marketing teams would like. In general, no more than 25% of a list should turn over each quarter.

2. Discover Contacts and Map to Target Accounts

Build detailed personas to represent each member of the buying team. There might be three to five personas needed here. Additionally, design less specific personas for influencers on the lower tiers—those who many not be on the buying team, but who do have significant influence over decision makers.

The next step is discovering key contacts at each target account and mapping their relationships. Fill out each selected account and buying center with specific contacts based on ideal buyer profiles. Build a list of contacts from existing data, through manual collection, and via data vendors.

3. Develop Account Insights  

Since you need to reach out to target contacts in ABM, your outreach had better be relevant. Interactions will always be on target and resonant when the ABM team knows about the:

Target account’s market—News, trends, marketing dynamics, etc.

Target company—Their strategy, weaknesses, opportunities, culture and values, recent sales triggers, etc.

Target personas—The agenda, priorities, prejudices, styles, work histories, favorite foods (couldn’t hurt), etc. of each member of the buying team.

Relationships inside the account—How each contact relates to others inside the company, who reports to whom, who influences, who leads meetings, etc.

Connections to the account—Existing connections with key contacts, their previous experiences with sales or customer service, etc.

These insights can come from direct conversations, surveys, social media, dedicated researchers, Google alerts, and even market data. Set some goals for creating and updating insights on contacts at each account so research efforts don’t fall between the cracks.

4. Generate Account-Relevant Content

Create or adapt content and messaging that reflects the new account insights, and is targeted specifically at the buying teams in each account. Relevant, personalized messages—demonstrating knowledge and understanding of their unique industry issues—open doors and help build relationships.

Every piece of content does not have to be specifically created for each target account – that approach wouldn’t scale. Instead, think about a balanced mix of content, with each piece falling somewhere on the content personalization spectrum:

The Content Personalization Spectrum

Simple personalization can be as easy as a targeted title or headline, imagery that reflects the target account’s industry, and/or case studies from the target market. Highly personalized content is created for a specific account. It is more time consuming and labor-intensive, but it speaks directly to the highest level decision makers at a target account—and it speaks volumes.

5. Deliver Account-Specific Interactions

With contacts and content ready,  it’s time to laser-focus the budget on the named people in the key accounts. This is where ABM takes the strengths of inbound marketing—valuable content, user-focused communication, etc.—and applies them to effective outbound strategies to close big accounts.

The tactics for interaction that ABM marketers use the most include:

Live events

—Highly targeted events create opportunities that only happen when the sales team gets face-to-face with the right decision makers and influencers from target accounts.

Webinars

—Just like live events, webinars should be timely, relevant, and validated by third-party participants.

Direct mail

Personalized direct mail can cut through the noise of digital marketing for C-suite contacts and their buying teams.

Email

—In an ABM strategy, email moves from the marketing department to sales—who craft personalized, “human” emails that are more text-based than image-based.

Online advertising

—Online advertising becomes hyper-targeted in ABM with techniques such as IP lookup, CRM retargeting, proactive retargeting, social media advertising, and personalized search.

Web personalization

—These tools can identify the account that an otherwise anonymous website visitor belongs to, and serve up personalized content.

6. Orchestrate Account-Focused Plays

Synchronize interactions into coordinated plays that align to account plans and goals. It’s the opposite of traditional marketing: rather than broadcasting to a wide audience and filtering leads as they come in, marketers do significant filtering in advance and then design account plans that deploy a highly orchestrated, multi-channel, multi-tactic effort to initiate conversation and deepen the relationship.

The two main considerations for creating account-focused plays are channel diversification and cadence:

Channel diversification
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Some people prefer email, while others prefer phone calls. Use more channels to create more opportunities to effectively communicate with target contacts.
Cadence
The pace and scope of your campaign will depend on the size of the opportunity and the size of your resources, but ABM is a long-term strategy. Plan on creating communication and opportunities for months at a time.

Five ABM Metrics That Measure Account Progress

Once an ABM processes is in place, how will marketers know that it is working? Traditional metrics like leads, pipeline, and revenue are not sufficient for account based marketing because:

ABM is about quality, not quantity—ABM marketers work to create influence with a few key decision makers, not fill a sales funnel with a lot of “qualified” leads.

Low volumes of ABM change familiar metrics—Volumes in ABM are too low for traditional funnel metrics.

Marketing can’t wait for closed revenue to measure success—Long sales cycles are standard with enterprise sales, so engagement metrics become important for measuring progress throughout the process.

In ABM, Marketing supports and influences pipeline creation—ABM marketers are involved throughout the sales process, not just in sourcing leads. That means they need to demonstrate the value of their efforts in influencing deals and improving sales outcomes.

ABM is about customer expansion—Traditional marketing metrics focus almost exclusively on new leads, but expanding existing accounts is a big part of ABM. Marketers need to be able to measure their influence here.

ABM brings sales and marketing teams closer as the focus is aligned on key accounts, and their metrics are speaking the same language. The five categories of ABM metrics are:

Coverage

This is the most basic of the ABM metrics. Coverage is a measure of data quality and completeness, indicating whether or not the database has the right people in it. Where are there gaps in the data that will require list-building efforts?

Awareness

Do contacts know who the company is and what they do? This metric is notoriously difficult to measure, but two good places to start are branded web traffic and user interactions (such as opening emails).

Engagement

Are the right people at the account spending time with your company, and is that engagement going up over time? At Engagio, we measure engagement based on the number of minutes that a target contact spends with a brand.

Program Reach

Everyone wants to know what is working. In order to measure this, the team must first must define “working.” For ABM, partly this means which marketing programs are reaching the right people target accounts (and conversely, how much waste is there in other programs).

Influence

The ABM program deserves credit for some wins, but long sales cycles with many touches can be difficult to track. Influence can be a softer science. Look for programs that create a lift in the key metrics that the company cares about, such as pipeline, deal velocity, and net promoter score.

ABM and Current Marketing and Sales Systems

Implementing account based marketing does not mean starting over with a whole new marketing system. ABM plays well with most existing systems. Marketers can make good use of the resources and data in which they have already invested, allowing any business to start right where they are. ABM is less about a new system, and more about giving key accounts special treatment.

The Limitations of ABM Today

Account based marketing is not a simple set of new marketing tricks to add to the mix. It’s a new strategy that changes the way sales and marketing work together, the way marketing plans and creates campaigns and material, and the way success is measured and reported. It is a strategic response to a changing market, but it also incites and requires change. That is where ABM can run into limitations:

ABM can be hard to scale.
ABM can be hard to scale.
ABM can be hard to scale.
True “Tier 1” ABM treats each account as its own market, with a specific plan, campaigns, content, etc., and that is difficult to do. The average ABM marketer can sustain that for four or five accounts. That means ABM either requires hiring more marketers, or developing a scaled back, “lite” approach.
ABM can involve a difficult transition.
ABM can involve a difficult transition.
ABM can involve a difficult transition.
Marketing and sales departments are aligning in many companies at unprecedented levels, but ABM requires more. Marketing departments have to be willing to change their metrics and their strategies. Sales departments have to be patient.
ABM can be its own victim.
ABM can be its own victim.
ABM can be its own victim.
When ABM starts with one or two marketers taking on a handful of accounts, and it works really well, Sales wants more. Marketing then has to battle out how much of its resources to redirect, and how much of its department to reorganize.

Shifting to account based marketing requires a unified team of sales reps and marketers who are flexible, patient, and excited about the opportunity.

A Roadmap For Implementing ABM

Account based marketing is designed to scale the toughest mountains: the biggest, hardest-fought deals that make or break companies. For more details on how to put ABM to work, download The Clear & Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing.

1 – Align Sales and Marketing

Lots of brands and leaders talk about sales and marketing alignment, but ABM won’t work until that alignment is really happening. Old habits and biases are difficult to break, which means truly productive alignment can take time to develop. Start the process today by:

  1. Positioning the program as new, collaborative, and ongoing. Make it clear that ABM is about getting and expanding big accounts. It’s not just the next marketing campaign.
  2. Making sure that key stakeholders—execs, SDRs, and marketers—are completely committed to ABM as a long-term strategy.


2 – Get Executive Buy-In and Funding

ABM is a long-term strategy, which means executive support and adequate funding are required from the very beginning to make it work. Get buy-in from the C-suite by pointing out the problems that the brand is experiencing, and that ABM can solve.

Make sure the funding needs are clearly addressed from the start as well. ABM won’t deliver revenue right away, so executives will have to agree to fund the program through its infancy. Those funds usually come from the marketing budget initially, but after a few years, Sales is ready to chip in because they’ve seen the results and they want more.


3 – Build the Right Team

ABM is likely a new strategy for any organization, which requires a certain kind of person to make it successful. From both marketing and sales, ABM team members should be:

  • Collaborative
  • Data-driven
  • Leaders
  • Good communicators

Assemble a team of responsible, flexible people who are willing to take some risks, meticulously monitor the results, and stick with a strategy long enough to see real results. Roles that will need to be filled include:

  • ABM Marketer
  • Account Executive
  • Sales Development Reps
  • Field Marketer
  • Corporate Marketer
  • Professional Services Representative

The ABM team will need to meet at various intervals for different purposes—weekly for catch-ups and monthly for in-depth reviews. They will also be responsible for managing the change that ABM requires in both marketing and sales strategies.

 

4 – Get the Right Technology

ABM is a process, not limited to one particular task or piece of software. Most companies can implement an ABM program using existing technology, with the integration of perhaps a few additional products.

There are numerous vendors offering solutions for each step of the ABM process. Here is the ABM Market Map with vendors for each of six ABM processes, plus measurement:

There are even more details, checklists, and resources for ABM and getting started in The Clear & Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing. Download your copy for 124 pages of ABM insights that will teach you to:

  • Ask the right questions to determine the scale, scope, and strategy of an ABM implementation plan.  
  • Ensure seamless sales and marketing alignment with key talking points to communicate to both departments.
  • Identify warning signs that the ABM program is about to get off track.
  • Get the buy-in and funding necessary to take the next step.
  • Find the right people for any ABM team—in both sales and marketing roles. The ebook even includes a detailed chart on the roles and responsibilities of ABM team members.
  • Manage change in an on-going ABM program.
  • Identify vendors with a practical market map, to help with each of seven distinct ABM activities.