We’re thrilled to share this Q&A interview with one of the true pioneers and experts in Account Based Marketing, Jeff Sands, VP and ABM Practice Co-Lead of the ITSMA. We found this incredibly insightful and we hope you do as well!
You’re one of the pioneers of ABM. What has come together to make it so big right now?
Vendors right now are looking for ways to really focus, personalize and target – and these are the three key watchwords of ABM.
It’s all about choosing who is most important to you, working to gain a deep understanding of them, and personalizing your messages to them. So what you’re saying will be relevant and will resonate.
Anytime I talk to people about ABM, I always refer back to those two R words, because they’re the guidelines.
How strategic is ABM? Can it just be done at a tactical level?
If it’s just sponsored by marketing it will be perceived as just another campaign. But when you get the buy-in from Sales and the buy-in from senior executives and CMOs, then it’s then positioned as a strategic business initiative – a way to get above the noise and truly position yourself as the preferred solutions partner inside of your target accounts.
Those are high stakes and worthy of a strategic initiative.
Is ABM only for the very select few biggest accounts, or can it scale up?
The most intensive form of Account Based Marketing is at the very top – the Tier 1 accounts – where a good strong ABM marketer can only handle about three or four accounts at any one time. It takes that much time and effort.
But ABM can also be applied to what I would refer to as Tier 2 accounts, when there may be 10, 15, 20 of those next tier accounts, that one ABM marketer is going to be working with – that’s a ‘one to few’ kind of environment.
They may all be Tier 2 healthcare providers or healthcare payers and because you know they’re all in the same market they’re all facing the same challenges. So you can still target and you can still focus, what takes a little more effort is the personalization and that is where some of the marketing automation tools can really help.
So if you’re holding a seminar around a certain topic, instead of just inviting people from one account you invite the same level of people from maybe 6 or 7 accounts. But the content is still going to be relevant to them and its still going to resonate with them.
This targeted approach sounds like best-practice selling. How is ABM different from, say, The Challenger Sale?
You’re right, Sales is off knocking on doors, having conversations and trying to establish some sort of relationship with people inside of their targeted accounts.
But the conversations in the past have been strictly focused on products and solutions. What our research shows is that decision-makers want to talk to the salespeople and subject matter experts early on in the process when the problem is first recognized. We call this the ‘epiphany’ stage and it’s really where we push targeted and focused and personalized thought leadership marketing that then sees salespeople continuing the conversation.
We refer to it as thought leadership selling and it means Sales and Marketing are joined at the hip, right from the beginning – developing content, crafting strategies and messages. Then the salespeople can go in and have conversations about the client and NOT about them. And that’s the big difference.
Why is alignment so central to ABM?
If you take a step back, there are three processes going on at the same time:
The client is going through his/her buying process
They’ve encountered a problem, so they talk to peers and analysts, they do Google searches, then draw up a shortlist and, ultimately, make a decision.
Your sales team is going through a selling process
They’re making calls, knocking on doors, setting up meetings…
Your marketing team is off doing its thing
They have their editorial calendar, events calendar, marketing programs, seminars, content and advertising…
The challenge is that all three of these processes are misaligned. What ABM tries to do is get them in total alignment.
So that if salespeople are going to call on somebody and marketing is going to have an event they’re going to touch the client at the appropriate time in their buyers journey.
Our research shows even though marketing campaigns and content may be relevant; they’re often touching prospects at the wrong time.
They’re not ready to hear that message, so it is just a wasted effort.
ABM aligns all of that so there’s no wasted time in anybody’s process.
Are there any dimensions you see as especially important for account selection?
In our workshops, we help clients look at all the factors that might indicate an account’s propensity to buy, and then score these.
Two that are maybe not immediately obvious but that I like to introduce are: ‘Is the account in a growing market?’ and ‘What’s the attitude of the account rep on this account?’
We always prefer to target companies that are in a dynamic, growing market. It’s far more likely to turn into business than an account in a shrinking market.
The other one is really an interesting one: ‘What’s the attitude of the account manager?’ If the account manager says, ‘Listen I’ve been successful in my account for years, I’m making a lot of money,
I’m not sure what good this is going to do me,’ then your chance of success with ABM is limited.
If it’s somebody who’s always willing to try something new; who knows there are always other ways, maybe better, more efficient ways to gain entry into the account and they’re willing to try and work with you: that’s a great starting point.
What about personalizing ABM content? How focused does it get?
Most of our clients have a huge portfolio of marketing assets but most of them are produced by services or solutions marketing. So we always start with what they have already.
We then do a workshop process where we go into that content and personalize it. Sometimes there are only a few things that you want to change, sometimes its a graphic, a title, it might even have the company name in the title.
You might just change the opening paragraph so that it begins with their business and their issues, and their challenges. Then you change the last paragraph, which are often the benefits and the differentiators.
In some cases we even personalize it to the individual – we can even get down to that level of personalization.