Taking a Tiered Approach to Account Based Marketing: Three Styles of ABM

There’s a lot of debate about how scalable Account Based Marketing can be. We’ve seen companies pilot ABM with one senior marketer working with five strategic accounts, and not surprisingly, it works great! So well, in fact, that the company asks to scale the program to 50 or 100 accounts or more… but not surprisingly, they don’t want to hire an additional 10 or 20 marketers to make that happen…

This perceived lack of scalability is a big part of the reason that ABM took so long to take off as a concept. Companies would look at it and think “that’s not for me”.

In the last few years, though, two new styles of ABM have emerged that can scale the benefits of Account Based Marketing to many more accounts. Here is an overview of the traditional Classic style, as well as the two new styles.

Style 1 / Tier 1: ABM “Classic”

In its purest form (as defined by the ITSMA), ABM is about treating each account as a market of one, with dedicated resources and everything customized to serve that account.

That takes time and effort – a lot of it.  For the largest accounts, with revenue potential of up to $1 billion, a single ABM marketer can cover only a few accounts – perhaps as few as three or four.  That might seem crazy, but it’s totally worth it for those big whale accounts.

These accounts get the “full” Account Based Marketing treatment – meaning each one gets deep research, a customized plan, personalized content, bespoke campaigns, and lots of 1:1 attention.  You map out each buying center, understand where there may be revenue potential, build out the organization chart and see which contacts you know and which you need to know, research key business priorities and individual motivations, and identify relationships and connections to the account.  You publish detailed account dossiers, maintain them quarterly, and even have internal chat groups or forums dedicated to each account.

You put together marketing plays that are designed for that account specifically, and you involve your entire organization, from the CEO down, to land and expand these accounts. The whole idea is that the lack of scalability drives the relevance and resonance.

This style of ABM works great.  When the ITSMA says that ABM has a better ROI than any other B2B marketing strategy, this is what they’re talking about.  BUT… as discussed above, it’s hard to scale. You’ll probably only do this for a few of your largest accounts, perhaps five or 10.  At best, you’ll have no more than a few dozen of these Tier 1 accounts – and even then, you may have just a handful that get 100% of the ABM effort described here. It’s really all about how much time and resource you can apply to this top tier (which should be directly proportional to how much revenue you expect to get out of it).

Regardless of how many accounts you have, the list will likely remain pretty stable over time since it can take years to develop these accounts.

Style 2 / Tier 2: ABM “Lite”

While you can probably count the accounts getting Style 1 on your fingers and toes, Style 2 lets you apply much of the focus and benefit of ABM to a broader list – usually measured in the low hundreds of accounts. Some folks call this “ABM Lite”.

Tier 2 accounts also get individual research, but perhaps it’s limited to a few key talking points for each account (e.g. spending three minutes to find three key selling points). Since these accounts are often smaller, mapping out individual buying centers may not be as challenging. But no matter what, you still want to spend time making sure you have quality data at the account level, as well as for each of the key people in each persona in the organization – and you’ll want a process to keep those insights fresh, at least annually.

These accounts may not get completely customized marketing plays and content, but they should still get highly relevant touches based on their industry and persona. Instead of 1:1 campaigns, these accounts get 1:Few campaigns. Instead of fully bespoke content, perhaps you take content written for their industry and customize it with their logo on the cover and a personalized first and last paragraph.

Style 3 / Tier 3: ABM–Demand Gen Hybrid

This style covers all the accounts that you want to target but don’t have the resources for personalization and customization. These will often be smaller accounts and can be counted in the thousands.

You may target these accounts with specific outbound tactics, sometimes customized by industry or solution, but the rest of the time you’ll simply use broad demand gen tactics but target specific accounts, including ABM advertising, content syndication, and events. ITSMA calls this Programmatic ABM. It’s basically traditional marketing with account-level targeting. The key difference from demand gen is that instead of scoring leads, you track account-level engagement and wait until the account hits a sufficient threshold to label them a Marketing Qualified Account (MQA).

Styles of ABM


We’re not saying any one style of ABM is better than another. All three can play a role in your business. But what is essential for any account based marketing initiative is making sure that Sales and Marketing are aligned on:

  • Which accounts go to which style of ABM
  • What Marketing effort goes into each tier
  • What Sales effort goes into each tier
  • How much pipeline and revenue you expect to get from each tier

It’s not enough to just pick a list of target accounts – you also need to prioritize how much resource you can apply to each account. Don’t spread out your ABM efforts across all accounts evenly like peanut butter; use account tiers and the different styles to ensure the right amount of resource for each account – and make sure everyone in the company is aligned around the prioritization and resources applied to each tier.

For more on this topic, see Bev Burgess’ excellent article, The Rise and Rise of Account Based Marketing: Three Approaches to Scaling ABM.

Types of Account Based Marketing

What do you think? Do the three styles of ABM make sense?

Jon Miller
Jon Miller
Jon Miller is CEO and founder of Engagio. Previously, Jon was the VP Marketing and Co-Founder of Marketo. He is a speaker and writer about marketing best practices, and is the author of multiple Definitive Guides including Marketing Automation, Engaging Email Marketing, and Marketing Metrics & Analytics. Jon has a passion for helping marketers everywhere, and is on the Board of Scripted and is an advisor to Optimizely and Newscred. In 2010, The CMO Institute named Jon a Top 10 CMO for companies under $250 million revenue. Jon holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard College and has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

4 Responses to “Taking a Tiered Approach to Account Based Marketing: Three Styles of ABM”

March 30, 2016 at 5:40 pm, jason jue said:

Glad that you are thinking about different ABM styles. One way I’ve categorized by the tiers is from a sales perspective. If a sales rep/team is assigned to <=1 account / rep vs. a sales rep assigned to 200 accounts / rep and everything in between.


July 21, 2016 at 6:52 pm, Josh Albert said:

Great article Jon. I would urge those considering ABM to develop a roadmap based on your tiers. For example, starting at Tier 2 or 3 may be easier than going right to Tier 1. And if you start at scale, you can see companies who are engaging and those companies could selectively be moved to Tier 1. You would then have data on where and how they are engaging your company. This could inform your research efforts, allow time to acquire the right contacts and launch a 1:1 effort with confidence.


July 22, 2016 at 12:56 am, Jon Miller said:

Thanks, Josh! I agree that Tier 1 can be challenging, so perhaps starting elsewhere is a smoother path.


January 05, 2017 at 4:48 pm, Rick Bilodeau said:

Hey Jon,

I head marketing at a B2B startup that is moving towards ABM. One challenge I see in your taxonomy is that going down the pyramid does not necessarily imply that the accounts are smaller – the segmentation may not be size but expected lifetime value – so the 2nd and 3rd tiers are still large accounts but smaller expected deal size or deal probability. For us only Hybrid is viable so I’d be interested in any other content as regards that. Also, I love the MAQ concept.


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