What’s Different About ABM Content?

Engagement metrics, the personalization spectrum, & mix of Marketing, Sales, and Customer Voice

By Emily Sue Tomac, Research Analyst at TrustRadius

At the recent #FlipMyFunnel conference in Austin, marketing thought leaders, practitioners, ABM experts, and software vendors whose products support ABM gathered to discuss the account-based marketing trend. They offered perspectives on the organizational infrastructure needed for account-based marketing to work, as well as on the content that makes up an ABM cadence–from white labeled energy drinks to dinner events, review quotes, and blog posts–and the tools they’re using to orchestrate it all.

The TrustRadius Research team attended sessions and interviewed speakers to dig deeper into the challenges marketers face in creating personalized content for ABM, including what exactly everyone means by “personalization.” Other members of the TrustRadius team were also in attendance, in a different capacity; TrustRadius CEO, Vinay Bhagat, led a session on how the customer voice plays a role in ABM content strategies.

Here are the five key takeaways that emerged from those conversations and presentations:

  1. Creating content for ABM is challenging, but entirely necessary. Personal, personalized conversations are the lynchpin of any ABM strategy–they’re what make ABM more effective, from a revenue standpoint, than inbound or traditional outbound.
  2. ABM content does not need to replace inbound content, but the two should work together. “Inbound content,” which is typically educational and not very product-centric, should attract and be meaningful to readers in your target accounts. In an ABM mindset, it’s more important to engage those specific individuals than to engage as many people as possible.
  3. Marketing and Sales should work together to determine the topics of content for ABM, and make sure that messages create a consistent narrative across the entirety of the buyer’s journey and customer lifecycle. It’s important for content to resonate deeply with buyers, but it’s also important to stay true to the brand’s vision and the product you’ll deliver. (Editor’s note: This is what Engagio calls Account Based Everything.)
  4. Personalization is a spectrum. Depending on deal size and available Marketing resources, you will need to find a balance between customization and automation for creating and distributing targeted ABM content.
  5. Customer feedback is a valuable asset that can feed into ABM content creation. The voice of your customers should be used as a tool to personalize Marketing and Sales communications at scale.

Personalized Content for ABM: Challenge Accepted

Creating meaningful, relevant content is one of the biggest challenges for all marketing programs, inbound and outbound alike. The pain is even more acute in account-based marketing than in traditional inbound content marketing, since ABM communications happen on a very direct, personal basis. Tony Yang, VP of Demand Generation at Mintigo, a predictive analytics platform, says that execution, time, and creating the content required to do effective ABM are the biggest obstacles facing his ABM campaigns, which he runs on limited resources. “Even though we know a lot about our target accounts through predictive insights (using our own product), we still need to create all the content that is required to educate, position, nurture, and build trust with various stakeholders in these target accounts,” explained Yang. Yang shared that companies with a more sophisticated marketing organization tend to be a better fit as target accounts for Mintigo–for example, companies using technologies like Eloqua/Marketo/Salesforce, marketing tactics like webinars and PPC ads, and that have demand gen and/or marketing ops roles. Knowing these specific characteristics about each account helps to guide Yang on the types of content required to do effective ABM campaigns.

ABM vs. Inbound Marketing Content

So what’s the difference between developing and using content for inbound programs (traditional content marketing) and developing and using content for account-based marketing? In an interview, Joe Chernov, VP of Marketing at InsightSquared, a sales performance analytics solution, said the biggest differences are where the inspiration for topics comes from, and how content performance gets measured.

According to Chernov, the type of content you need, in terms of format and message, will depend on the context in which you’re using ABM. The process for developing that content, though, should be consistent, and Chernov says it’s different than the process that’s in place for most inbound content marketing programs. “Start with a list of accounts and figure out what you’re going to do to engage those accounts, not start with a concept and hope people come find it. That’s the difference between ABM and traditional inbound,” he advised.

Chernov thinks this adjustment can be intimidating, from an organizational standpoint. He empathizes with other marketers who may be skeptical of thought leadership around ABM content: “It’s scary, because marketers have finally embraced inbound, and content, and the metrics that go along with those—from vanity metrics to MQLs to the serious waterfall, marketers have finally made that leap. And now here we are saying, wait but that is either incorrect or incomplete. You also need to be doing ABM, and there are unique metrics associated with ABM; there’s a different way to measure it. I think marketers are thinking, ‘I just convinced my leadership to make a change! I’ve instrumented my program around inbound/content principles, and now you’re telling me to do something new?!’”

In his opinion, re-designing your content program for ABM is worth it, but, he says, you should run your own tests to be sure. These test cases are usually certain contexts in which ABM is likely to make a big difference in revenue, such as “a particular geo, or a deal size, or for one line of business or one sales pod, or for retention instead of acquisition.”

In practice, though, once a company commits to ABM the difference between content for ABM and content for inbound will likely shrink. Chernov’s thinking has changed as InsightSquared has moved from testing ABM to implementing it more fully: “I used to say we run a hybrid ABM/inbound model, but I’m starting to realize that even that description is too divorced. It’s not that we have ABM stuff over here and inbound stuff over here and they overlap a little bit; those circles need to overlap entirely. The implementation of our blog is part of our ABM strategy. The blog topics come from our reps. The content starts at the bottom and works its way up; it’s basically sales enablement exposed to all. We don’t just editorialize and hope we’re going to get high traffic. We also measure the results in an ABM context. We look at the percentage of readers who are from named accounts—that’s the number we care about, not the total number of readers.” In addition to measuring the blog performance with an account-based perspective, Chernov’s team also measures engagement with the blog as part of an account’s overall ABM engagement score. Chernov provided an example to show how the different types of content factor in, explaining, “If you get a mailer, you get a certain points value. If you come to a dinner, you get a different value. If you read 5 blog posts, that counts as an ABM touch. The blog is woven into our ABM strategy—this is not a separate but equal story, the two are fused together.”

In ABM, Marketing & Sales Should Craft the Message Together

Another difference in the process of creating content for ABM is interdepartmental collaboration. Marketing has traditionally controlled the editorial calendar for inbound content, as well as spearheaded a content repository for sales enablement. Several of the speakers we interviewed recommended that as part of ABM, Sales and Marketing should work more closely together to determine which types of content will be useful and which messages will resonate with particular accounts.

Keenan, Author & CEO at A Sales Guy, says content that is developed collaboratively will facilitate a smoother journey for buyers, and will help boost conversion. One of the biggest problems he sees with the status quo is a failure of marketing materials (at the top of the funnel, and during sales conversations) to resonate with the specific experiences of buyer/customers. Keenan says this is a process issue, that can be improved if information from Sales flows back into Marketing: “Sales and Marketing have to work closely to get intimate and empathetic with the customer experience, and engage deeply with customer problems. Typically, Marketing collects a lot of macro data that says ‘our space is a certain way.’ Then they use that information to craft the message. But when Sales goes out and talks to customers and prospects, they find out that macro-level trend doesn’t really match up with the problems and experiences of individuals within the space. Sales has the micro-conversations; reps can tell you what’s actually going on when they talk to buyers. Marketing needs to take that intel and combine it with their broader perspective, and use anecdotes to illustrate and address what the sales team is saying. Together, they need to shift, morph, and tweak it into a consistent flow of messages that just get more granular as accounts move through the funnel.” In ABM, it’s crucial that content is helpful and relevant to the individual and the account you’re engaged with, rather than to the market generally–this type of research has usually been the domain of SDRs and sales prospecting, rather than the domain of Marketers. Thus, Keenan advocates for a more targeted, customer-centric and buyer-centric approach to Marketing content, fueled by intelligence from Sales.

At Terminus, a company that provides ad serving & retargeting software for ABM, feedback flows both ways. Tonni Bennett, Terminus Director of Sales, described how content that was traditionally created by Marketing is being influenced by Sales objectives, and content that was traditionally written by sales reps and SDRs is being influenced by Marketing’s creative and data-driven lens. According to Bennett, the need for collaboration is particularly strong in developing and highly competitive markets: “We’re finding that there’s so much noise that sales communications have a hard time standing out. The more that Marketing can help us be creative in our outreach the better—whether it’s putting one of our CMO Sangram’s videos in an email that an SDR sends, or helping SDRs make their own video. Marketing is able to give us, and particularly our sales development team, good ideas about how to be more impactful. At the same time, we don’t want to have fluffy content that speaks only about ABM. So our sales team has helped marketing learn about how to truly position our product and how to clearly point out differentiators from other offerings. They’ve gotten really good at highlighting those things to make our content better for sales and to have more of a sales mindset in everything that we do,” said Bennett.

Tension Between Most Effective Targeted Content / Ability to Scale

As Jon Miller, marketing thought leader and CEO/co-founder of Engagio, pointed out in his presentation, there is a spectrum of effectiveness for ABM content. In an interview, as well as in his presentation at a recent SiriusDecisions conference, Matt Senatore, Service Director, ABM at SiriusDecisions, made a similar point: the content and execution of ABM campaigns will differ depending on whether you’re targeting a small number of large accounts, named accounts, an industry/segment, or your existing customers. (SiriusDecisions talks more about the different models for ABM in this slideshow.)

At one end of the spectrum is fully customized one-on-one content. Manual personalization for individuals at specific accounts is highly effective but also extremely high-effort. At the other end of the spectrum is mass ‘personalized’ content, often called targeted content, served up with software like sales email tools and web personalization tools. Though somewhat less effective, it is much more possible at scale. During the conference, we talked to practitioners who are using approaches across this spectrum to create content for their account strategies.

For example, Joe Quinn heads an account-based marketing team at National Instruments, which provides hardware and software for engineering projects. Quinn’s team starts with a list of named accounts, whether greenfield accounts or existing customers targeted for expansion. They then send customized, one-to-one emails to potential buyers at those accounts to try to set up a meeting for a sales rep–with no automation involved.

“We go out and collect account intelligence on the buyers. We look into different dimensions about how they’re involved in the community, whether they speak at conferences, whether they have board memberships or are leaders in associations. We try to find something that resonates with them uniquely, in terms of why they would entertain a visit from National Instruments if they’ve never worked with us before,” said Quinn. This content strategy, which falls on the far end of the spectrum in terms of effort and customization, is highly effective, according to Quinn’s tests. He shared that their ABM emails “get about a 20% response rate, which is 10 percentage points higher than the response rate for emails from our inside sales force.”

Simon Spencer, Director of Marketing Operations, SheerID, a discount verification software for large retailers, shared a more centrist approach to personalization. Spencer’s philosophy around marketing content is that the first step is to craft the general story, a narrative that educates and then persuades the buyer. Spencer says the most important thing to remember here is the narrative timeline: “You have to have a beginning, middle and end, your end being, ‘SheerID’s the best product out there for you,’ and the beginning being, ‘this is why you should run an exclusive marketing program,’ and then all the different pieces in between.” Then, in an ABM context, Spencer adapts the pieces of content in that narrative to better fit the individuals he wants to target at key accounts, customizing for different personas but not on an individual basis. According to Spencer, this makes the content valuable and relevant enough to stakeholders that SheerID is able to increase traction within their target accounts.

“The next step is taking each piece of content and then morphing it into what’s going to be valuable for the reader. So breaking it out depending on the job role or function of the person, so that they feel a stronger connection with the content that you’re sharing with them. The end result is that they’re all downloading the same piece of content, but how you present that piece of content is different based on the individual, because their pain points are different,” explained Spencer. His method of content reuse and repackaging for narrow segments is still fairly personalized, but requires less effort than researching and crafting distinct messages for every person at every account. It also provides Marketing with more brand control, ensuring the overall message/buyer’s journey remains consistent between roles and across accounts.

Julia Stead, Director of Demand Generation at Invoca, a call tracking and analytics software company, described a similar approach to creating content for ABM. Stead said Invoca’s demand gen content is now more specific and more easily customizable than the content they created in the past for traditional inbound content marketing. “We’re trying to be a lot more vertical specific and buyer persona specific in creating our content. It’s less top of funnel, fluffy awareness stuff, and more mid-funnel and persona-specific pieces. We’re also trying to make sure that anything we do can be easily customized for a vertical. So we might do an e-book where the first two pages and the last pages can be customized for a vertical–that’s about as customized as we’re getting right now,” Stead said. In the near future, though, Stead does plan to use technology to automate some of her content strategy: “Our project for the next quarter is going to be looking at more tools like Uberflip or other personalization content tools to get a little bit better and make that more scalable for us.”

On the more automated end of the spectrum, Triblio, a content marketing/website personalization tool for ABM, uses their own product to serve up a personalized web experience to their prospects, for example, based on the buying stage. Jason Jue, CMO, said that categorizing accounts by stage has helped Triblio target existing content, like proposals, technical documentation, pricing information, case studies, and help articles, and messages like CTAs, more effectively. Jue thinks this helps keep prospective accounts moving through the funnel. It’s also highly scalable, since content targeting is done automatically via programmed logic, mapping site visitors to accounts and accounts to stages.

“There is always a lot of debate among marketers around whether to include pricing info online. We always discuss the pricing in the demo process, but once the account is ready for an actual proposal, then we’ll display all the definitions, all the complexity of the pricing, so that for anybody else who is in that account and looks online for pricing, it’s fully transparent. We also serve technical documentation at this stage. Sometimes the web person may not want to talk to a salesperson about the technical ins and outs–they’d rather research it themselves–but we don’t want to reveal that to information just any prospect because they may not understand the context, or a competitor may see it. But when the account is at the proposal stage, they can see technical documentation,” reports Jue. In addition to showing different content to prospective accounts at different stages, Triblio also differentiates the web experience for existing accounts they’re trying to retain and expand. Jue explained that, “When customers hit the website, we don’t show the calls to action that are aimed at prospects. Rather, the CTA is to talk to our customer success person. We also do up-sells related to the individual account, with specific content objectives on how to increase usage and expand use cases.”

The Voice of the Customer in ABM Content

One method of resolving the tension between individually personalized content and scalable content targeting is to find more scalable, relatable sources of content–e.g. content creators, like customers or influencers, whose perspectives will resonate more personally with your target accounts. Content created by advocates is highly effective for ABM. Customer-authored content (or user-generated content) tends to be more authentic and trusted and therefore gets a high response/action rate. Sourcing content in this way can take the volume strain off of your internal content team.

According to Sujan Patel, co-founder of Contentmarketer.io, who presented on strategies for growth hacking, using customer perspectives in this way is an extremely valuable “growth hack” for account-based marketers. In an interview, Patel said, “I was excited to speak at #FlipMyFunnel because advocacy is the widest part of their funnel. If you’re just starting out as a company, you probably have awareness and traction issues, but if you can muster up a couple hundred customers, even Beta testers for free, you have something. That asset can be your biggest growth driver. And it’s free, or as close to free as possible. They say it’s cheaper to keep a customer than to acquire a new one, but I would take that one step further and say it’s cheaper for your customers to get you more customers than it is to get your own new customers.” In the FlippedFunnel schema below, created by Terminus, advocacy is the key to amplification; it’s the base of the pyramid, the means by which a brand can balloon out and multiply its new accounts.

Patel says that as VP of Marketing at a previous software company, he found their “best converting copy came from this kind of effort,” more specifically, “surveying your audience, and asking customers to describe the product, or what problem they’re trying to solve.” To drive growth through ABM (which Patel sees as the primary goal of the strategy), companies should go beyond Marketing and Sales perspectives and use this customer feedback to create more relevant, scalable content. “It’s about learning to speak to your customer with their language and letting them drive,” concluded Patel.

Just before Patel gave his own presentation, Shanel Vandergriff, SVP Marketing at AlienVault, a security management software vendor, and Russ Somers, VP of Marketing at TrendKite, a PR software vendor, presented on a panel with Vinay Bhagat, CEO of TrustRadius, about how they leverage their customer base to efficiently create targeted content. Both companies worked with TrustRadius to ask their customers to write in-depth reviews of their products, resulting in a mass of content that is filterable by industry, role, department, and company size—criteria commonly used to do ABM personalization at scale—in addition to overall rating and review date.

These reviews are publicly available online, but Vandergriff and Somers also talked about how they repurposed review content to use in their ABM strategies, and why customer-generated content helps them build a more scalable, deeper connection with prospects than other types of marketing content. Somers said at TrendKite, review content ties together Marketing and Sales, addressing prospects’ objections in a more specific, conversational way than case studies (a more traditional type of sales enablement content). “We have very tightly aligned Sales and Marketing teams. We’ve used the reviews, which our target audience trusts much more than case studies, to create a lot of sales enablement content. Reps can pull customer insights to address specific objections—comprehensiveness, ease of use, etc.,” said Somers. Using voice of the customer content, TrendKite has seen a 26% conversion lift in demo requests, a 25% increase in time on page, and a 14% increase in conversion rate on PPC traffic, which has positively impacted Somers’ Marketing ROI. Likewise, Vandergriff reports a 35% conversion lift in pricing quote requests and a 43% conversion lift in trial downloads.

For Vandergriff, in addition to authenticity and detail, the scalability of this content is key. She says review content strikes a balance between personalization and volume that makes targeted communications more feasible for her team. This point is important for practitioners who are planning to take the advice of thought leaders and use an ABM mindset across all (or more) of their target market, outside of the enterprise segment. Vandergriff thinks customer perspectives make segment marketing more effective, because the topics and language are more likely to resonate with the experience of individuals at prospective accounts. “We are a security management company that is providing threat detection software for the mid-market. It’s well known that account-based marketing tactics work well in the enterprise, but we’re one of those blended environments, where for us volume really matters. The cornerstone for us is having strong, authentic content that speaks directly to the pain of that IT or security practitioner in our target accounts,” Vandergriff said.

Vandergriff’s strategy fits on the customization/automation spectrum somewhere between Simon Spencer’s approach and Jason Jue’s approach. She explained: “We wanted to repackage the reviews so that we could serve them up in a targeted way as part of our nurture strategy. So we’ve created customer reports by vertical. For example, we have a group of reviews from  customers in the financial services industry, so we bundled those into a report that speaks directly to buyers in that segment, with content written by their peers. We’ve also done vertical reports for education and healthcare. We leverage Demandbase to profile traffic as it comes in, and we’ve created landing page experiences by vertical to serve up personalized content depending on the industry of the account’s IP address. It’s all just repurposed feedback from our customers.” (Demandbase is a web analytics tool that allows segmentation of site traffic by industry, size, revenue, or account status.)

Remember, though, that the theory of account-based marketing rests on the idea that traction with a handful of strong, high-value accounts is better than a massive flood of leads; ABM is essentially a quality over quantity play. As companies like InsightSquared, and Triblio, who are using various technologies to test and automate their ABM content strategies, continue to develop their programs, the extent to which ABM can effectively scale will become clearer.

Finding a sustainable, resource-efficient way to create and distribute content will be a key factor in determining whether ABM becomes viable for companies with smaller prospective deal sizes. Inbound content’s one-to-many audience building approach may take a while to pay off, but it’s a strategy that many smaller companies (and companies that sell smaller deals) have found profitable. With ABM, creating hyper-personalized content for large enterprise accounts has led to increased ROI–but for smaller accounts that won’t generate a ton of revenue, investing too much in content can be a dangerous drain on resources. It will be interesting to see how different interpretations of ABM utilize content, how this affects ROI, and how the ABM trend affects content marketing best practices. At the very least, the principles of ABM will probably continue to influence inbound content marketing agendas, making blog topics more targeted and more closely related to sales conversations as well as customer feedback.

Emily Sue Tomac

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