A great deal is being written about account-based marketing (ABM), and for good reason. ABM is revolutionizing business-to-business sales.
The concept is quite simple, combining traditional account-based selling techniques with multiple traditional and digital communications channels and usually leveraging digital automation. Strategically, ABM is nothing more than a modern application of the age-old marketing principle, “put the right message in front of the right audience, at the right place and time.” It is the latest iteration in B2B marketing, brought on by increasing levels of isolation and numbness among decision-makers.
Reaching the Elusive Decision-Maker
At the end of the American Civil War, James Ritty and John Birch invented the first mechanical cash register, which incorporated a bell that alerted the business owner whenever the cash drawer was opened, making it more difficult for employees to pocket sales revenues. John Patterson bought the company and renamed it National Cash Register. He added a paper roll to record transactions, creating the first automated sales journal, and revolutionized the selling process, creating the first sales training manual, and the concepts of protected territories, sales quotas and canned presentations. In the early 1900s, Willis Carrier began selling commercial air conditioners to printing companies, facilitating the rapid growth of process color printing. Fast-forward 50 years and find Ray Kroc selling Prince Castle’s multi-spindled milkshake mixers to mom-and-pop burger joints.
What did the fathers of cash registers, air conditioners and burger franchises have in common? They were all selling commercial products in a B2B environment, at a time when reaching business owners and decision-makers was relatively easy: when company owners could often be found on site, when managers were willing to meet with sales representatives, and when people read and valued their mail.
But in the years that followed World War II, it became increasingly difficult to reach business decision-makers. Executive support staffs grew; family-owned businesses sold to investors or went public; sales organizations added support positions, driving up selling expenses… Then came the digital revolution, bringing computers, mobile phones, and internet access to employees at all levels, and what had been 8-hour workdays extended well into evenings and weekends.
The Proliferation of Channels
Ironically, though there are more ways to reach people than ever before, business decision-makers have actually become harder to reach. What’s more, they’ve become numb. And for good reasons:
- U.S. advertisers spend over $183 billion annually, or approximately $740 per U.S. adult (Statista, 2018)
- The U.S. Postal system delivered roughly 150 billion pieces of mail in 2017, to a population of 325 million people, 76% of whom are over 17 years of age. By extrapolation, one could estimate that the average adult receives over 600 pieces of mail per year. (Statista, 2018)
- Worldwide, over 260 billion emails were sent per day in 2017 – over half were sent by businesses, and more than one in fifty contained malicious attachments (Tschabitscher, 2018)
- The average office worker receives 121 emails a day and sends out 40 business emails a day (Tschabitscher, 2018)
Over 6 billion text messages are sent every day in the United States to a total of 240 million cell phones, representing 25 text messages per recipient, per day (Burke, 2016)
- Including radio, television, outdoor, mail, email, SMS, logo placement, internet advertising, SERPs and more, the American Marketing Association estimates the average consumer is exposed to 10,000 brand messages per day (Saxon, 2017)
A History of Exploitation
So, how did we get here? Simply put, marketers have always been quick to exploit communications channels, and thanks to technology, communication channels are proliferating at an increasing rate. Take a moment to review the following timeline and note the short spans between commercialization and monetization of several common communications technologies:
1704 – The Boston News-Letter, America’s first continuously published newspaper is born
1704 – First newspaper ad runs for an estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY (0 years to monetization)
1741 – First American magazines published: American Magazine, published by Andrew Bradford, and General Magazine, published by Benjamin Franklin
1742 – First magazine ads runs in Franklin’s General Magazine https://www.magazines.com/history-of-magazines (1 year to monetization)
1775 – U.S. Postal System created
1835 – The American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) creates the first direct mail campaign, sending anti-slavery printed materials to Southern religious and civic leaders (60 years to monetization)
1900 – Robert Landell de Moura, a Brazilian priest, transmits the first AM radio signal of the human voice
1920 – AM radio station 8MK (now CBS affiliate WWJ) broadcasts the first radio news program
1922 – AM radio station WEAF runs the first radio advertisement, promoting the Hawthorne Court Apartments in Jackson Heights, NY https://www.npr.org/2012/08/29/160265990/first-radio-commercial-hit-airwaves-90-years-ago (2 years to monetization)
1930s – Analog television broadcasting begins in some parts of Europe and North America
1941 – Bulova Watch company runs the first television ad during a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies http://adage.com/article/media/flash-back-friday-tv-commercial-ran-75-years-ago-today/304777/ (11 years to monetization)
1950s – Public television is born
1970s – Public broadcasting underwriting spots recognize corporate underwriters, state and local governments, educational institutions, and the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (20 years to monetization)
1989 – Dial-up internet access begins
1991 – CERN introduces HTML and the World Wide Web
1992 – Text messaging begins
1994 – AT&T runs the first internet banner ad: Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE? >> YOU WILL https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/the-first-ever-banner-ad-on-the-web/523728/ (3 years to monetization)
2003 – SMS advertising is born (11 years to monetization)
2003 – LinkedIn launches
2004 – Mark Zuckerberg launches The Facebook
2004 – Facebook offers banner ads (0 years to monetization)
2005 – LinkedIn begins monetizing its Jobs platform (2 years to monetization)
2005 to 2018 – Flickr, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, microblogging, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, Vine, and countless other communications platforms launch on the web…
Rising Above the Cacophony
Given the sheer overload experienced by buyers and decision-makers at all levels and the increasing isolation of business managers and executives, delivering the right message to the right buyer, at the right place and time has become much more difficult. This makes traditional forms of marketing, like broadcast advertising or direct mail, less effective.
“Inbound Marketing” programs, which rely on company-created internet content to attract customers or leads to a company, are often effective for consumer products but have proven significantly less effective in more complex, relationship-based, B2B sales. This has been a great disappointment to many sales organizations, who would prefer that “marketing” generate an endless supply of qualified leads for “sales” to close.
The failure of inbound marketing to create a sustainable and cost-effective stream of business prospects in high-value sales settings is not surprising, given the recent declines in print and broadcast advertising efficacy and prospects’ lack of free time to research and consume content. Savvy B2B marketers with high-ticket products or services – especially those whose decisions were based on relationships or required long sales cycles – quickly abandoned their inbound efforts in favor of a hybrid approach that combined highly targeted content marketing with traditional relationship-based selling.
Understanding the Account-Based Model
Sales organizations have long understood the importance of selling at multiple levels within a prospect company. They know that products or services that affect a customer’s entire enterprise may require buy-in from multiple stakeholders, and those stakeholders may represent different interests. In a complex, enterprise-level sale, the decision-maker may be a purchasing manager, an operations manager, a financial officer, the CEO, or a group of senior managers. And those decision-makers seldom work in a vacuum, but rather consult with end-users and other stakeholders essential for successful adoption and implementation – people we refer to as “influencers.”
Managing the complex sales cycle requires intricate planning and coordination of resources and developing an effective marketing approach to these accounts requires careful integration between the marketing and sales organizations.
ABM combines proven, multi-stakeholder selling protocols with strategically placed content designed to increase the probability that buyers and influencers will be receptive to your proposal. In effect, account-based marketers create individual marketing communications campaigns for each target company on the organization’s short-list of prospects, communicating to each targeted account as if it were a market of one. (Zantal-Wiener, 2016)
Elyse Meyer explains it this way, “Account-based marketing raises the stakes by targeting one company (or one account) and further targets the decision-makers within this account with coordinated and high-touch sales and marketing tactics. In this way, ABM takes mass marketing and targets it to a market of one for that specific message.” (Meyer, 2017)
Focusing all of a company’s communications efforts on one account requires close coordination among several departments that are often separated by silos. Sales, customer service, marketing, public relations, product development and more must work together under the guidance of a highly skilled marketing manager. But because the technologies that form the backbone of a concerted ABM effort are fairly new, many companies lack leadership experienced in the approach. These companies must identify an outsourced provider – often a consultant or an agency– to guide their ABM efforts.
Marketo, whom many consider the leading platform for managing account-based marketing, identifies six “pillars” of ABM: (1) Organizational buy-in, (2) Carefully targeted accounts, (3) Compelling content, (4) Cross-channel engagement, (5) Measurement and continual improvement, and (6) a Technology platform capable of managing the entire process. (Gomes, 2017)
Many departments have roles to play in Account-Based Marketing initiatives. These include Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, Product Development, Product Management, Public Relations, and more.
Getting all these managers on board can be a tricky process and usually requires executive support. For that reason, the best place to start gaining advocates would be the C-suite – particularly the CEO and CFO, without whose backing few initiatives survive. This can be an intimidating conversation for marketing managers, but the key to gaining C-suite support is to focus the discussion on ROI. Daniel Laws, of DaBrian Marketing Group, offers this possible argument: “ABM is precise, targeted, personalized and measurable. It provides the highest ROI among B2B marketing tactics and strategies while providing less waste and risk. The approach makes it easier to align sales with marketing for consistent marketing that grows accounts.” (Forbes Agency Council, 2017)
Benefits to the sales organization are many and include: more highly qualified sales leads, full organizational support of the customer acquisition process, a shorter sales cycle, an opportunity to get personal with your customers, and a means of differentiating the organization in a noisy and competitive market. (Forbes Agency Council, 2017)
Generally, with the CEO and VP of Sales onboard, other key personnel will follow.
Targeted Accounts: Establishing the Short-List
Experienced sales reps are often careful list-builders. And given the freedom to add any or all accounts to their list of protected accounts, most sales reps would choose “all.” Similarly, when sales reps ask marketing to reach out to prospects, whether through ads or direct mail or social media, they often ask marketing to target their entire lists. And while “broadcast” messaging is effective with consumer goods, which have broad appeal and may require little commitment from the buyer, it becomes prohibitively expensive for highly targeted markets.
That’s why many B2B sales managers – especially those managing long-cycle or high-value products and services – require each sales rep to develop a manageable list of well qualified target prospects. Whether a particular prospect ends up on the short list may be determined by any number of qualifiers including: potential for a “quick hit”; lifetime revenue potential; time required to penetrate the account; effort required to maintain the account; history of success with similar accounts; prospect’s propensity toward early adoption, and many more.
Once the short-list is created, Sales Development Reps typically “research each account to build a list of contacts within them and reach out to establish a relationship… [and] continually nurture that relationship until the prospect is sales-ready and willing to meet.” (Gomes, 2017) At this point, the Account Executives usually take over, explore the prospects’ pain points, and pitch and close the deal.
Generating and distributing content has very little effect, unless the content is relevant to the contact and geared toward her experience in the customer journey. This requires a detailed understanding of the customer’s business objectives, personal pain points, and many other factors – all of which must be uncovered by the SDRs and AEs (and with existing customers, by the CSRs).
Note that the content does not need to be original. Delivering a carefully selected and well-timed article or video can be just as effective as developing original content, and far less expensive to acquire. What’s more, third party content may be perceived as less biased than an organization’s own promotional material or published article.
Because both are focused on content, Account-Based Marketing and Content Marketing are often confused. But the manner in which that content is targeted and delivered is the difference between the two approaches.
In the words of Amit Lavi, CEO of Marketing Envy, “ABM is flipping traditional approach to content marketing on its head. Instead of creating a content offer and then hoping that ‘there is plenty of fish in the sea’, ABM-focused content starts with a question, ‘What content will this specific account respond to?’” (Lavi, 2017)
Traditional media channels like broadcast television, newspapers and radio are fine for brand-building, but less suited to account penetration. What’s more, they come at a very high price. In fact, it has often been observed that newspaper and radio are the only media in which audiences continue to decline while prices are rising. By their very nature, these broad media channels offer little efficiency for targeting individuals or companies.
Emerging technologies, especially those operating on the internet, enable marketers to deliver content to specific companies or to specific individuals. Social media platforms, for example, allow advertisers to upload detailed contact lists containing buyers’ or influencers’ information, which these platforms use to target organizations (by IP address) or even individuals (by email address). Cookies and tracking pixels enable marketers to follow prospects through their buying journey, retargeting them with ads on other websites, long after their initial contact. Geofencing allows companies to communicate with prospects within a defined geography, such as a trade show. And mobile phone numbers facilitate SMS messaging and the possibility of off-hours communications. These tools, and many more, open one-to-one channels between businesses and their prospects or customers – channels capable of delivering text, voice, pictures, and video.
Today’s communication channels include email, text messages, display ads, social media, blogs, digital publishing, search advertising, personalized web experiences, online ads, video channels, 1:1 direct mail, and others – all while traditional print advertising, broadcast advertising, direct mail, and events establish presence, credibility and brand. When combined with ongoing data gathering and a developing understanding of the client, multi-channel marketing facilitates “tailored and custom programs and initiatives, based on deep client insight.” (Schwartz, 2017)
Measurement and Continual Improvement
Ever since W. Edwards Deming introduced the idea of continual improvement, business leaders – especially in the B2B space – have demanded meaningful metrics from their managers. Until recently, marketers have found it difficult to identify and track metrics which the sales department and the C-suite could agree were meaningful, because it has traditionally been difficult to tie marketing response directly to revenue generation. Technology is changing that.
Newer technologies empower the marketer to prove ROI by tracking a customer’s journey from the first response or inquiry to purchase and through the customer experience. This enables organizations to look beyond traditional measures, like “views” and “clicks,” to sales and lifetime value. Today’s dashboards not only meet the needs of the executive team, they identify levers marketers can adjust to improve response and conversion. When used in conjunction with a solid Account-Based Marketing strategy, they close the loop on accountability.
Chris Camps, writing for ClickZ, suggests the following Key Performance Indicators for an ABM campaign: (Camps, 2017)
- Marketing-qualified accounts (MQAs) help shift focus from individual decision-makers or influencers to entire organizations and show a more complete view of the prospective account.
- Engagement rate (indicating clicks, visits, downloads, meetings, etc.) should be measured across the entire organization.
- Reach within an account reflects the breadth and depth of your account penetration.
- Pipeline velocity, a measurement of time between first contact, qualified opportunity, and sale, will help you understand the effectiveness of your touchpoints and evaluate the potential in similar future accounts.
- In-funnel conversion rates measure progress through the stages you set in your sales funnel.
- Marketing influence attempts to determine the impact of each marketing touchpoint.
A great deal of software to support ABM already exists. From execution to reporting, to market intelligence, to account management, the list of software providers seems to grow by the day – and well it should. Account-Based Marketing is the future of B2B marketing.
Furthermore, significant enhancements are on the horizon. Artificial Intelligence and chat bots are already facilitating one-on-one conversations with potential buyers and influencers, learning their pain points and business objectives along the way. Soon, website enhancements like dynamic web copy will fashion unique and personalized web experiences for each visitor, with concierge-level service and efficiency. (Isaacson, 2016)
For now, B2B marketers at all levels must focus their energies on selecting, learning, and exploiting the technologies and platforms that best suit their organizations. Here are a few names of recognized service providers you may want to explore (in alphabetical order, so as not to play favorites): ActOn, Activate ABM, Adobe Campaign, Avention, Bizible, D&B Hoovers, DataFox, Datanyze, DemandBase, DiscoverOrg, Engagio, Everstring, Groove, LeanData, Marketo, Outreach, Printfection, Radius, Uberflip, RollWorks, Seismic, Terminus, ZoomInfo, 6Sense.
Breaking Down Implementation, Step-by-Step (The Arthur Murray Model)
Peter Herbert, VP of Marketing at Terminus, a SaaS platform for account-based marketing, describes account-based marketing as a concerted effort between sales and marketing to efficiently engage the accounts most likely to buy your products and services. The formula for ABM success, he claims, is [Fit + Intent + Engagement]. “Fit” refers to how closely your targeted accounts match the profile of your ideal customers. “Intent” is determined by analyzing data that reveals what people at those companies are searching on the internet. And “Engagement” is a metric that reflects the aggregated level of activity from all your prospects. (Herbert, 2018)
Marketo has identified six steps to implementing an ABM approach: (Marketo, 2017)
- Discover and define your high-value accounts
- Map accounts and identify key internal players
- Define content and personalized messaging
- Determine optimal channels
- Execute targeted and coordinated campaigns
- Measure, learn and optimize
On the surface, these steps seem simple and self-evident. They are, in fact, little more than a restatement of the same account selling processes highly successful sales executives have followed for years. But execution at scale remained impractical, until technology enabled each step of the process. Aggregated public and private data, windows into organizational structures, email automation, channel proliferation and efficacy data, campaign management software, personal computer power, and an ever-growing bevy of experienced consultants and agencies have put ABM within reach of almost all B2B marketers. Almost all.
It Takes a Village
We hesitate to say “all B2B marketers,” because many organizations lack the depth of in-house talent necessary for success. Consider the roles which need to be filled…
At the management level, organizations will need to provide an executive sponsor, an experienced marketing manager, a patient and cooperative sales manager, a fully staffed marketing department, and an integrated team of sales development specialists and account executives. If that sounds like a lot of staff, it should.
But within the marketing department, organizations also need to develop a strong team of marketing professionals with unique talents, including demand generation, content marketing, product marketing, and marketing operations. (Gomes, 2017)
Since ABM campaigns rely heavily on one-to-one communications at multiple levels throughout both organizations (seller and buyer), current and accurate data is essential. This means that marketing data, customer service data, sales data, and service data must align, despite the obvious challenge that these databases often reside is separate silos.
In a recent interview, Kelly Kennedy, Chief Sales Officer at Baltimore-based R2i (R2integrated) said: “B2B marketing leaders focused on building, launching, and scaling an ABM-driven foundation know that the path to maturity is far from linear—to achieve the full benefits of this rapidly growing technique requires alignment and precise programming across teams, content, data, and technology.”
In short, it takes a village – and most B2B marketers don’t have such a village at their disposal.
First, Find a Partner
At this point, you’re probably saying, “Wait… This is a set-up! I bet he’s going to say MarketPoint could be that partner.” And you’d be surprised to hear our answer: “No. No we can’t.” In fact, no consulting group is fully staffed to provide all the services you would need to implement an effective ABM strategy. Consulting firms, by nature, remain lean for strategic reasons – they exist to provide strategic direction, not implementation services. You need an agency. Fortunately, there are several ABM-experienced agencies in most major markets.
Learn on Your Own Terms
As you embark on your ABM journey, you will no doubt encounter new terms. Marketers are particularly fond of coining words and phrases – they serve the critical purpose of making our work seem difficult and mysterious. Acronyms like TOFU, MOFU and BOFU, for example, are simply shorthand for the Top, Middle and Bottom Of the FUnnel. (And you thought they were related to SNAFU.)
Other terms, like MQLAs are simply adaptations of old marketing terms, in this case, Marketing Qualified Leads (with Account scores). Pretty lame, I admit.
The thing to remember is this: Make your marketing partners talk to you in your own terms; don’t try to learn theirs. These new terms are often promoted to make consultants and agencies look unique, all-knowing, or powerful. To borrow a well-known phrase, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
And Never Stop Learning
Selling has always been about engaging with potential customers, listening to (and appreciating) their needs, and offering appropriate solutions. That much will never change. But the tools available to marketers are evolving at an ever-increasing rate, and as organizations learn to exploit these tools, it becomes increasingly more difficult to compete. Advantage goes to the organizations and individuals who work to stay on the front half of the adoption curve, by partnering, learning, experimenting and continually improving.
© Copyright 2018, Michael E. Zimmerman, MarketPoint LLC, Havre de Grace, MD
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