B2B marketers are facing the biggest driver of change since the arrival of inbound marketing: the transformation caused by Account-Based Marketing (ABM). For those who may not know the term, the general principle of ABM is, to loosely quote ad giant David Ogilvy, no longer counting the people you reach, but instead, reaching the people who count.
Recently, we were approached by the CEO of a mid-sized company who was frustrated by the end-of-the-day outcome being generated by his marketing team: multiple sales leads. You see, the problem was that the sales force wasn’t picking up those leads and turning them into business (sound familiar?).
The CEO had realized that this leads-based focus was burning up precious resources with very little to show for it. So, he turned to us to transform the company’s sales and marketing approach into a much more focused and goal-oriented one that concentrated on converting a targeted list of clients and aligning Sales and Marketing to work in concert toward shared objectives.
In short, he was asking for ABM – and by working closely together with the company’s CMO, we’ve now kicked off a wide-reaching business transformation project to deliver exactly that.
As the six-month project begins, I thought I’d share some of the critical implementation challenges that are top of mind for an agency like ours when working with an ABM transformation.
Getting these points right won’t ensure success (there’s a lot more to the picture), but getting them wrong will almost guarantee failure. Let’s look at them one by one:
1) Get the sales force on board
The last thing you want to happen is for Sales to perceive ABM as a Marketing initiative. Instead, Sales should feel that this is something they pretty much own, and is simply facilitated by Marketing.
There are many ways to tackle this, one of which is to not call it ABM! Instead, take a leaf out of IT behemoth Oracle’s book. Oracle talks about “Account-based Strategy” or “Account-based” for short. Here at cylindr, we like to use the term “Account-based Engagement” when speaking to internal audiences, focusing on the change in customer approach style that we’d like to see at the company.
Another valuable tip is to try and secure real buy-in from some of your company’s best and most influential salespeople before moving forward with a transition to ABM. This is best done via seminars and training sessions aimed at getting those salespeople to see the realizable benefits of an account-based approach and making their role in the new style clear and compelling.
2) Start small, scale up
Person walking upstairs to symbolize starting small and then scaling up
Trying to widely implement ABM in your company from the outset is a recipe for disaster. Rather, focus on a single geography or market vertical, work with one of your best sales teams rather than multiple teams, and maybe even, when it comes to the contacts in your targeted accounts, aim your personalized content at the “most likely buyer”.
That buyer could, for example, be the CIO – saving you the effort of creating and orchestrating customized buyer journeys for all the contacts in the account. As a starting point, this may not check all the boxes for a bona fide ABM campaign, but it will get you started and doubtless uncover a bunch of issues and considerations that will help you to refine your ideas before you start to scale up.
And if you’ve begun the effort while enlisting the help of the more visionary salespeople in the company, they’ll appreciate being able to be in on the ground floor, shaping the future of things with skin in the game.
3) Set clear expectations
While the CEO mentioned at the start of this blog post was keen to bring his marketing function up to the next level, he was also eager to understand what this extra investment was likely to return.
The best way to do this, we believe, is to break key buyer journeys into their phases, and then estimate the expected upside from ABM activities at each point along the journey.
In an awareness phase, for example, personalized email campaigns have been shown to out-perform standard email blasts by 5-10%, leading to higher engagement (one of the drivers of a customer or prospect’s propensity to buy).
Other ABM-style tactics that are designed to help push a deal through those feared “stuck” points have been shown to also significantly shorten the sales cycle. Through such systematic insights, the sum of the improvements likely to be delivered by ABM activities will usually turn out to vastly outweigh the required transformation investment.
So, it’s every bit as important to have your management as well as your Sales and Marketing teams understand the likely impact of ABM during the first year. And they shouldn’t expect miracles.
With new sales, if your sales cycle is long, you may not see results for the first year or so. That’s mostly because ABM is relationship-based, and relationships take time to build.
With existing customers, you may have earlier success. But one thing is for sure: ABM is a far better overall investment than continuing to generate leads as a starting point for deals that usually never even get off the ground. (In fact, research firm TOPO estimates that for every 100 Marketing Qualified Leads generated, only 10 are accepted by Sales and less than 1 in 100 becomes a deal).
Here’s what I recommend to our clients: Make sure your ABM success metrics reflect the target contact’s overall engagement with your company.
Show, for example, how that engagement has increased over time – more touches, minutes spent viewing your company’s content or time spent attending in-person events – and connect those engagement gains to a higher “propensity to buy” (I’ll explain more about this latter term in an upcoming blog post).
4) Get the target account list right
A desk with a notebook computer and coffee to represent working hard on to select the right target accounts
We hear this one again and again. Building a target account list (a process owned by Sales and facilitated by Marketing) isn’t a walk in the park. So, you need to take the time to discover the accounts that are a close fit with your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) and talk each one through with the account executive (AE) owners to be sure they’re well-suited to be on the list.
Often, an AE will try to get an account put on the list that doesn’t seem to be a great fit, starting off a discussion that can easily go off the rails if you’re not careful. Even more tricky, when you move from a leads-focused window on your world to an account-based viewpoint, those leads might be owned by multiple AEs, opening up a can of worms that only the sales manager might be able to close.
The key is to understand what you’re up against before the discussions begin. It often helps for Marketing to come up with the initial target list, set of ICP “rules” and work through this with individual AEs, rather than to start the entire process from scratch with Sales on board.
Our suggestion is that this sticky process is best performed with an external marketing and sales-savvy facilitator – a bilingual expert, you might say.
5) Don’t climb into the technology too early
It may be tempting to decide that your company is going to make the change to ABM, then rush out to invest in ABM platforms and bolt-on tools for your CRM. Don’t do it. Instead, if you can, start using spreadsheets to handle the processes and data around your ABM pilot projects.
That will give you and your teams a chance to figure out which activities and processes are relevant – and doable. Then, once you’re a little clearer on this, you can start to bring in basic ABM technologies to scale each part of the process and move to more advanced capabilities as your experience base grows.
You’ll find it helpful to build an ABM maturation model to guide this path – a standard piece of the puzzle whenever cylindr is undertaking an ABM transformation project.
That’s it for now: Five points that don’t cover the full spectrum of ABM transformation, but which will certainly help you to achieve the success you’re hoping for.