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ABM account planning: 5 steps to achieving success

The key to developing and running an effective ABM programme is account planning. So what does it take to get this discipline right? Victoria Clarke investigates

Account-based marketing (ABM) is fast becoming the critical weapon in B2B marketers’ armouries. While it was once just a strategy employed by large enterprises, today it's proving its relevance among businesses of all sizes and sectors as a result of more complex buying cycles, higher value deals and harder to engage decision-makers. Its increasing adoption is also likely to be linked with growing pressure for marketing departments to prove return on investment. ABM has a proven track record of increasing pipeline velocity, smashing targets and generating more bang for its buck. Some 97% of brands following an ABM strategy say it’s the highest ROI driver in their marketing mix.

Wherever you are on your ABM journey, the planning process is essential and the difference between failure and fire power. In particular, ABM turns elements of typical demand gen planning on its head so it’s worth getting it right from the get-go.

From defining key accounts to campaign execution – and all the processes that go in between and beyond – the ABM journey is always going to be different for every brand. But if you look at the most successful ABM practitioners, a pattern emerges. With this in mind, here's a five-point guide.

1. Align sales and marketing

ABM cannot work without rock solid, deeply engrained sales and marketing alignment – and buy-in from every stakeholder. With sales and marketing firmly aligned committing to the same goals and metrics, sales enablement will become even more of a powerful tool in creating resonant customer engagement. Without this alignment, ABM is doomed to fail. So while it’s given here as a process stage or step: in fact, it needs to underpin the whole ABM journey. As Alisha Lyndon, CEO, MomentumABM, suggests: “It’s a philosophical approach as much as it is a technical one.”

Much has been written lately about the importance of sales and marketing alignment, and it’s a huge topic all on its own. But in terms of capturing what it can look like in ABM and its advantages, Heidi Bullock, CMO, Engagio, comments: “I like the idea of shared goals (plan of record), aligned compensation, clear SLAs and clarity around roles. [At Engagio] we look at coverage, awareness and engagement daily – but figure out our actions on a weekly cadence. The ADR team looks at MQAs every day and has a very clear SLA of 24 hours.”

Heidi continues: “ABM, in many cases, makes alignment natural and less forced. Everyone is rowing in the same direction and wants the same outcome. It’s important to be clear who owns part of the process versus who participates. For many companies, once there's an opportunity, sales has formal ownership. If that’s the case, define how marketing should operate at that stage.”

Chris Bagnall, MD at Pulse, adds that sales and marketing alignment is “a continuous process of learning [which] can’t be based on a campaign budget that may exist for a programme and then stop. An ABM programme needs to flex based on real-time insight from sales back to marketing, and a change in priority of target account focus.”

2. Identify target accounts

One of the fundamental differences of planning ABM activity is that account identification takes place from the outset in order to identify high value, high propensity accounts. This is often in contrast to other demand gen activity which starts with the campaign message.

In terms of how to identify these accounts, Jessica Fewless, VP ABM strategy and field marketing, DemandBase, recommends: “Looking at companies with the most potential for your business, including existing customers, prospects and partners, or better yet, a mix of all three. This should be an iterative process, taking into account data and knowledge from the field.”

“Once you arrive at a list, go through the exercise of segmenting that list in a way that's meaningful and addressable by both sales and marketing. You may want to segment by industry, by sales stage, or by the product they're most likely to buy.”

Jessica's comment about iteration is a common theme in ABM planning. Chris picks up on this point, as well as how various tools and techniques and gut instinct, can also help select target accounts.

He says: “In almost all businesses, sales will already have a targeted account selection process in some capacity. How this has been built can differ from company to company but more often than not it will be based on historical department structure, previous win intelligence and sometimes gut feel. Tools such as predictive analytics platforms, as well as third-party data sources can help a business segment their targets and prioritise accounts to focus upon. What’s important in ABM though, is that this list doesn’t stay static. Accounts move up and down in priority and then how marketing focus their programme efforts on these different priority level accounts can change according to their importance and makeup.”

3. Develop account intelligence

Once target accounts have been identified using a range of predictive tools, historical data, firmographic data and intent scores, work needs to be done in order to develop further insight. This will help expand engagement opportunities and ultimately create stronger sales and marketing alignment. During this stage it’s also worth looking at any historical customer engagement with key accounts, as well as finding out more about stakeholders’ perception of the business and its products/solutions.

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And while it might sound obvious, Heidi at Engagio says investigating whether the right people are in the account database, and who exactly will be targeted (e.g. a marketing VP, CEO or head of IT) is another important (though often overlooked) step.

She explains: “Discover contacts and map these to your accounts. Then fill out these accounts and buying centres with specific contacts based on your ideal buyer profiles. Mapping out the organisation and the relationships within it will give a huge advantage when trying to navigate the sale. Learn as much as you can about each key stakeholder and the account as a whole so your interactions are always relevant and resonant.”

4. Select message, media and execution

Deciding the campaign message in ABM activity appears well down the planning process line because it links back to customer intelligence. It means there’s no excuse for a poor message with little-to-no relevance. Target messages need to be personalised to each account, as does tone of voice – and content must be adapted so it reflects account insight.

“[ABM] requires bulletproof messaging,” affirms Alisha. “We can’t hide behind a 5% response rate. This content is reaching salespeople who'll call it out and high-value customers who'll feedback if they don’t like something. It has to resonate and be meaningful. There are less places to hide [with ABM].”

When it comes to channel selection – cost effectiveness and how easy it is to personalise a message across a particular channel must be considerations. It’s also worth conducting an audit of existing content and messaging worked back to the target audience to help identify any gaps. However, once again, intelligence gleaned from customer profiling is likely to be the number one driver as to whether email, social media, direct mail or live events are selected.

5. Measure and evaluate

Every marketing campaign necessitates reporting and measurement in order to evaluate, optimise and scale, but how this gets done in ABM can also differ from other types of marketing activity. The fact marketing and sales are so closely aligned will have a big impact on the type of data that gets collected and analysed.

Jessica recommends concentrating attention on the wider picture. She asserts: “Focus your measurement on business impact. Rather than be clouded by campaign metrics [instead] focus on revenue performance metrics such as pipeline contributions, close rates, funnel velocity and opportunities with target accounts.”

Ultimately, says Chris: “With ABM, you're looking to measure account level insights at an ‘account level’."

He concludes: “To measure account intelligence, you have to set everything up to spot and correlate all possible activity with any contact at a target account. So yes, your lead metrics, but also any other engagement such as site visits, search engagements, clicks on your advertising, conversations at an event and what’s added into your CRM.”

Account-based everything

ABM has the potential to significantly transform the way every business does business. It’s not about improving on one aspect of the marketing mix, but rather understanding how ABM sits within the entire organisation and what value it can bring to every stakeholder.

As ABM adoption grows, it's likely to force marketers to evaluate all of their existing strategies and techniques. At the end of the day, it’s not just about smarter marketing; it’s about smarter business.

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