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ABM for SMEs: Does account-based marketing work for targeting small businesses?

Can ABM be used to target small business owners? With thoughts from expert account-based marketers, Alex Clarke explores the options

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rather hefty boulder for the past couple of years, you’ll be fully aware that ABM (account-based marketing) is ripping through B2B land like a friendly tornado, shaking up marketing activity and forcing leaders to re-think their entire approach.

For those unsure of what ABM actually is, we’ve a host of further reading available, so scroll to the bottom of this page for some more general resources. (Honestly, we couldn’t advocate ABM enough – we even dedicated last year’s B2B Marketing Conference to the practice)

But for brevity’s sake, here’s our (brief) account-based marketing definition:

“ABM is a strategic marketing approach jointly implemented by sales and marketing that focuses on key, targeted accounts (whether they’re existing customers or not). It’s about identifying who your most important accounts are, gathering as much insight on them as possible, and then using this insight to align your proposition to the challenge(s) they’re facing and crafting a personalised marketing campaign to win their business”

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Now, ABM has historically been focused on huge corporates, those companies whose budgets are bulging, where undertaking a long-term ABM approach to winning their business makes complete sense.

But let’s not forget about everyone else in between.

Yes, I’m talking about the small business sector. And it turns out they’re not so small after all. SMEs generated £1.8 trillion of revenue in the UK alone last year. Now tell me you don’t want a slice of that?

And guess what, ABM can help here too. Here’s how.

ABM isn’t just for the big boys

“The principles of ABM are relevant in targeting any size of organisation,” says Mike Boogaard, co-founder and MD of ABM agency ALIAS Partners.

“Sales and marketing collaboration; focusing on accounts rather than leads; being specific about the accounts you're going after; tailoring and personalising your messaging and content – these are all fundamentals of good marketing.”

"ABM works because it keeps us focused on the important features of powerful marketing communications"

Andy Bacon, lead ABM advisor

Andy Bacon, lead advisor for B2B Marketing's ABM Head-Start programme, echoes Mike’s sentiments: “ABM works because it keeps us focused on the important features of powerful marketing communications. These hold true whatever our target audience.”

Specificity over ‘spray and pray’

One of the main benefits of ABM is that it finally puts to bed the antiquated marketing method of – let’s put it crudely – chucking some shit at a wall and seeing what sticks.

It encourages the complete integration and successful implementation of strategy, technology and insight to solve challenges across departments and throughout the entire customer journey.

“Being specific about the accounts you go after allows everyone in the organisation to focus,” explains Mike. “Developing ideal customer profiles is necessary for targeting small businesses too. It makes marketing to them more of science than pot luck.”

We all know small businesses are likely to have fewer decision-makers, meaning less time and resource will be spent on the vast variation of content and messaging that would otherwise be required to target corporate stakeholders.

But, as Mike points out, this isn’t necessarily an advantage. “The SME buying decision is often much more considered,” he says. “Investments in small organisations often have a bigger impact, meaning the content plays a very important role.”

How does targeting small businesses differ to big corporates?

First off, it’s worth pointing out that a one-to-one approach just isn’t going to cut the mustard when it comes to SME-targeted marketing – but one-to-few and one-to-many approaches have huge potential, explains Clive Armitage, CEO of ABM agency Agent3.

“A one-to-one approach may be impractical for targeting smaller organisations – or, more specifically, for targeting organisations with smaller budgets,” he says. “But that's certainly not to say that a one-to-few ABM programme wouldn’t be a smart approach.

“Let’s say a company has a typical deal size into the higher end of the SME space of £150,000 and has identified 15 accounts with sufficient similarities to target within a one-to-few (cluster) programme,” Clive continues.

“ITSMA research found ABM budgets are roughly £40,000 per ‘cluster’ in terms of campaign spend. So, the company in question would need to believe it could drive deals with three out of its 15 target accounts as a result of its ABM programme – a relatively modest 20% success rate – in order to exceed an ROI of 10:1.”

As Clive warns, the value per deal won’t always be applicable to a one-to-few approach, but advances in tech, data and content mean the more divisive one-to-many (or programmatic) approach can come into play.

“A one-to-many account targeting approach combining intent monitoring, web personalisation and content nurturing can drive fantastic results,” Clive stresses. “And as industry players like Marketo and LinkedIn take an increasingly 'ABM' view of the world, this will only increase to be the case.”

Why is one-to-many (programmatic) ABM contentious?

There are some that contend one-to-many (programmatic) isn’t really even ABM, that the act of automating is an insult to everything account-based marketing stands for.

Indeed, Mike from ALIAS is quick to point out his company doesn't use programmatic solutions, but instead employs an adaptation of the one-to-few approach.

“Once you start seeing niches instead of individual accounts, the process becomes very similar,” he explains. “We personalise content to each niche/segment and distribute that through targeted paid advertising, followed up by both email and direct mail.

“It requires more planning and perhaps longer to deploy than spray and pray programmatic, but it is more effective.”

However, Mike does admit that due to the sheer volume of companies available for targeting, some level of automation is required.

“Typically, ABM for small businesses is more automated due to the volume,” he explains. “Digital channels play a more important role, to reach the larger number of accounts.”

But how do you balance that automation with the personalisation that makes ABM such an attractive approach? Mike’s answer: dynamic content.

“The ability to add dynamic content in emails is essential,” he stresses. “You might have 50% generic content in your email and 50% that's dynamically populated based on the niche or segment.

“Direct mail can still feature in ABM for SMEs, but that might be automated too, and integrated as part of your automation workflows.”

‘Serious reservations about using ABM to target small businesses’

For some, using ABM to target small businesses is not a viable method, regardless of the approach used. For Robert Norum, ABM practice lead at McDonald Butler Associates, he’d actively discourage his clients from using account-based marketing to target SMEs.

“Put simply, ABM is most appropriate for targeting a company’s largest and most valuable customers and prospects, and clearly, small businesses are never going to fit this description,” he explains.

“If we look at one-to-one and one-to-few ABM, these approaches are likely to be confined to your top 50 accounts, and certainly your top 100 accounts.

“One-to-many is the one area where companies can look to use ABM in a wider context that is closer to typical demand generation using digital marketing, but even here, it would be highly unusual to target more than 500 accounts at a time. Clearly, this excludes small business from ABM in any practical terms.”

"Technology solutions mean the SME audience can be targeted and the results will justify the initial investment”

Clive Armitage, CEO, Agent3

Despite this, many practitioners assert a one-to-many approach can feasibly work for B2B brands targeting small businesses and, as Agent3’s Clive explains, technological advances are only helping to spur this movement forwards.

“The ROI on SMEs [when using ABM] was at best questionable and at worst too small to justify trying to create sophisticated, personalised campaigns,” he says. “But now technology solutions – from insight-driven activity through to various digital delivery channels – mean the SME audience can be targeted and the results will justify the initial investment.”

The ABM sweet spot

With each approach possessing its pros and cons, is there a balance between practices that could prove to be the ABM sweet spot for B2B brands?

“In terms of working at scale, one-to-many is the logical method to spread the investment across as many accounts as possible,” re-enforces Andy.

“However, by using the cluster approach to gather insight on one or more sectors, one-to-many could be blended with a one-to-few approach to provide a personalised experience and content to specific audience types to increase conversion rates.”

However, as Andy warns, ABM campaigns aimed at small businesses throw up their own unique set of challenges, specifically regarding using data at scale.

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“ABM campaigns aimed at SMEs will seek to leverage third-party intent data and IP track and trace landing page traffic to provide insight on engagement for measurement and prioritisation of follow-up,” he explains.

“The availability of third-party data on small businesses may not be available or as accurate, so there may be greater dependence on first-party data and an integrated tech stack.”

Mike agrees, pointing out that even though you’re dealing with fewer people per account, you’re dealing with many more accounts in the first place. “Segmentation (creating niches) takes time and research, but once done, is much more effective and pays off,” he explains. “Project and data management are key. There are many more parts to applying an ABM approach to SMEs.”

ABM a mindset, not a tactic

As Andy explains, ABM is a mindset, not another marketing tactic, regardless of the company size you’re targeting. “ABM thinking can add most value when applied across the existing marketing plan,” he says.

“The question is, how can we tailor our approach to specific accounts we want to win and make them feel special? Often the simplest things can be noticed and make a buyer feel valued.”

And aside from the obvious benefits of ROMI and increased conversion rates, a successful ABM approach when targeting small businesses can yield longer-term results.

“Successful ABM also aids customer retention and builds advocacy,” explains Andy. “Think about the small business banking customer, who not only remains loyal to their bank, but will happily attend local events and share their experiences or offer peer advice to other start-ups.”

ABM in practice – Mike Boogaard, ALIAS Partners

For one IT client, we were tasked with targeting SMEs for a managed print solution.

Using an ABM approach (similar to what we would use for our enterprise campaigns), we researched our client’s target audience – but in this case, we created niches.

We established ICPs (ideal customer profiles) for each niche and were able to prioritise primary and secondary schools as the two most important niches for this particular solution.

This focus allowed us to research each specific sector and dig into how and who made the purchase decisions and who influences it. The research showed us the science teacher, of all people, was typically the main decision-maker for IT solutions, but heavily influenced (controlled by) the treasurer and the head teacher.

By creating these micro-niches, we were also able to target our research and tailor our content and messaging to deliver a good degree of personalisation.

Our communication was through email, direct mail, fax (yes, turns out schools still use faxes) and telemarketing.

It was very similar to our ABM enterprise campaigns (except for the use of fax).