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B2B Marketing Roundtable: Approaching ABM amid Covid-19

During our latest roundtable, we asked where marketers are at in their ABM journeys, and how these might be affected by the pandemic. Kavita Singh shares the highlights from our summer magazine.

Account-based marketing (ABM) has always been coined as a long-term strategy. However, Covid-19 has presented a number of obstacles. B2B Marketing’s ABM experts Andy Bacon and Robert Norum recently hosted a roundtable discussion in which B2B marketers shared

their thoughts on the challenges they have faced, along with some of the processes they’ve implemented over the past few months.

Identifying what ABM truly is 

If you were to ask 10 different people what ABM is to them, you would get 10 different answers, because every business adapts ABM accordingly. Marketers brought this point up early on in the roundtable.

One marketer commented: “Getting a clear definition of what ABM is in your organisation is absolutely a critical starting place because so many companies I work with start with the best intentions, but, as time goes on, it becomes clear that everybody has a fundamentally different understanding of what they mean by ABM.”

While it’s okay to tailor the definition of ABM to fit with your business, everyone in the company should be on the same page. While there is no universally accepted definition of ABM, defining what ABM is across the board should be the number one priority before you get started.

Keeping it simple in the beginning

When it comes to the number of accounts to start off your ABM journey, is there an optimal number? Most marketers agree that it is best to start simple. There’s a lot more work to ABM than what meets the eye, and one of the biggest pitfalls marketers can make is taking on too much too soon.

Taking on 10 accounts at first can be overwhelming. Rather than overloading accounts, bring in a cluster of three of four and combine that with a one-to-one or a one-to-few approach. Having this hybrid approach enables you to cover the sales team.

Creating an SLA

To make sure everyone is on the same page, outline your goals for sales. It might seem overly simplistic, but creating a service-level agreement (SLA) document for marketing and sales to draw back to will help establish what each department is responsible for. It can be as simple as writing up what you’re expecting from sales and the number of leads you’ll want for a long-term engagement plan.

One B2B marketer said: “We’ve spent some time discussing what the deliverables are for a one-to-one programme for our key accounts and for a one-to-few programme. We also discuss the expectation from sales. It’s not like a gargantuan document or anything. It’s just a few slides, but it really helps set the tone of the partnership between marketing and sales.

We’re still in the early days of this, but it seems to be well-received.”

Especially with Covid-19 in place and meetings being done exclusively by video, it’s more important than ever to outline these documents to create clarity across the board regarding your ABM strategy. In addition to this, having a universal document to draw back to will especially be handy if you have multiple offices globally. These SLAs can serve as the glue.

For example, one marketer said: “We’ve mapped out where we’re going with specific countries and geographies. We’re willing to be able to offer a full comprehensive marketing mix to these particular regions, but with these ones, we’re going to have more channels.

We’re consulting to train and manage these expectations because we can’t be everywhere all at once.”

Aligning sales and marketing

One marketer mentioned that in, her SLA document, it is clearly outlined that marketing doesn’t simply pass the baton off to sales as a simple transaction. In traditional marketing, there is that handoff of a lead at a certain point. We often see this illustrated as a relay race where sales takes over. However, marketers agree that having marketing and sales working more closely together ensures a better outcome.

Another marketer felt that marketing should continue to act as a sort of ‘guardian angel’ for sales whenever you have the chance to. Ultimately, salespeople are going to be more commission-driven, so make sure you’re equipping them with whatever they might need, whether that’s campaigns, whitepapers or pricing information. Equipping sales to be more conversation-ready will also benefit them, especially since they’re the ones adapting to video calls and meetings with potential customers. However, it doesn’t end there. Once sales is now involved in a conversation, make that extra effort to make a lead feel nurtured.

She said: “There’s no cut-off between marketing and sales once you bring the sale in. One thing that I’ve done at my previous companies is, once you have the client, you still should do ABM campaigns for retention and growth with those clients.”

She suggests making those personal touches, such as sending a ‘Happy Birthday’ card if you know it’s someone’s birthday, or simply sending a follow-up email to check in. These are all little things that come across as personal rather than ‘salesy’. This should all come organically, and not feel forced.

“This lets sales know they’re the one carrying the conversation and marketing is behind you supporting you and not doing it for you. And I found that that always just really works.” 

Building trust with sales

For all of these tactics that can unite sales and marketing, it means nothing if sales doesn’t inherently trust the marketing department. It can be instinctual for sales to hold existing accounts so closely to their chest.

One marketer commented that he creates two strategies around building trust. The first strategy is to remove any confusion that being a stakeholder somehow makes that person a decision-maker as well. If you’re able to define any decisions being made up front, as well as who owns these decisions, you can ensure that quicker decisions are made.

By doing this, you also make sales feel like a valued part of the process. The second strategy is more of a mindset for sales to encompass. Make it about what they’re not losing, not what they could be losing.

“I think we’re all inherently afraid in any decision that is made, but, when negotiating, people tend to focus on what they’re losing out on. It's the single biggest driver of decisions that are made. Sales will jeopardise a whole deal if they think they’ve been treated unfairly. The big thing there is trying to communicate what they’re not losing out on.

Leading with empathy

It’s not news that empathy has played a role in how marketers have changed their strategies during the Covid-19 pandemic. ABMers were asked how they were able to gain insights over the past few months in spite of Covid-19.

One marketer said she had done an internal campaign around client care and client conversations. A lot of it revolved around how important it is to check in and ask ‘how are you doing?’, rather than promoting any products. Doing this over the phone, LinkedIn and email as well can add authenticity when you’re reaching out on a more personal level.

“It’s only a small handful of people that are doing it, but the fact that they are doing it, they’re getting really good insights, which they then feed back to me. This helps shape new targeted content. In all honesty, it’s better to have that small reading group than the whole organisation who kind of are on board, but not really on board.”

Coping with Covid-19

Covid-19 has tested all businesses in one specific aspect: adaptability. While some ABMers have taken challenges in their stride, other marketers might be nervous about continuing their ABM journey with this bump in the road.

While bringing a customer-centric approach is critical, one ABMer expressed how tweaking the messaging has diverted from their original ABM strategy plans. However, marketers agree that there needs to be a mental shift in energy in order to succeed during this time.

While ABM should be a long-term strategy, it should also be adaptable as well. Marketers need to ensure they keep the core value of ABM intact while also making any quick fixes when necessary.

Post-Covid, companies might have urgent requirements and targets to meet and, because they can’t meet face-to-face with their customers, they might not have the support they’ve had previously. There are quick fixes that can be done though. That might mean identifying 50 new contacts you know with the appropriate job titles and profiles, or it could be about providing dossiers on a serious number of accounts that can be used to drive business.

Regardless of the quick remedies you might put in place, it is possible that a short-term plan can help with the overall ABM strategy. Other companies that have relied heavily on events have made that pivotal shift to digital channels. While ABM webinars seem to be a good go-to, in order to generate a bigger response for C-Suite engagement, you’ll need a one-to-one platform where you can communicate to customers with a customised set of offerings. This specificity can distinguish a good ABM programme from a great one. Another company has been experimenting with video by encouraging the sales teams to make one to two-minute introduction videos or pitches to send to their key accounts as well.

One marketer said: “I think the other thing that we’ve found through Covid-19 is that you’ve really got to adjust and modify your energy, and we do that through managing intent data. We then modify our thought leadership to present that data to the accounts that are relevant. So it’s always been respectful to the accounts, not preaching to them in terms of ‘Oh, you know, the world’s about to end. You know, we can help you.’ It’s more about them at the end of the day.”

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