What does successful ABM deployment really look like?

B2B Marketing's Joel Harrison sits down with Shane Redding of Think Direct to discuss what successful ABM deployment really looks like in 2018

Joel: There’s consensus in the market that ABM is not a new practice – do you agree?

Shane: Yes and no. In theory, ABM has been around perhaps as long as 1750 – in the shape of Meissen porcelain, which was the targeted personalisation and delivery of porcelain catalogues to business (hotels) accounts across Europe to take orders for bespoke china!

But from a personal perspective, I think it really started to gain traction in the 1980s, with the development of external data sets such as Dun & Bradstreet and IBISWorld, which allowed very targeted account information (turnover/number of employees/SIC codes etc) to be used for prospecting large value prospects, used by sales but supported by direct mail campaigns to help open doors for new business.

What wasn’t happening then was much in the way of multi-stakeholder targeting: if anything, it was limited to the MDs and financial/IT directors. In the 1990s we saw more personalisation to individuals – again, mainly by direct mail – but there were some stunning campaigns carried out, such as James Bond briefcases being delivered by courier, which then played personalised pre-recorded messages (although these did cause a high-level security alert).

And how has ABM changed since then?

I think the biggest shift has been to inbound. Previously (including all the examples I just gave) everything was a targeted outbound – but with both digital and the new martech ABM tools, we now have the opportunity to join the dots by identifying existing key accounts or new lookalike accounts when decision-makers alert us via their digital signals that they’re looking at our company. We now have the ability to enter them into always-on campaigns, which can be personalised to a level of relevance never seen before.

Are there any inherent problems for those starting out with ABM?

There are two big issues that come up every time. First, the data. It simply has to be a level of quality beyond most companies’ ‘normal’ capability. This means extra resource, robust processes and a laser focus on quality, as any issues will immediately be highlighted and visible not only internally, but to your high value accounts too.

"...some organisations choose to invest in ABM to help bring sales and marketing closer together"

Second, sales and marketing must be completely aligned – from setting the KPIs, expectations, sharing knowledge to make the approach a success. Let’s not forget that key account sales know their customers intimately and then to ensure the processes, including data flows join up. In fact, some organisations choose to invest in ABM to help bring sales and marketing closer together, leading to a trickle-down effect to other areas.

You’ve mentioned consistently that you see ABM as an approach to support key accounts. Doesn't the new approach to ABM mean that it’s relevant to all sizes of account?

No, I don’t think ABM is relevant to accounts of all sizes, but this is very much my personal view and I expect many marketers will disagree with me. My view is that ABM, done well, requires investment that needs significant returns.

ABM is definitely the topic of the moment – how does its arrival and impact compare with other fundamental changes that you’ve seen sweep through B2B marketing?

Its impact certainly has the potential to be huge. I’ve always been a fan of strategic data-driven ABM and I think it can provide the framework to accelerate the effective deployment of new tools (or better use ones such as MA), or tactics such as social. The reason its impact can be greater is that ABM forces a deep understanding of customer needs, and the revenue returns make the investment worthwhile.

Besides the arrival of inbound, what are the primary differences between ‘Key account marketing’, as defined by Professor Malcolm McDonald, and ABM, as we understand it today?

Malcolm went well beyond marketing and founded the ‘Key account management’ thinking, which is genuinely strategic and goes well beyond marketing, looking at things such as integrated supply chains etc.

The difference between this and ABM is that we’re now thinking about aligning marketing’s resources with sales i.e. dedicated ABM resources and tools, or even agencies.

I’ve read about one US company that literally has a blended agency and inhouse team per account.

One of the major selling points of ABM is its ability to get marketing and sales to work together more cohesively – but that was what the ‘experts’ said about MA. Now many CMOs say MA is the most divisive thing to have happened to B2B marketing. Is it wrong to think they might be saying the same thing about ABM in five years’ time?

There will be those who make success of ABM and those who fail – and just like the success (or failure) of MA, this will, ultimately, depend on the culture of the business – will it support or destroy collaboration?

What do you make of the strategic versus programmatic ABM debate? Is it possible to do ABM at scale, or does it lose what makes it special and different?

As this is the newest area of ABM, it’s perhaps the biggest unknown for marketers. But I do see the programmatic approach working brilliantly in B2B organisations that have significant ecommerce operations, as it allows mid-sized businesses to identify strategic accounts early in their inbound journey and nurtured accordingly.

Simple IP alerts to sales are already making the use of outbound calling much more effective.

The other area that tech will really help with is machine learning, and its ability to deepen our understanding of the key issues and needs at an individual level – but this will need to be used with care.

What role do you think technology plays in ABM? Are the vendors leading the charge? And if so, is there any problem with that?

Vendors are absolutely leading the charge. Perhaps my biggest learning as the martech landscape has exploded in the past five years is that some of the very best marketers work for these vendors. They do a fantastic job in driving demand, but perhaps as an industry, could be better at managing expectations.

"We all know tech is an enabler, but only if the thinking is right"

However, with increased competition, I’m now seeing a re-assessment and increased positioning around ‘fit’, and even some of the analysts are now grouping tech by fit (company size and type). We all know tech is an enabler, but only if the thinking is right.

In your experience, why are models and frameworks important? What do they help marketers to do that they can’t do otherwise?

I’m a huge fan of models and frameworks; if they’re good, they help us understand complex topics. What I don’t like is when they are seen as a panacea, or as a one size fits all. This is why B2B Marketing’s ABM Maturity Index is so good: it allows organisations to look at it and say: ‘well that looks a bit like us, but what are the things I need to look out for and consider?’

Benchmarking is a very powerful way to drive improvement, and help everyone understand the path ahead.

Some argue that ABM is ‘just good marketing’ – that it’s gone beyond something distinct or separate: the processes and techniques are now mainstream and embedded into most of our marketing practices. Do you agree? 

Absolutely not. Research shows most companies are only thinking about, or beginning to deploy, ABM. It’s not yet mainstream. But I do agree, of course, that the principles of ‘just good marketing’ need to be embedded within ABM, in order to make sure it’s not a silo, but is embedded with your wider programme.

What advice would you give to marketers thinking about starting on their ABM journey, or taking it to the next level – possibly leveraging technology?

Think first! Are you deploying ABM for your customers or for your organisation? Where should you focus or pilot to prove the approach? Decide and define what success looks like for your company, then keep the tech to a minimum to start with and investigate using an agency with ABM expertise to help you get started.

Account-based marketing benchmarking report

Amid a barrage of ABM hype from tech vendors, what does best practice really look like? What sensible steps should you take to begin your ABM journey, or to take an existing programme to the next level? This report cuts through the clutter and noise to provide a robust framework for ABM adoption.

Benchmark your ABM

Account-based marketing benchmarking report