Implementing an account-based marketing (ABM) approach: the agency perspective
How do marketers create the building blocks for ABM execution and – after all – is it simply 'just good marketing'? The Marketing Pod's Ellie Smith explores
Account-based marketing (ABM) is a marketing technique that has seen its profile soar over the past year or two.
The popularity of B2B Marketing’s recent jam-packed Account Based Everything event is testimony to the fact companies are fast realising they must embrace and educate themselves on ABM.
But what does it really mean in practice? And isn’t it ‘just good marketing’? Well, yes. And no.
From my experience, it’s frequently the medium-sized organisations – those having to take a new approach to compete with the big guys - that are most effectively embracing an account-based approach.
As a marketer, it's exciting to see how ABM can make a very real difference to a brand's outlook and its customer relationships.
The starting blocks
ABM has been a bit of a journey, and many businesses will find they already have the foundations to build upon.
When embarking on marketing planning, the very first exercise a business should conduct is a review of their marketplace from a customer perspective.
A sector-specific basis is often helpful too. Workshops help to tease out knowledge from customer-facing teams on the changes taking place in the customers’ macro-environment, the pressures that are being placed on customers from within their own organisation, and how that might differ depending on the job role that they perform.
This isn’t rocket science; these steps are the fundamental building blocks of proposition development. But it does form the beginnings of an account-based approach. By putting themselves in the customers’ shoes, marketers are better capable of developing the right messages, the right channels and the right language to ensure that the marketing execution really resonates.
The most progressive organisations go on to develop that planning work further, to glean maximum benefit from an account-based approach.
They focus on a longer-term strategy and know precisely which companies they need to win to make a difference to their business.
They're prepared to invest the time and research capacity to find out what concerns individual decision-makers within their strategic prospects.
Their marketing teams spend hours grilling their customer-facing team members to really understand the objectives of the company, the environment in which they operate and what makes them tick.
All that information provides the starting blocks – and gets filtered to create personal, customised marketing materials that really pack a punch; from video packs that introduce customers to the team they’d be working with, to lovingly produced presentations that depict the customer world – not the supplier’s. And it works.
Having the courage to shift away from a numbers game
Not every organisation has been ready. When faced with stretching sales targets, it’s all too easy to cling to the maths-based telesales approach, i.e. if I buy a data list of X, I’ll manage to persuade Y to have a meeting and then we’re bound to convert Z, right?
While this approach has sometimes worked in the past, it’s far from foolproof from a value perspective; requiring a huge amount of resource for relatively little return.
Often, a tactical promotion is needed to persuade prospects to convert, which demonstrates a fundamental lack of loyalty and raises the question: are those the kinds of customers we want to build our future business on? Perhaps not.
On more than one occasion, I’ve seen companies take a sales target, multiply by the conversion factor and discover the volume of data required is greater than the customer universe itself.
With GDPR coming soon, accessing those data lists in the first place – let alone obtaining the right to contact them - may put something of a spanner in the works. It’s clear that a fresh approach is required.
Making the commitment
Signing up for a long-term sales goal isn’t easy. All companies have targets, cash flow considerations and year-end financial ambitions to fulfil. But businesses are operating in a different marketing era than the one we occupied five years ago and it’s time to adapt.
The digital boom has brought with it an enormous amount of change: marketers went from running through long data lists in the hope that something would stick, to applying a basic level of personalisation using the multitude of software packages on the market.
Since then, we’ve collectively entered a profiling era, where we can target different customer groups with tailored messaging (some might label this an ABM ‘one to many’ approach). We all know that big data has a substantial role to play in enabling marketing teams to add personalisation and relevance to customer communications going forward.
We also know that we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of the possibilities. Developing a detailed ABM plan now is certainly the best way to get ahead of the curve, but any plan should also have a certain amount of flexibility built in, as adapting to new trends and changing technologies will be a key to success.
Striking the right balance
It’s clear the single biggest long-term difference that can be made to the ‘bottom-line’ is to bring in those few crucial accounts with whom clients can build a long-term partnership. But shorter-term financial targets aren’t going to disappear overnight - businesses all have shareholders to satisfy and cash flow to manage.
In practice, the most successful B2B marketers are adopting a little of everything. They’re developing sector and decision-maker focused content assets with carefully worked through messaging that can be 'topped and tailed' to provide the required customisation for strategic one-to-one accounts.
After all, no budget is endless. Those same content assets can then be reworked into (often sector-specific) one-to-few communications for 'tier two' prospects via carefully selected channels.
An integrated blend of PR, direct mail, advertising, social media and web activity then combines to build profile and credibility, reinforcing the ABM work while also generating new leads among lower value prospects; providing that essential bedrock of smaller business customers.