From side show to main event: How ABM is taking over marketing

Account based marketing, or ABM, is the come-back kid of B2B. As a general principle, it’s been kicking around for years, and was codified by Bev Burgess and the people at ITSMA a few years ago, but not a vast amount of notice was paid, outside the core group of ITSMA members. It was a particularly technical, particularly geeky part of B2B marketing, which also depended on a high level of alignment and engagement with sales… and we all know how that generally turns out, don’t we?!

But in the last 18 months, something remarkable has happened. ABM went from being a slightly tired side-show, to being the main marketing event (at least in B2B). This remarkable change in fortunes was demonstrated once again at the ABM roundtable event I moderated yesterday on behalf of Avention, where a cluster of intrigued B2B marketers gathered to find out how to make these techniques work for them.

Bev Burgess was in attendance, to give the event real clout (not to mention her trademark enthusiasm and engaging charm) and we also had a great contribution from Lauren Bakewell from Avention – the company has cannily recognized the opportunity presented by ABM for its OneSource data platform. Significantly, Jon Day from Marketo also participated, revealing how the leading marketing automation tech platform is using its new ABM module to practice these techniques. The very fact that Marketo has seen fit to jump on board the ABM bandwagon tells you all you need to know about its significance as a trend.

And this is where Bev Burgess dropped what I thought was the real bombshell of the evening. In showing a slide that stratified ABM into three tiers (Strategic ABM, ABM Lite and Programmatic ABM) with the top two focusing on individuals or very small groups of prospects, she suggested that all of the rest of your B2B marketing could (or should) fit into the bottom tier. In other words, the core principals or practices of ABM are so relevant and prevalent, that they will drive up marketing effectiveness across the spectrum, at least to a degree, and not just for the elite customers at the top of the pyramid.

Burgess admitted that this perspective isn’t universally accepted, even within the confines of ITSMA, but she believes it is an argument that is gaining traction, and is a useful way of reframing how marketing operates in B2B organisations. She said that Programmatic ABM could also be described as JGM – just good marketing.

Of course, it’s in Burgess’ and ITSMA’s interests to suggest that ABM now is marketing, because they invented it, and have most to gain from its propagation and general acceptance… but I think the argument holds water, and it will be interesting to see how robust it proves to be over time. The marketers in attendance certainly didn’t disagree.

But perhaps more importantly for them, there was also a lot of sagely advice offered around the table to marketers looking to start on an ABM journey, or accelerate one that’s already underway. I’ve summarised a few of my key takeaways here:

  • Either sales OR marketing can lead on implementing ABM – it doesn’t matter which department does, as long as both are aligned.
  • The three ‘R’s of ABM are reputation, relationships and revenue…
  • … and there’s a lag between establishing the first two and the delivery of the third. ABM is not a quick win, but it is worth it in the long run.
  • You cannot spend enough time in the set up phase for ABM, dealing with how the programme will work and how sales and marketing will work together. It’s very complex.
  • ABM means sales no longer owns the customer – this will be hard for the sales team to get their heads around.
  • ABM is the first step towards cognitive marketing.
  • By definition, you’ll never reach ABM nirvana – you’ll always need to be striving to improve.

All in all, a fascinating topic, and thanks to Avention, and in particular Richard Whale and Paul Charmatz for inviting me to participate.