Why ABM is back to the future for B2B

There’s an enigma at the heart of ABM or account-based marketing, which I’ve been struggling to unpick in recent months, as the hype has accelerated. Given that it has been around for so long, attracting relatively little attention for much of its life, why has there been such an explosion of interest in the last couple of years? It can’t just be because it’s a shiny new topic, or a bandwagon for vendors to jump on, can it?

The penny dropped (for me at least) at our recent B2B Marketing leaders roundtable on demand generation, held in association with On24, and I have Gareth Case, UK&I marketing director of CSC, entirely to thank for this Eureka moment. He said (something along the lines of), “B2B marketing has gone full circle. Seven years ago, we were focused on producing high impact, low volume DM campaigns to target a very small group of decision makers. Then marketing automation came in, and you could do personalised and dynamic campaigns at scale and at significantly reduced costs. Now marketing automation is widespread, which undermines or wipes out that advantage. So marketers have gone back to focusing on small numbers with highly targeted campaigns.” In other words: ABM.

When you look at it like that, it becomes completely obvious. Of course, there are differences between a true ABM campaign and a circa 2010 DM campaign (the level of insight required being one of them). But B2B marketers are not interested in ABM because its being hyped as new and shiny, but because it rationally and effectively addresses a very real marketing challenge – ie. how to engage extremely hard-to-reach individuals.

If this were not enough, the scale of the permeation of ABM across the tech sector, and its importance as a fundamental pillar of effective B2B marketing, was highlighted in our recent ‘High growth’ report, which examined what successful marketing looks like within the fastest growing companies in the tech space. ABM was found to be definitely one of these, which frames it as a cutting edge approach employed by the most forward thinking marketers and brands. My understanding had been that ABM was mostly being used by larger corporates, who could afford to invest and master the related techniques. Once again, I’ve had to reappraise my opinions.

The long and short of all this is that the case that ABM is a fad or flash in the pan, seems an increasingly difficult one to make. However, there are other facets of this trend that will require further debate and discussion. The first is whether one-to-many ABM can genuinely exist (as ITSMA and various vendors contend), or whether that is stretching the principles beyond breaking point. The second is ‘speed to revenue’ in ABM, and whether marketers truly understand the implications of moving to this model, and the time and investment required to make it work. ABM may be potent, but it’s no panacea, or quick fix. If you’re intent on setting out on this journey, plan very carefully before you embark.

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