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Why I fear for the future of account-based marketing (ABM)

David McGuire, creative director at Radix Communications, believes account-based marketers need to pay more attention to content… before ABM becomes 'laser-guided spam'

Rockumentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi was granted access to the holy of holies: the private guitar collection of Spinal Tap virtuoso Nigel Tufnel. His attention was quickly drawn to a custom-made amplifier head.

“It’s very, very special,” Tufnel told him. “The numbers all go to eleven.”

“Does that mean it’s any louder?” DiBergi asked.

“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” the guitarist replied.

This conversation springs to mind whenever I glance at my phone and see [glances] 32,836 unread emails in my personal inbox (not my work one, obviously). Because almost every one of those emails came from a marketer who got hold of my email address, added it to a list, and figured “I might as well”.

"Every time marketers get a shiny new toy, it doesn’t take long for one bright spark to stop thinking about quality, or what their prospects actually want… and just compete by making more noise"

They had the permission, they had the tech, so they did what marketers do. They turned everything up to eleven.

It’s the same reason you see 'No junk mail' emblazoned on people’s [physical] letterboxes. It's the reason Google keeps having to adjust its algorithm to get rid of keyword spam. It's the reason B2B buyers now have to swim through a lake of aimless content every time they have to make a purchasing decision, and it's the reason 30% of internet users will block ads by the end of this year.

Every time marketers get a shiny new toy, it doesn’t take long for one bright spark to stop thinking about quality, or what their prospects actually want… and just compete by making more noise.

One louder.

What does this have to do with ABM? Potentially, lots…

When I see the conversation around ABM, it worries me. I read endless posts (and don’t get me wrong, they’re very good posts) about the skills an account-based marketer needs. How to target the right accounts. Understanding buying processes and teams. Using data, predictive analytics and AI. Choosing the most appropriate KPIs. And those things are all important.

But I don’t see much discussion about what you actually send.

Is it just me, or is that really weird?

"You’ve put in so much hard work, attracted their attention, and they’ll judge you – for good or ill – by what happens next..."

Because at some point, all that data and analysis and technology and research comes down to one thing. The part where you get in touch with a person who’s potentially important to your business, and you say:

“Excuse me – you might want to read this; we prepared it especially for you.”

In that moment, you’ve raised the stakes extraordinarily high. You’ve put in so much hard work, attracted their attention, and they’ll judge you – for good or ill – by what happens next. So why is nobody talking about the thing you’re asking them to read?

It’s almost as if, once you’ve done all the groundwork and research, trained the people and bought the tech, the content just magically falls into your lap. And here’s the thing: it doesn’t.

Sorry; your bespoke value proposition is not enough

Look at content marketing. Judging by Google Trends, it’s been pretty well established for six years now. High quality, engaging content is your basic price of admission. Or at least it ought to be.

In practice, many B2B content marketers still struggle for engagement. Because even if you’re clear about the audience and what the messaging is supposed to be, making this stuff interesting, engaging and useful is still really, really hard.

Don’t believe me? Look at any survey of the top challenges B2B marketers face. Count the people packing the aisles at any conference session on improving the ROI from your content.

It’s not easy turning a well-thought-out B2B value proposition and audience research into content people actually want. And yes, if the value proposition is bespoke and the audience is one person, that does help a bit. But only a bit.

ABM without great content is laser-guided spam

That’s why so many B2B marketers end up shoehorning generic content into supposedly targeted nurture flows, where it only kind of fits. They need something to fill that box, and it sort of works. Especially if they send it to enough people.

My fear is that’s what we’ll increasingly see with ABM. The investment in technology, data and training means you need to send something – so instead of creating something really good, you sort of make the best of what you have.

"They [buyers] are drowning in generic, unhelpful content, so something that’s just for them will really help"

And then you scale it. Because if all your competitors are turning the dial up to eleven, why wouldn’t you?

But this story only ends one way. Eventually ABM, as a whole, withers and dies.

Life in a post-apocalyptic ABM wasteland

Right now, the results from good ABM can be astonishing. But why? Because buyers are impressed that you’ve taken the time to think about them in particular, so they pay attention. They are drowning in generic, unhelpful content, so something that’s just for them will really help.

But what happens when, instead of receiving maybe one bespoke report a quarter – or fewer – they get one every day? And what happens when it becomes obvious the report that claims to be just for them is actually a piece of unfocused, generic content with their name and branding dropped in?

They stop paying attention, that’s what. ABM stops seeing such giant returns, and B2B marketers all move on to the next shiny thing.

ABM is brilliant. Let’s keep it that way

So when we talk about the skills a modern account-based marketer needs, let’s not overlook the ability to create, commission and review brilliant content. Not just to hone a value proposition, but to work with professionals to turn that into something that really resonates.

They’ll probably need to know good design and UX when they see it. And they’ll need to know how to take an objective view of written content, and give clear and constructive feedback (and I’m sorry to break it to you, but saying 'this reads well' doesn’t count).

If you’d like further pointers, my colleague Fiona Campbell-Howes literally wrote the book on the subject.

But most of all, a great account-based marketer needs to be able to read and interpret the research and the feedback from sales, and tell your content creator all about your target account: what the people really care about. What language they use. What else is on their mind. You need to make the brief come alive.

Because ABM content shouldn’t just be personalised. It needs to be personal. And to achieve that, you don’t need volume. You need empathy.

That’s the part we need to dial up to eleven.

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