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Why qualified research is a critical factor for your ABM programme

In this blog post, account-based marketing manager, Ross O’Neill and business integration architect, Paul Lashmet suggest ways to uncover actionable intelligence that will improve your account-based marketing programme.

Does the following challenge sound familiar? You’ve invested time, money, and resources to develop a high-level understanding of an account and your sales team has successfully enlisted a customer champion to secure a meeting with business decision makers. Then it falls apart because your customer champion struggled to articulate the value of your products and services and your sales team couldn't save the day due to limited knowledge of the wants, needs, and goals of the people with real influence and power in the account.

In this post, we will suggest a step-by-step approach to account-based research that goes beyond the organisation chart with actionable intelligence. Read on to find out how to build the foundations of your Account Based Marketing (ABM) programme and support enterprise-wide adoption of your products and services.

ABM in context

ABM is widely regarded as one of the hottest trends in business-to-business (B2B) marketing. If you haven’t yet come across ABM, a quick Google search will bring up a long-list of definitions and case studies from B2B organisations who have successfully adopted ABM. The consensus appears to be that ABM is a strategic approach to B2B marketing that brings marketing and sales teams together to focus on an account or small groups of common accounts as a market, relying on a deep understanding of the account(s) and target stakeholders.

We will focus on that deep understanding of accounts or, as the ITSMA refers to it, client-centricity and insight, which it outlines as one of four underlying principles of ABM. It is our view that whilst customer-centricity is paramount to the success of ABM, it is all too often reliant upon unqualified third party research that fails to go beyond the organisation chart. In many examples it is an over-reliance on desktop research that mines annual reports, general industry trends, and professional profiles.

Consider research as a thought experiment

Research is widely used as part of an ABM approach but there are often cases where it is not fully qualified or personal enough to the account. Annual reports and organisation charts are useful but they don’t provide actionable insights. For sales and marketing teams, the value often ends at the PowerPoint presentation.

There are two primary reasons why research doesn’t stimulate discussion between your teams:

  1. Account analysis is based on news, quarterly reports, and press releases. It is too abstract to evaluate against your value propositions - how do the capabilities of your products and services help the customer with their business imperatives?
  2. Large accounts are not monolithic entities. You rarely sell directly to the CEO or to the board of directors but to the decision making units and influencers two or three levels down the organisation chart. They are more focused on specific initiatives and challenges.

It is key to understand the organisational dynamics between the individuals and teams that make up or support the decision making unit and their contribution to the whole organisation. That level of detail enables you to do the following:

  • Test assumptions across your team and customer stakeholders, generate constructive debate, and improve your information;
  • Understand, at a very practical level, the value and fit-for-purpose of your product or service to help the account attain its goals;
  • Underpin your content and communications strategy for target individuals across the account, e.g., white papers, social media advertising, webinars, and in-person events.

The mechanism for achieving the above is a thought experiment - a way to cut through the red tape and get your message into the ear of decision makers more quickly. Below we describe how this works.

Create a fantasy steering committee

Large companies strive to standardise processes across the organisation as a way to optimise operations, cut costs, and reduce risk. But the different lines-of-business (LOBs) will have unique challenges that aren’t solved through a global standard. In those cases, they will often develop isolated solutions that don’t work across an organisation.

At the enterprise level, there is a fine balance between global standards and supporting the success of each LOB, but the economics along with security and operational risks of point solutions is too great to ignore. Consensus is often required to greenlight large projects which is often done through steering committees.

Steering committees are made up of executives, subject matter experts, and stakeholders who provide strategic oversight and guidance on one or more initiatives within an organisation. Depending on the complexity, working groups are established to dive into the details from which to recommend a solution.

There are six steps to this thought experiment:

  1. Create a ‘fantasy’ steering committee who would oversee and guide a potential business initiative you can support. It could be based on a key industry trend identified in your higher level ABM strategy (this will become more targeted as you iterate through the process).
  2. Identify the executives, subject matter experts, and stakeholders that would be on this committee and work to understand their priorities and their interdependencies. This will give you a good sense of who might have the biggest say on potential decisions and the working relationships between stakeholders.
  3. Map the individuals of the steering committee to your value propositions and detail how they would benefit from your products or services.

The steps above enable your teams to move from abstract to actionable discourse. Assumptions will be made that can be verified or negated by your customer stakeholders, account teams, or customer success groups. From this basis, you will be able to continue into the next three steps of the process:

  1. Develop a targeted content and outreach strategy that is relevant to the individuals involved in the virtual steering committee.
  2. Continually iterate this process, leveraging feedback from internal sales and marketing teams as well as the customer directly where possible.
  3. Create new fantasy steering committees for additional LOBs.

Understand teams, people, and priorities

Steps two and three are the crux of the customer-centric research that we are proposing. They are the most time-intensive parts of the process but also the most rewarding. Good execution will optimise your content and outreach strategy and provide better results in terms of meaningful customer interactions, awareness metrics, and demand generation.

The best way to understand people and their priorities is to watch them explain themselves. The most revealing insight comes from their participation in industry panel discussions and webinars because they are often unscripted, which provides a lens into their personalities, priorities, and motivations. Optimally, you can find these on YouTube and create short clips to share with your team. Good secondary sources are posts, articles, or research that they may have published. Press releases relating to recent hirings or leadership changes and professional profiles also provide good information but not as in depth.

The more information you can find as it relates to above, the more qualified the prospect becomes, because someone who is active in the industry tends to be the change agent who is always looking for ways to improve their organisation (i.e.: your value proposition).

With regard to teams, career pages are a good source of information because there you find specific job descriptions which summarises what the team does along with the tools that they use (“required skills”, “nice to haves”).

An enterprise-wide perspective

An effective fantasy steering committee will add value to your ABM programme, helping you to better understand the people and teams you are targeting and their potential priorities. This can prove invaluable in building your reputation within an account and helping to foster the relationships needed for long-term success.

The steps laid out above help by giving your teams an enterprise-wide perspective of the account. With an eye towards enterprise-wide adoption, you will be able to articulate how your product or service addresses an individual’s particular issues and also help them to understand who else in the organisation would use it and why.

The diagram below shows how a fantasy steering committee could be laid out along with example messaging produced through the working groups exercises. This example is for a financial services capital markets scenario.

Chart 1

Where to Start?

We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog post and have some ideas to take for your own ABM programme. If you’re still thinking about where to start - here are three suggestions to help right away.

1.Engage your subject matter expert early

Successful account research is a people-centric approach, not an organisational-level approach. It requires the active engagement of someone who understands the people, culture, technology, and operations of the accounts you are targeting and for that reason, we recommend that you involve a subject matter expert at the beginning of the process.

Work with someone who not only knows the industry but also understands the nuances of the target account(s), both operationally and culturally. The right person will not only help you build your fantasy steering committees, but will develop trust, understanding, and confidence through direct engagement with both internal sales and marketing teams as well as customers directly.

2.Test, test, and test again

The six-step guide to creating your own fantasy committees is intended to be an iterative process. You should be constantly sharing the thoughts, ideas, and suggestions with internal and external stakeholders in order to get fantasy closer and closer to the real world. The research you conduct is ongoing and documentation organic as you continually refine it to get a deeper and deeper understanding of what is happening in the account. Account teams are a great place to start, along with internal role plays and best of all, the views of a customer champion who is willing to support your sales motions in the account.

3.Get an external view

Research is a skill and it also takes time to produce. In most cases, B2B marketing professionals do not have a rich enough understanding of an account, sector, or product to deliver research and even if they do it’s unlikely they will have the time to dedicate themselves to it. Many organisations will have internal subject matter experts and while they should be engaged early on in the process, they are also time-poor and may not be able to commit to a project.

One way to resolve this issue is to seek the support of a third-party individual or organisation. Even if it is just to get an external, unbiased view of your fantasy steering committee or to test some of the messaging you’ve put together.

B2B Marketing ABM Report 2020

This year’s ABM report reveals where most B2B marketers are at in their journey to ABM excellence, the challenges they’re facing, and what their ultimate goals are. Download to find out more!

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