two bulldozers digging dirt
Everyone's talking about ABM, but many people aren't sure what that means. We'll dig into the details. PHOTO: qinghill

While trends in B2B marketing may not shift as swiftly and completely as they do in, say, food (I've heard collard greens are making a comeback this year), every once in a while an idea emerges that gets us all talking. 

In fact, the topic dominates conversation. It's on the lips of everyone at that networking event you attended last week. It pops up in trade media and blogs across the marketing ecosystem. It's the subject of every other email that hits your inbox.

The ABM Boom

For the past year the big phrase has been account-based marketing or ABM. But as I've talked with customers, analysts and other industry experts, I've uncovered a dirty little secret: everyone's talking about ABM, but many people aren't totally sure what that means. 

Sure, we can all rattle off a basic definition — "It's a strategy geared towards targeting accounts instead of individual leads." But when we talk about the actual execution of that strategy, things get a little fuzzier.

After all, there are a wide array of tactics you can use to market more strategically towards accounts, and a market practically exploding with new tools to help you do so. The result is an ever-growing hype and hysteria (no one wants to be the last aboard the ABM train), without a lot of clear instruction on how to approach ABM or even determine if this is a strategy that makes sense for your business at this point in time.

So let's take a moment to talk about this ABM trend, get it all out into the open and take a look at what constitutes an account-based approach to marketing, sales, and beyond.

Let's Consider Account-Based Mania

Like it or not, trends play an important role in marketing. When Salesforce surveyed more than 5,000 marketers on their biggest challenge for its most recent State of Marketing report, they said “How to keep up with trends to drive higher quality leads.” And if we examine the ABM trend at its roots, it's recent emergence and fast-growing popularity are not particularly surprising.

First of all, while account-based marketing is trending, it's not new. In fact, account-based targeting is a strategy that goes back as long as the art of selling itself. 

At its core, it's about picking a target or a set of targets, and focusing in on building relationships. 

The practice gets its name from the idea that, in business, any single target is really an account — a group of key decision makers. If it's news to you that you need to market to a group of influencers, especially in enterprise-level deals, you have a lot more to learn than the ins and outs of ABM.

A Evolutionary Marketing Step

Which brings me to my second point: ABM is the natural next step in the evolution of marketing that we've all been living and breathing for a number of years now. We know batch-and-blast tactics are dead, we know we're dealing with an empowered buyer, we know we need to deliver a personalized customer experience and work in lockstep with our sales teams to achieve our goals. 

In a sense, ABM is just the next generation of "sales-marketing alignment" — marketers must support sales reps in their quest to close key accounts by focusing on lead quality over quantity, by developing tailored and valuable content by creating personalized buyer experiences. 

Familiar concepts, right? In fact, there's a great chance you've already been using a multitude of account-based approaches in the your current customer lifecycle, but more on that in a moment.

What Can ABM Do For You?

The third contributing factor to the rise in ABM-mania is the emergence of new tools — a vast array of tools that focus on everything from retargeting ads calling your target account by name to personalized and elaborate direct mail campaigns. 

Adding one (or a combination) of these tools to your technology stack may or may not make sense for your business, depending on your goals. I can't emphasize that last part enough: your goals should drive your approach to ABM, not the other way around. 

Every conversation about ABM should start with the core question "What are we trying to do?"

It may sound like common sense, but orienting your strategy around this central question can go a long way towards demystifying this trend and making it actionable.

Demystifying Account-Based Marketing

The concept of ABM isn't that complex. It's the idea that you should personalize your marketing to a group of buyers. That's it. 

It's not so scary. It just has a fancy name. 

Your sales team has probably been taking an account-based approach for a while now, trying every angle to get visibility and connect with stakeholders within an organization. 

You've been doing it, too, by marketing to a select group of people and creating content for the different personas you interact with in a sales cycle. 

Any B2B organization with a content marketing plan knows that you need to address not just your key buyer, but also the people they surround themselves with. For example, a software company will typically have content and pitch decks for a power user, an executive approver, an IT administrator and more. 

Account-based marketing is no different.

ABM Strategies

Here are a few ways, traditional and non-traditional, to approach account-based marketing.

  1. If you have a small amount of high-valued accounts, you may be able to create very specific campaigns and collateral for each deal you are targeting. This is how many are thinking of ABM today, but it's not the only way to do it.
  2. If you don't have the capabilities to target an individual company or you have a broader number of targets, try revamping your persona strategy and thinking of a persona as your “account.” You might run targeted nurturing tracks or webinars for a particular buyer or industry. They key is to be as relevant as possible.
  3. Use your current contacts to help you crack into other parts of the account. Say you've hooked a primary user, and you need to influence others to seal the deal; send that person materials to share with IT counterparts or an article to share with a boss. Make it easy for this user to spread your message throughout the organization. If the content is high quality, you both come out looking good.
  4. Think online and offline. Account-based targeting goes beyond the banner ad or the targeted email. A well-rounded strategy has to be in lockstep with sales and may include closing events, in-person meetings, personal outreach, and more.

Not One-Size-Fits-All

As with any trend, account-based marketing is going to work for some organizations better than others.

Yes, the concept of account-based marketing is built on a sound foundation of logic, and yes, we can all benefit from thinking more strategically about how we can help our sales teams target key accounts. 

Does this mean you need to uproot all of your current marketing efforts and replace them with an account-based strategy? Of course not. As you dive into planning for the year ahead, spend some time examining the truth behind the trend, and decide where it fits into your demand generation funnel. A final checklist I'll leave you with:

  1. Define your goals. Who are the most critical accounts you need to target? What are the best ways to reach them? If you can't answer these questions yet, you may need to start by casting a wider net — perhaps targeting an industry, or role — before you narrow your focus.
  2. Involve your entire organization. Account-based marketing cannot be used effectively without account-based selling and a customer-obsessed philosophy that extends across the entire customer lifecycle. Make sure you're involving all your internal stakeholders in discussions of ABM goals.
  3. Walk before you run. Don't forget that account-based marketing is a strategy, not a tool. You may need more tools to accomplish your particular ABM goals (and there are some great options out there), but this should only be explored after you've determined what your goals are, and how your current tools can be used to get started.

Remember, the most successful marketers don't follow trends, they start them. So think creatively, zig where others zag and keep you eye on the only real goal that matters today: an unmatched, remarkable customer experience.