two women looking at a large sculpture of the planet
PHOTO: Franck V.

Every spring and fall, we marketing technology pros pack up our business cards, pop-up banners and company swag to head out for what I call “marketing conference season.” With back-to-back-to-back industry conferences around the globe, marketing teams get stretched to the limits ensuring they have the right presence at the right conferences (and get the right ROI in return). However, this year, my team decided the conferences were not enough — they wanted to sprinkle in some owned events throughout the spring season.

Aside from putting me on the road nonstop for two solid months on three different continents, the mix of owned and sponsored events gave me an unprecedented opportunity: I got to talk to other marketers. 

I spoke with marketers in the hallways and after sessions at conferences. I found others at networking breakfasts, lunches and happy hours. My favorite conversations, selfishly, happened at our own events, where I diabolically designed the agenda specifically around marketers talking to other marketers about account-based marketing (ABM). Four main ABM challenges kept coming up over and over and over during my conversations around the world.

Challenge 1: Sales and Marketing Alignment

Everyone except for the San Francisco crowd, who have rebranded it all-company alignment, immediately mentioned sales and marketing alignment when asked about ABM challenges. These challenges range from making sure we’re measuring with the same numbers (more on that later) to agreeing on an account list to making sure we’re executing on a good high-touch strategy. The most frustrated marketers among us can’t even get sales to TALK to them, which shoots an ABM strategy in the foot before it can even take a step.

A few themes emerged around how marketers are solving this issue. Most marketers let sales own the initial account list creation or the final approval. Without sales ownership, they tend to work wacky accounts. The other strategy that works for many is to get buy-in all the way from the top. The troops quickly fall in line when the CMO and CRO manager align around an ABM strategy.

Related Article: Stop Talking and Start Doing: What it Really Takes to Excel With ABM

Challenge 2: Tech Stack

Like sales and marketing alignment, we have often belabored our tech stack challenge. In Boston, the conversation turned from integrations and trimming budgets to making the tech stack actually work. Astute Bostonians observed that the best tools in the world are useless without the right talent to run them. In other words, you can’t solve problems just by throwing tech at them. 

When a tool doesn’t work, it’s most likely because you don’t have the expertise or bandwidth to run it — and sometimes it's because the tool just stinks.

Challenge 3: Data

In Singapore, the top of everyone’s wish list was a shared dashboard that everyone agreed on. They believed they could really achieve better sales and marketing alignment with a dashboard like that. While most marketers agreed, most of us also struggle with the sheer volume of incoming data that we can use for reporting. To add complexity to the issue, our data comes from different systems. Marketers don’t have the same set of contacts or actions in marketing automation that sales has in CRM, and that’s just the beginning. 

Before we can acquire the holy grail of a shared dashboard, we have to agree on several different things:

  1. How do we define success? How do we define it and agree on it so that we’re all stressing when we fall short and celebrating when we succeed?
  2. What are the data points that can tell us when we are achieving success?
  3. What systems do those data points come from? Do the systems agree and talk to each other?
  4. How do we plan to use the dashboard?
  5. What’s the process for refining the dashboard (since we probably won’t get it right the first time ... or third)?

Related Article: Confessions of an ABM Skeptic

Challenge 4: What Is ABM?

If your first response on reading this section title was, “Well, it’s targeted marketing ... to accounts, duh!” you’d share what my opinion was before going on the road and talking to a few hundred other marketers. What some marketers define as ABM, others define as “target account marketing.” These same people insist that the only true ABM is one to one ABM. Cynics like me sometimes define ABM as “sales, now with marketing actually helping out!” 

In London, we had quite a few one to one ABMers, but also agencies that address ABM on a larger scale — including generating demand from target accounts that show intent — and everyone defined what they do as some flavor of ABM. 

Fundamentally, your company has to answer the question, “What are you trying to do?” if you want to define what ABM looks like for you. There’s no wrong or right answer to one to one vs. one to many, how many marketers you need to have, or how many accounts you need to target. By adopting an account-centric mindset and dedicating resources to closing those deals, you’re doing the ABM that works for you.

After talking to all of these marketers, I came to the conclusion that, while we all face similar challenges in alignment, technology, data and figuring out how to ABM, we have a lot in common as well. By working together inside our organizations and striving for agreement and putting thought into resources, we can choose our own way to do ABM and succeed.