Understanding Account Based Marketing

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Why is everyone suddenly talking about Account Based Marketing? After all, it's hardly a new concept. The reason is that marketing automation technology is just catching up with it.

If you're a B2C marketer, then most of the time you're targeting individual human beings—whether in-store, on a billboard, or online. You want to engage with Jack or Jill and start them tumbling down the funnel.

For B2B marketers, matters have always been a little more complicated. Jack may be one member of a six person purchasing team. Perhaps he's trapped in mid-management between an executive setting his budget and end-users grumbling about the products he buys. What's more, maybe next week Jack will have moved on to pastures new, to be replaced by Jill.

As a B2B marketer, you're not really selling to an individual—although there will always, of course, be a role for personal contacts and relationships. You're selling, by definition, to a business; or more likely to specific accounts within that business.

The concept of ABM was codified by ITSMA (the Information Technology Services Marketing Association) some years ago. ABM, said ITSMA, “provides a vital strategy for companies that want to create sustainable growth and profitability within their most important client accounts. ABM focuses explicitly on individual client accounts and their needs. More importantly, it is a collaborative approach that engages sales, marketing, delivery, and key executives toward achieving the client's business goals.” In ITSMA's view, ABM helps marketing and sales teams work together to build relationships with the key players in accounts which generate the most revenue.

Obviously, B2B marketers have long understood the importance of accounts, but have had to rely on outmoded tools to engage with them: spreadsheets, telephone conversations, random meetings at events, and email chains (which may or may not be shared with the sales team). Increasingly, however, marketing automation platforms have honed and launched ABM offerings, to take the pain and strain out of managing relationships with multiple accounts, and increase opportunities for personalization.

ABM does have its critics. Of course, some say it's just a hyped-up marketing term for a long-established practice. But there are more substantial criticisms too:

  • It mainly supports outbound efforts
  • It puts sales in the driving seat
  • The benefits are hard to measure

As we'll see, there's some basis for those complaints. But first, look at ABM's strengths when it's automated.  As Kevin Bobowski, CMO of Act-On Software, told me recently, if you're selling to a team, then you're selling to people with different roles in the process, across multiple touch-points, channels and devices. These people need content personalized to their needs at various stages in the purchase journey. “You can market to all these folks differently, and you should.”

That assumes, of course, that ABM can be embedded in a marketing automation solution—indeed, Bobowski thinks MA is ABM's natural home. Act-On Software has an automated ABM offering, as do other players in the space. These include Avention: CEO Steve Pogorzelski told me, “The solution makes it possible to do ABM at scale.” Scale is the key for the modern B2B marketer.

Yes, it's primarily an outbound tool. It's more suited for chasing accounts in a defined market than for lead gen (“With the caveat that it can help businesses understand what their market is,” said Pogorzelski). At the same time, a more evolved understanding of account personas can inform inbound marketing content.

True, a sales team can dominate ABM efforts by ensuring that businesses they're comfortable selling to make up the bulk of the accounts on the list. A more positive view is that ABM can help align marketing and sales around common goals.

Hard to measure? What isn't? But an agile marketing automation platform ought to offer good visibility into account-based activity. What's more, vendors will say that relationships with accounts rather than individual purchasers are great for retaining business.

Maybe ABM just needs a new name: something like Account Based Marketing Automation. Because the real reason it's suddenly on everyone's radar is that—like so many other modern marketing angles—it comes down in the end to good data and a dashboard.

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