Will AI Make Account-Based Marketing Obsolete?

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ABM has only been in the B2B marketing lexicon for a few years now — but some think the idea may already be on its way out because of advances in martech analytics AI technologies

"Marketing without AI is going to be no marketing at all," said Malcolm Frank, CMO of Cognizant Technology Solutions, as he set the tone for the day in an introductory presentation at ITSMA's annual Marketing Vision conference this month in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frank went on to relate how researchers have already perfected poker-playing robots that are able to accurately learn and read human poker players' strategies, determining when they are bluffing and when they are not.

The corollary that other speakers picked up was that AI will eventually be better than humans at marketing and creating a positive customer experience; some seemed to indicate that current machine learning and automation tech is already better than human marketing and CRM professionals.

"We started about four or five years ago with [Strategic] ABM," related Nick Panayi, VP of brand, demand, and digital marketing at DXC Technology. "You have to have a marketer facing no more than five [or] six accounts. Otherwise, you run out of time. So we had 400 key accounts. There [are] not enough marketers."

The upshot was that Panayi could not scale up enough ABM accounts. The solution that he and his DXC colleagues' came up with was to instead scrap ABM per se and instead adopt what they called "Pursuit Marketing" — leveraging AI and other marketing analytics to better connect with customers on a one-to-one basis.

"Forget Account-Based Marketing. Think about People-Based Marketing. Think about every individual [in] a buying group [that] is made up of many different people," said Panayi when directly asked about the role of AI in B2B marketing. "An AI bot…can craft a campaign for one person. Why do we have to wait…months for an email campaign? … When that human finally says. 'Oh, that's interesting…" then you connect them to the salesperson — and at that point you bring with them their whole history."

Julie Schwartz, ITSMA's SVP of research and thought leadership, likewise acknowledged the boost that AI can give to ABM efforts while helping marketers shift their frame of reference.

"Maybe the better questions we should start off with are who are my best and most important buyers?" said Schwartz in her own presentation at the conference. "And how can AI use that knowledge to really engage with them better?"

Specifically, Schwartz noted that some ABMers might lose sight of customer experience – instead becoming hyper focused on such ABM aspects as lead generation. In such cases, Schwartz averred, AI technologies could help — although at no point did she seem ready to throw the ABM baby out with the bathwater in wholesale favor of AI.

Of course, Panayi's evangelism stems from having to solve a very particular problem of scale, especially because of the added low-level complexities introduced by big data. To that extent, he balanced his viewpoints by noting that AI – while useful — is hardly an all-purpose marketing salve."The human touch cannot be replaced. This is about scaling things — not replacing things," said Panayi. "You think about what the human can do, then you put a bot there and scale it."

Panayi's co-panelist, Alyssa Weber, Senior Director of Marketing Operations at Juniper Networks, likewise cautioned marketers in the audience against relying too much upon AI tech.

"It's similar to anything else you do. If you don't have good data process and policies for training and getting the intelligence, then you're just going to exacerbate the issue. There will be no benefit to having AI," said Weber. "Being an early adopter or getting early on the AI train is going to take a significant amount of resources or people to get it to a point where it can be useable."

Nonetheless, Panayi remained enthusiastic.

"We have bots that have more perfect information than we have," said Panayi. "I may be different, but maybe because I'm a marketer, if I go to a website and a bot… pops up and says, 'Hey, how can I help you?' if that bot responds faster and better than a human, I have no problem with a bot. I don't want a human."

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