Accounts based marketing: hype or the future of B2B?

ABM. Accounts Based Marketing, right? Maybe the most popular marketing automation buzz phrase of 2016 so far. After all, B2B marketing has always sold to businesses, not individuals–that’s kind of what “2B” implies. And anyway, wasn’t ABM codified years ago (answer: yes, by the IT Services Marketing Association)? Why is everyone talking about it now?

I sought answers to these and other questions in a conversation this week with Kevin Bobowski, CMO of Act-On Software, the MA and email marketing platform. “The biggest difference between marketing to an individual and marketing to an account,” he told me, “is complexity.” Act-On started to work on an ABM solution last fall, he said, prompted by requests from customers. 

“If you’re selling a product to me,” he said (in the B2B context), “you’re probably going to talk to five people on my team, over five to six different channels, over the course of four to five stages of the sales funnel.” The channels might include email, phone conversations, and meetings at events: different touch-points with multiple team members. “You never want to be just selling to Kevin,” he said. After all, a hypothetical Kevin might leave the business halfway through the process.

“What we’re solving for is: we want to provide marketers with their own command center,” he said, “and being able to manage all those communications, and see what’s working and what’s not. Another part is scoring on propensity to buy. Which accounts are most engaged and most active?”

Act-On has just launched its own ABM automation solution. It provides account scoring, as well as account profiles, and functionality for account nurturing across the whole buying team (including a “throttle” feature to control frequency of messaging). But wait, I said.  Isn’t this just a sophisticated way of tagging individuals to a particular business account?  Isn’t it, in a sense, all too easy? 

Bobowksi disagreed. For one thing, there’s the data cleanliness challenge–associating leads with the correct accounts. But more importantly, the goal is is personalization at an intra-account level. Different roles on the team (from executive decision-makers to end-users, for example) need different kinds of content at different stages on the purchase journey. “You can market to all these folks differently,” said Bobowski, “and you should.”

These lessons come from B2C marketing, and the ability to craft an individual customer journey, but they can have subtly different applications in the B2B environment. Bobowski gave me the example of a Portland, Oregon company using Act-On’s solution. The business had been going down a traditional acquisition path, relying on inbound marketing, and in particular on search. It wasn’t working. There was a transformation in their approach when they recognized their real target was a finite, defined set of buyers–accounts, in fact–and they could tailor their efforts to those accounts and individuals associated with them.

“Demand gen is all very well,” said Bobowski. “But it can sometimes lead to sloppy growth rather than customers with real lifetime value.” Targeted marketing is in danger of becoming a “lost art,” he said–the art of being “crisp and clear about who you’re selling to.”

“People are saying [about ABM], ‘No, it’s too complicated, or it’s all hype,'” said Bobowski. But businesses have actually been doing ABM for a long time. It just hasn’t always been called that, and the tools have too often been manual–email chains, spreadsheets, unrecorded conversations at events. The reason ABM is coming back into everybody’s focus is that the technology has caught up. In fact, Bobowski speculates that the influence of the approach might be far-reaching. “It’s still early, but here’s something to watch for: MA being used to build brand and customer loyalty.” It might also have applicability to the post-sale experience.

“I do think,” he said, “that when a new technology comes in, there’s always the question (often from VCs) about where is it going to live?” Is it going to be a standalone tool? Is it going to be “infused” in other technologies (like big  data, for example)? “It’s going to be interesting to watch how ABM gets infused across the martech stack,” Bobowski mused, “or whether it just becomes an addition.

“Marketing automation,” he concluded, “seems the natural home.”

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