The ABM Mindset: Data, Alignment, And The Buy-In Challenge

What defines true marketing success?

As I sat on the plane on the way home from TOPO Summit in San Francisco last week, I couldn’t help but think of the old Einstein quote:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

The same thing goes for B2B organizations trying to make sense of ABM. The game has changed, and the same old metrics don’t apply to what is becoming a whole new way to think about the relationship between marketing and sales.

“We want to be as targeted as possible,” TOPO CEO Scott Albro said during his keynote speech. “Let’s stop worrying about qualified leads, and start engaging.”

The annual conference brings sales and marketing leaders together for two days of discussion on the latest industry trends. What’s notable about TOPO is the sheer honesty involved — speakers and attendees were unafraid to admit their mistakes, ask for help, and throw their tech stacks up on a projector for the masses. Whether you were up on stage our out in the audience, you were there to learn.

TOPO added the ABM track to their conference after realizing a growing demand from their clients.

“It really reflects an overall shift in the business,” Tricia Mulbry, marketing manager, TOPO, said.

Yes, there’s a shift – but it’s only just starting

While ABM is widely recognized, the majority of marketing organizations still have a long way to go. According to TOPO research, only 18 percent of early adopters have been running ABM programs for at least 24 months.

And that’s only early adopters. An earlier study found that only 20 percent of all organizations surveyed have had any ABM program in place for more than a year.

ABM is, by no means, a new practice. Vendors like Demandbase have been working in the space to some extent for nearly a decade now. The numbers instead indicate the rumblings of a mainstream shift, as organizations begin to see need for more one-on-one interactions.

A change in philosophy

There’s also the fact that implementing a full-scale ABM program doesn’t happen overnight.

“It starts by completely changing your funnel plays and working backwards from there,” Eric Spett, CEO, Terminus, said. “It’s a philosophical change.”

There’s always been a strict dichotomy between sales and marketing teams — a siloed approach, with quantitative results placed front-and-center for the C-suite.

Traditional marketing teams are measured by their ability to wrangle new MQLs, which are qualified under different standards than Sales. The lack of cohesion here is frustrating for both parties. Leads that were deemed qualified by Marketing fall flat in the face of Sales, and Sales is ultimately left with less SQLs to convert further down into the funnel.

“Salespeople want to hear what you did to help them on certain accounts,” Albro said.

ABM, which places MQAs (marketing qualified accounts) as priority, focuses on engagement from designated quality accounts instead.

“The problem is, the C-suite is so used to seeing different numbers,” Andre Yee, CEO, Triblio, added.

Yee calls MQLs a “failed experiment.” Instead, Sales and Marketing teams need to come together under one data umbrella — judging merits based on the engagement level of target accounts, rather than casting a wide net, and filtering down from there.

But, “focusing on a set of dedicated target accounts can be uncomfortable for marketers who are used to casting a wide demand gen net and finding prized qualified needles in the proverbial haystack,” Eric Wittlake, TOPO sr. analyst, said. Not to mention, the inevitable dispute over figuring out what a “target account” is in the first place — and getting the C-suite to sign off on the whole thing.

The ‘double funnel’ approach’

ABM requires a shift in perspective, but it doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have proven successful in the past.

Instead, Wittlake calls for a “double-funnel approach.” On one side, you have your ABM hierarchy, which is tiered based on account priority — a “flipped funnel,” as Spett and the Terminus team calls it. On the top, you have your handful of priority accounts, which Wittlake says are the ones that demand the most time and resources from your ABM program.

The “other” funnel should account for low-priority leads or one-off inbound inquiries, which still benefit from demand gen campaigns and sales outreach.

“When you think about the [ABM] journey, it’s not by itself. It’s not the only thing that you’re doing,” Rhonda Shantz, CMO, Centrify said.

Shantz also pointed to the importance of SDRs, who may be able to identify target accounts that may have been missed.

“Think of them as the quarterback on your team,” Shantz said.

Data’s role in sales-marketing alignment

Wittlake says the organizations that see the most success are the ones that take a “systematic approach,” working under a “single set of data that’s accessible and actionable across all systems.”

An abundance of ABM tools have emerged over the last several years to help bridge the gap. Predictive analytics and machine learning are also starting to make an impact, offering ways for ABM marketers to identify and discover target accounts through lookalike profiling and real-time activity.

“If you look at it, it’s all about making sales people better, not replacing them,” Albro said of AI, arguing the process will help eliminate repetitive tasks and enable teams to focus on more meaningful engagement.

“AI is here to stay. The next step is executing it across channels,” Amanda Kahlow, founder, 6sense, said.

Regardless of what’s in your tech stack, Pete Johnson, sr. director, marketing operations, ServiceNow, stresses one golden rule: keep your data clean, regardless of how daunting the task may be.

“Like your car, your house, your children – they’re [your databases] not going to clean themselves,” Johnson said. You’re going to have to clean it.”

Wittlake stresses the importance carefully selecting your tools based on your ABM model’s maturity, and ability of your team to really use those tools as intended.

“Software is developing to keep up with shifting demands,” Wittlake said. But “teams may not be ready to use software accordingly,” he added.

The rise of the ABM platform?

While more tech solutions are arriving in the ABM space now, Demandbase CEO Chris Golec says this may not always be the case. As the tech becomes more sophisticated, it won’t be surprising if larger players build out their existing tools or partner with other vendors to create full-functioning ABM platforms.

“You have to have the ability to build on what you have,” Golec said.
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