Chapter 1 – When you stop talking about ABM and start doing it
Is it just me, or does it seem like everyone is doing account based marketing (ABM) these days?
I’m kidding of course.
Many are talking like they’re doing ABM without actually doing it. A few are trying and failing. A couple are actually scaling a successful program.
But I’m not here to point the finger or out anyone. Why not? Because I used to talk about ABM without having done it. I wasn’t a fraud as much as a soldier in basic training. I’d shot my firearm at a fixed target, but I’d never been in “the shit.”
Well, I’m back from a few tours of duty. Along the way, some of the things I learned in “Basic” turned out to be little more than “Basic BS.”
Here are a few lessons I learned as I went from talking about ABM to actually doing it.
First Lesson: ABM is not demand gen. Many people think it is related or simply the next phase of demand gen because, as far as I can see, they haven’t done ABM. So where did they get this idea? They likely read from others who probably haven’t done ABM as well or who were dumbing it down so people who haven’t done ABM could conceptualize it through the lens of something they understood (demand gen).
But ABM is not demand gen. Not at all.
The biggest issue I’ve seen is that doing ABM strategy through the lens of demand gen results in what I’ll call “demand gen to the nth.” This means you take a demand gen campaign architecture and multiply components as you go up-tier (I’m referencing the 4 core demand approaches concept here).
Conventional wisdom being that going up-tier adds complexity; going down-tier simplifies it. This just isn’t the case.
There are some very key differences between ABM and demand gen that make simply scaling one to become the other either impractical or impossible:
- Tiering doesn’t simply translate to effort. It also moves the heavy-lifting burden and orchestration from one stakeholder group to another. Demand gen is a marketing pursuit. Sales is a customer. ABM seeks to flip that dynamic, but the level of control would ideally shift as an account becomes bigger, more important, more complex, etc. That means Sales leads, Marketing supports. This requires that Sales no longer is the customer of a marketing strategy and instead drives the strategy with Marketing trying to cover the gaps on account engagement, expansion, etc.
- Most demand gen is fundamentally reliant on two channels: email and paid media. These might make up a sliver of the ABM tactical mix, but certainly not the backbone, especially as you focus more on named accounts. Email and paid media conversion rates are the lowest of the low, and the process of prioritizing and getting specific with targets means you really can’t afford to invest in all the upfront orchestration if your payoff downstream is going to be only a handful of leads, spread across a tiny portion of target accounts. At that point, it’s probably cheaper and potentially more effective for sales to cold call lists.
Second Lesson: There’s no such thing as ABM. There’s account based strategy. There’s account based sales. But account based marketing is a mirage. This may sound like some needlessly provocative statement, but I’m being very serious. If Marketing is the primary stakeholder and driver of strategy and tactics, I’m not sure it is account based. Its segment marketing or marketing to accounts, but not account based.
You hear so much about Marketing and Sales alignment (you have heard about it for decades, probably). But even a cursory interrogation of the Marketing-Sales-alignment content would reveal that if someone from Marketing authored it, the purpose of the piece is to get Sales to embrace Marketing. If Sales authored it, the piece is about Marketing embracing Sales. And now we know one reason why Marketing and Sales are rarely aligned—because neither wants to step toward the middle (not to get sidetracked, but this is also why many personal relationships fail).
If your organization is all-in with ABM, my observation is that those Sales-authored pieces are the ones to follow. Marketing needs to embrace Sales; not the other way around.
Know that this is difficult for me to accept. I work at a marketing agency, after all. Marketing is where we focus our products and services to impact revenue. But if we’re down with ABM, then we’re signing up to not only step toward the middle, but take yet another step into the Sales Den and hand most of the control over to them.
Third Lesson: Remember when I said ABM wasn’t demand gen? Well, it’s not. But (and this is a Sir-Mix-A-Lot-sized but here) Marketing cannot execute its portion of ABM if it hasn’t already succeeded with some form of demand gen.
As I said before, ABM isn’t the result of demand gen being scaled. But ABM can’t be built unless you have some basic launchpad of demand gen as the foundation. You can’t move from batch-and-blast to ABM. Sorry. You just can’t.
Much of the process and tools needed on the marketing side are demand gen-based. The complexity and dot-connecting is more complex than demand gen, but teams that have successfully executed demand gen programs will have a more level learning curve to traverse.
What’s my advice based on what I’ve learned?
First, if you are a marketing team that is getting pressure to do ABM but you haven’t quite nailed demand gen, take a deep breath and call us. Like now. You’d be shocked how beneficial it is to have a partner that knows ABM help you get your demand gen in order. No, you won’t leap frog from mediocre demand gen to ABM-ready. But you’ll start driving revenue with smart demand gen (which will release some of that pressure, we promise), and then you’ll be ready to start inching into ABM.
Second, if you’re a marketing team that has succeeded with demand gen and doesn’t know where to start with ABM, it’s time to swap roles with your internal customers (Sales). Having a partner like us facilitate that process is smart. Stumbling through it on your own or worse, trying to completely own ABM in a silo and execute without Sales leading, are ill advised. Please don’t. Promise you’ll call us first.
Finally, watch out for pretenders. Everyone is acting like they’re ABM experts, like they have mountains of complex programs notched into their company’s leaderboard. For the vast majority of organizations, this is just not true. While some of our industry’s biggest ABM braggarts would have you believe they are running four-tier, heavy-weight ABM campaigns, many are only now executing small-scale, 1:1 proof-of-concepts with existing customers. It’s easy to feel behind. Don’t take the bait. Remember, it’s way better to get your demand gen act together, drive revenue, and then do ABM right than to attempt to scale a fictitious ABM program.
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