Demand generation powered by people: the future of effective account based marketing (Part 1)

In this series of three articles, Paul Stacey examines the current state of Account Based Marketing (ABM). He looks at the necessary alignment with sales and marketing strategies; an appraisal of the ABM vendor landscape and where to invest; and considers the essential linkage between high quality data and timely human intervention. 

ABM – A difficult, but rewarding ‘new normal’ for B2B sales

With greater uncertainty about technology investments, the current pandemic has ushered a necessary change in traditional B2B sales and marketing strategies and accelerated a greater need for effective account based marketing (ABM).

ABM has been with us for some time. So, it’s not a new and recent readjustment of B2B sales and marketing augured by Covid-19 per se. But the changes in how sales and marketing teams have had to rethink their alignment – perhaps rationalising their account or industry focus – in the current climate means that companies have this year had to respond quickly to new priorities and audiences.

ABM is an obvious plan of attack in our new world. But effective ABM is particularly challenged today as previous direct and personal – in-person channels like face-to-face meetings and networking events – have evaporated. In-person client activities of yore like hospitality at sporting occasions or the arts were arguably on the wane anyway, but intimacy with clients and prospects has never been so challenged. And yet have never before been so important.

Relationships in our increasingly virtual world are less direct and personal, and decision making far more dispersed – both geographically and organisationally.

Effective ABM is expensive, it’s difficult, but executed well, has the potential to deliver exceptional returns.

As most of you know, ABM, also known as key account marketing, is a strategic approach to B2B marketing based on account awareness in which an organisation considers and communicates with individual prospect or customer accounts as markets of one.

Despite its name, ABM is really less about marketing to an ‘account’, and more of an understanding that B2B investment decisions are made by buying committees from varied internal silos. So, their collective actions constitute an indicator of interest, intent and engagement. But reaching the decision-making group is hard and is inevitably increasingly complex. Getting your ABM strategy right has never been more important or tougher. 

A significant part of the promise of ABM is the ability to personalise messages, content and programmes to differentiate by addressing prospect’s specific needs.

How it works, who it’s for and its benefits

ABM is typically employed in enterprise-level sales organisations. If you do it well, you can realise these benefits:

  • Identify specific contacts, at specific companies, within a specific market
  • Increase account relevance
  • Engage earlier and higher with deals
  • Get the best value out of marketing
  • Align marketing activity with account strategies
  • Inspire customers with compelling, highly relevant content

While business marketing has been typically organised by industry, product/solution or channel (direct/social/PR etc.), ABM brings all of these together to focus on individual accounts. Done well, you will reap the rewards of your tailored solutions. Done badly, you will waste a lot of time, effort and money.

So, sellers today need to rely on integrated marketing and communications in a way they have never done before. Marketing needs to be personalised, and it needs to be intelligently deployed across multiple channels. It needs to be joined-up, complementary and highly relevant.

But going the multi-channel way brings risk. A multi-channel approach inevitably waters down spend levels within each channel. The temptation is to increase media spend at the expense of creative personalisation. When this happens the uniqueness of a message is lost, and marketing activities become commoditised and potential customers see little or no difference between suppliers and their competitors. When that happens, price becomes the only obvious differentiator. Personalisation is paramount.

Organisations which are currently seeing the greatest benefit from ABM are IT, Services and Consulting companies. With complex propositions, long sales cycles and large customers, these organisations are ideal candidates for the approach. This is because ABM is ultimately dependant on data, and these sectors major on the value of data. They have complex solutions, and they have complex buying groups.

ABM is, though, spreading into other sectors and a benefit can be seen to be an increased return on investment. Consequently, there is something of a ‘gold rush’ in the ABM automation space.

If you read the ABM technology vendor’s marketing claims, you would be led to think that automation can overcome marketing and sales teams’ current challenge for intimacy with clients and do it all instead – identify, reach and engage with your highest-value prospects – at the touch of a button. But can these off-the-shelf solutions truly automate at scale while retaining key customer insights and preserving intimacy? I think not.

There is a place for automation of course, but it’s worthless without high quality data, and essentially, the intervention of people.

I would argue that the human touch is necessary in at least one, if not multiple touchpoints in any company’s ABM campaigns. Demand generation must ultimately be powered by people.

But how to achieve the perfect marriage of automation, data and people?

Tune in for the next instalment. But in the meantime, what do you think? I welcome your thoughts and comments.