Getting Started with Account-Based Marketing: Part One – The ABM Game

Getting Started with Account-Based Marketing: Part One – The ABM Game

A no-BS, one-stop tactical guide to Account-Based Marketing.

Every salesperson I know has a set of tried-and-tested tactics to land an account. I have been lucky to know veteran salesmen who have sold millions using old-school methods, and newer ones who utilize powerful-yet-unorthodox strats to convert the most difficult prospects. Despite the differences, pretty much all of them use a common tool: personalization.

The degree of personalization, however, varies. It depends on a customer’s potential CLV. Bluntly put – the more you think a prospect would pay, the more time you would want to spend on them. While this sounds simple, I’ve seen novice salespeople sacrifice personalization to increase reachouts. This is usually because of a lack of a well-structured strategy.

Nearly everyone who starts in B2B sales makes a common mistake: sending generic sales messages using some templates. In my domain (B2B IT services), they’re mainly to the tune of ‘Hey, you need X development? We have X developers!’ 

I’m not saying that this doesn’t work, but as I’ve learned it the hard way – spraying and praying through your email/cold-call list will only take you so far. The biggest problem with this approach is that your message gets drowned in the noise of hundreds of similar messages in your prospect’s inbox.

Account-Based Marketing is a way of cutting through that noise. It is a structured way of personalizing your messaging, irrespective of the channel. When you follow the ABM approach, you are essentially fishing with a harpoon instead of a net. If you are having a lucky day, you can spray, pray, and your net can pull in small fishes. But to catch whales – the high-dollar clients, you need a harpoon.

Account-based marketing catches whales for you.

Before we proceed, I want you to note three things.

1. This two-parter will be in the form of a variation on (soliloquized) Socratic Dialogues. I’ve used the exact same format to train my company’s sales team – and have found that using Q&As makes it easy to understand a concept like this. This should also tell you that these articles are for folks who are just starting their ABM journey. They may not add a lot if you have already used ABM at some point in your sales career. This series is a super-simple, practical ‘getting started’ guide that works on an elementary level, and should be treated as such.

2. I work at a B2B IT services organization, so I have geared all the examples in this series toward the same. But remember that account-based marketing is a general approach and could be followed by any B2B organization irrespective of its services. That being said, if you wish to implement ABM, the unit price of your service should generally be high, and it should be a consultative sell. ABM is not cheap. Therefore, your CLV needs to be able to justify the acquisition cost. A good benchmark would be a CLV to CAC ratio of 5:1 or better (ABM generates a higher ROI ratio than the industry standard of 3:1).

3. You will notice that these articles address sales more than marketing. This is because while account-based marketing involves a strict collaboration between sales and marketing (as you will read further), it is primarily driven by the former.

Let us open with a fundamental question.

What is Account-Based Marketing?

In B2B sales, you never sell to a single individual. You sell to a complex web of people with different demands, so it is best to understand how they all fit into the bigger picture. Account-based marketing does precisely that. It is a practice that uses every last bit of touchpoints during a sales journey: from collecting data to creating personalized interactions. As ITSMA puts it, it is ‘treating individual accounts as markets in their own right.’

ABM requires an extremely high level of collaboration between sales and marketing. Both teams work together to create more personalized points of contact and develop relationships that continue to grow over time.

It is outbound marketing done in a calculated way.

What can I achieve with Account-Based Marketing?

Theoretically, there are four main areas where ABM can help you:

  1. Account penetration
  2. Changing perception or positioning
  3. Developing new accounts and acquiring blue-chip customers
  4. Pursuing identified major opportunities

I’ll be honest here – there are much better ways than ABM if you want to achieve (1) and (2). Points (3) and (4) are where ABM outperforms other strats. Simply put: ABM works best when you are struggling to bring your prospect on a sales call. So, this series will focus on that goal.

Are there examples of companies using Account-Based Marketing?

I’ve seen every major technology service company in my industry try the ABM route. The notable names include Accenture (one of the first to use ABM), Capgemini, Infosys, Microsoft, and IBM. I’ve also seen smaller product companies like Mixpanel and Dialpad use it to move upmarket. Pretty much all of them have succeeded.

A good example is Infosys – and its ABM program called unmarketing. In 2020, the program helped Infosys engage with 3,781 contacts, 1,409 of whom were CXO-level contacts. It generated USD 1.1 billion of pipeline and USD 163 million of new wins across 121 opportunities.

Is there some general data proving its effectiveness?

From A Practitioner's Guide to Account-Based Marketing
Source: A Practitioner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing

How do I get started?

Generally, there are three standard ABM types that you can follow:

  1. Strategic
  2. Lite
  3. Programmatic
From A Practitioner's Guide to Account-Based Marketing: Types of ABM
Source: A Practitioner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing

You can read more about them here, but in a nutshell:

1. Strategic ABM: Super-customized. It eats up a lot of sales and marketing time but has a huge ROI.

2. ABM lite: Involves creating cohorts of accounts with similar issues and tailoring campaigns accordingly. Medium ROI.

3. Programmatic ABM: Provides greater coverage, but is less customized.

It is extremely difficult to do programmatic ABM correctly – because there is a good chance of it seeping into the spray-and-pray league. On the other hand, strategic ABM is very risky for smaller organizations. While it has a high ROI, it is very cost-intensive.

ABM lite gives you the best of both worlds.

I am pro-lite because of a particular reason. Every B2B organization works with some amount of sales intelligence – whether from a tool or insights from sales research. Good sales intelligence answers two fundamental questions about any prospect:

  1. Is the prospect looking for services you offer?
  2. What are the challenges that they’re looking to solve?

The answers to these two questions give absolute clarity on the measure sales managers love: purchase intent. But purchase intent is not enough to apply strategic ABM. It requires other information points – like exact budget requirements, which are generally inaccessible to tools/researchers. 

This is where ABM lite appears on the top. It could be applied even when you only have accessible information about your prospects. If you’re just starting with ABM, the lite variant is a great way to do so.

Account-based marketing: lite

What is ABM lite?

  • The most popular form of ABM (used by 58%, median of 50 accounts).
  • Accounts usually have common pain points that enable cluster marketing.
  • A single salesperson can usually handle up to 25 accounts.

What are the steps to apply ABM lite?

From the industry-standard A Practitioner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing (verbatim):

1. Decide what you want to achieve with ABM and how you will measure success.

2. Position ABM as a strategic business initiative and align it as such.

3. Segment and select accounts for ABM investment.

These three are the most crucial steps in any account-based marketing routine. After them, the book lists a few more:

4. Devote sufficient resources.

5. Capture data and develop new insights into accounts.

6. Create and deploy personalized content/items through integrated campaigns.

7. Leverage the appropriate tools and technologies.

– but, once you select the accounts, ITSMA has seven steps that could be applied directly. So let us focus on the first three for now.

Let’s start with (1). How can I measure success?

Your success metrics are dependent on your goals. But if you’re looking to start with something, the following four hard metrics are what you should track:

  1. Pipeline growth
  2. Revenue growth
  3. Return on Sales Investment
  4. Average deal size

Okay. Now (2) – how do we ‘position account-based marketing as a strategic business initiative’?

This is highly subjective, but the core idea is to use ABM as a primary strategic growth program and sales strategy. As with every strategic business initiative, this would need two things:

  1. Proper allocation of personnel
  2. Proper allocation of budget

It is simple: you will need a reasonable budget and dedicated resources in both sales and marketing teams – or you’ll struggle with ABM. If you’re a salesperson, you need to convince your leadership. If you’re in leadership, you need to take the mantle of doing it right.

The leadership would need to be involved in this in any case. A common way to do this is to create a ‘steering group’ that represents every touchpoint (example: marketing, sales, delivery). This steering group will oversee the adoption, execution, and alignment of the ABM program by:

  1. Acting as the authority on strategic decision making
  2. Resolving interdepartmental conflicts
  3. Allocating required resources
  4. Establishing systems needed to manage and track progress.
The following is what an ideal ABM team looks like.

You can mix and match according to your strengths:

RoleResponsibilities
SalespeopleExecute and manage the entire process
Sales database administratorRefreshing account lists for the sales development team and account executives with qualified accounts.
Marketing ManagerProvide content to the team. Maintain a list of upcoming events and content to be published, and communicate with sales about how to promote these activities to accounts they’re targeting.
CopywriterWrite copy, keep the content library up to date and provide links to sales with all content available to send to contacts, based on stage and persona.
Sales leaderRegularly update the list of target accounts for SDRs and AEs by accounts they want to close in the next 30, 60, or 90 days. Provide reporting on progress toward monthly or quarterly sales goals.
Executive stakeholder(s) (upper management)Support the team, pass budgets

What about (3) – ‘Segmenting and selecting accounts for ABM investment’?

McKinsey suggests an excellent 4-point method for this (taken from their GE case):

One: Screen a list of relevant accounts to develop a shortlist that will be later evaluated and sorted by priority.

Two: Assess the shortlist based on two parameters: 

  1. The attractiveness of the account to your organization.
  2. Your org’s relative business strength as a potential supplier.

Three: Select the accounts to be included according to Step 2.

Four: Use the results of the prioritization process to apply ABM.

Let me demonstrate this with an example. Say you’re the sales leader of XYZ – a mid-sized B2B IT services company that helps enterprises outsource their web application development. The following is how your company could apply these four steps:

One

Using a sales intelligence resource, XYZ’s steering group will identify 50 accounts based on: 

  • Requirement of the customer (the ones who are looking for web development).
  • Availability of accessible information points.
Two

The steering group will score companies based on the two parameters mentioned above. The group will check if they:

  • Have floated software RFPs in the past with a decent ticket size.
  • Have expressed interest in web application development.
  • Are open to hiring vendors for their initiatives (some companies prefer to build software in-house).
  • Are looking for the same tech stack that XYZ works on.
Three

The group will assign priority to the accounts based on lead scoring.

Four

The data will be separated into smaller ‘clusters’ and divided among salespeople.

Please remember that you need sales and marketing to work closely together for this step. You also need well-defined, objective criteria for creating the shortlist. Your shortlist should not be a mere wishlist. The core idea is to choose strategically analyzed accounts best suited for sales.

How will these clusters be used?

As per ITSMA, the following is the ‘proven’ seven-step process after an account is identified:

From A Practitioner's Guide to Account-Based Marketing: Seven Steps
Source: A Practitioner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing

We will discuss all seven steps in-depth in part two of this series: Harpooning. Meanwhile, please feel free to share this article by clicking on the buttons below.

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