Why Renewed Interest in ABM? A Q&A Discussion

Account-Based Marketing, or ABM, is nothing new, but it’s gaining a lot of traffic in B2B marketing circles. The concept, one of targeting communications for a singular account or person, has been around in name for roughly 15 years and likely practiced much longer. But if you listened to the discussions across the B2B marketing landscape today, you’d have to assume ABM is a new innovation.

Why the renewed interest?

That’s the question our keynote panel at Webinar World 2018 sought to answer. The panelists, Kim Davis, Editor-in-Chief, DMN, Karen Steele, CMO, LeanData and David Lewis, founder and CEO, DemandGen International, sat down to discuss ABM and why it has had such a resurgence in the past few years.

I had the good fortune to ask our group of panelists a few additional questions about ABM following their discussion. What follows is a brief Q&A, edited for clarity, brevity and context:

Q:

So, I just kind of wanted to have a continuation of what you guys were discussing onstage … What, to your minds, goes into an ABM program?

David Lewis:

I have no idea.

Karen Steele:

So, I think it starts with a fundamental culture. The way I would frame this is people, process, and technology. And I do think it starts with the people. Sales and marketing have to agree that going after target accounts is strategic to the business and is important and you have to start with targeting.

David Lewis:

I’d support that. As I was saying onstage, you have to perform this cultural alignment between sales and marketing. They don’t know how to work together. They’re cats and dogs, offense and defense, Air Force and Army — whatever analogy you want to use, they are wired very differently. Their skill-sets and expertise are very different. Sales are hunter-killers — on the ground, boots on the streets. Their bullets and weapons are communication and contracts, right? And marketing is all about content to create engagement. They need to know who they’re going after and who is the battlefield commander.

To follow the analogy, who’s the person that saying, “Okay, team, let’s charge.” So, the roles and responsibilities — the people side — is, “What the roles and responsibilities? Who’s responsible for the target to account list?” If you ask sales, they’re not normally very effective at establishing a target account list because they think about territories and they think about specific companies because of dynamics that relate to sales as opposed to relate to the ideal customer profile.

Marketing and product marketing have more the expertise around who are ideal customer profile is the pain points and who are easy to convert, slightly harder to convert, and going to be an incredibly difficult convert. So, if sales, from a people perspective, says, “I want to have Cisco as a customer,” but Cisco has been using another solution for a decade — and there’s no agents of change there, there’s no desire to change and there’s no perceived pain —they’ll just bang their head and bang their head against the wall. And if marketing says, “We want to go after a customer that doesn’t have an incumbent solution,” they have a very different education process instead of a swap opportunity — it’s a different way to pursue it.

So … If you align culturally, and then, from the people perspective, talk about the roles and respect the expertise, and then you can say, “Okay, what’s going to be our process for doing it? How will we actually how we actually establish the target accounts? Where will we put those Target accounts? How will we track our progress against the goals that we’re setting for ourselves? What are realistic conversion time periods for these accounts? What’s the role of marketing and sales in engaging in winning over these accounts? Are we going to create content that is specific to these targets or are we going to use the same old content we have?”  

So really mapping out a battle plan to go after these targets and treat them as targets that you want to — instead of destroy — win over. Then you can say, “Okay, now that we have a game plan, you know the rules and responsibilities. Let’s get the technology that we need to either fill gaps, like something lean data does, address some fundamental technology gaps, but also provide us the tools to help with targeting and engagement.”  

Karen Steele:

And I agree, the only comment I would add is that I think the old school sales and marketing model was volume-versus-value. So, demand creation organizations, they were comped and rewarded on putting you know having a webinar for a thousand people as opposed to a targeted webinar for ten — getting 20,000 leads per-quarter into the funnel as opposed to 200 that matter. And so, I think, there’s sort of a mind-shift in terms of value over volume.

David Lewis:

We’re still piloting with the incentive stuff Kim asked about. So, for example, from compensation, sales has more traditional quota and commission against quota type plan. But what we’ve done with marketing is we created a tip-jar model, which is we’re putting a certain dollar amount for every target account that is won by the organization where marketing had any level of involvement. And we’re pretty liberal on the “any level of involvement.” We don’t want to over-architect the comp-planning — just keep it simple. So, there’s an incentive to establish the targets — and maybe that was your level of involvement was helping to establish the targets — maybe it was producing content that goes out to those targets, maybe it was campaign membership. But the tip jar model, meaning that a certain amount of money of every close won goes in and then that is distributed across individuals in the marketing team.

We also have incentives in the sales compensation that are bonuses for winning targets, so they are not only going to get their commission, but they’ll get extra incentives for target accounts that they win. And there’s specific language in there around what constitutes a target account. You know, it has to have been established as a target account before, for example, the opportunity was ever created. If it’s not, then you can game the system. And how far back before that opportunity was created is also detailed out. Not because we want to make the complex difficult, we want to force the mechanism of establishing the targets and then pursuing those targets and not going, “God, this should probably be a target account don’t you think? It, like, fits our target, so let’s make it a target account.” And then, lo-and-behold, a couple weeks later and opportunity is created. You want to avoid that type of behavior.

We mentioned earlier there’s a cultural shift that needs to take place in order to really execute ABM well. What sort of shifts are required and how could you do that in an organization that has old habits that it needs to step away from? How do you identify that need?

David Lewis:

To me, it’s an accountability chart rather than an org chart. So, if you have an org chart mentality, then sales and marketing looks like two separate organizations. If you take an accountability chart, which is saying, “What are the people, what are the roles and responsibilities that we need for everything from establishing targets to winning those accounts even onboarding — if you wanted to go past that?”

So, you make boxes and you put in those boxes bullet points of what the responsibilities are and forget whether that person sits in sales or marketing or has that territory or not. Then, eventually, it can fit into names to go into those boxes, but it’s actually dehumanizing the responsibilities so that it doesn’t look like two org charts. That’s what we’ve found is working, and by the way, to be very candid, we’re always trying new workshop approaches to align these teams because it is not natural for them to work harmoniously together. So, the accountability chart has been another way that we say “What do we need to do to do this? Okay? Who is going to take responsibility?” And it may wind up where you would have thought those responsibilities are, but the conversation really illustrates, for sales, we’re not just arts and crafts over here in marketing. We can actually produce very-targeted, highly-effective content and tell stories to the accounts. We need to know who those accounts are, the industries, the sizes, why they’re an ideal customer profile.

And sales, hey, we respect what you do, you’re not just an evangelist with a contract — you are selling, and you are winning over the hearts and minds of prospects. But which ones? Which accounts? And what’s your play for each one of those? And it also just to tag on one last thought, is, very often, targeted kind of selling — especially for top-tier accounts —is not just sales and marketing, but the executive team can often get involved in those target accounts. If you have a very big whale, account that you’re going after, these top, top-tier one — you’re going to have your CEO involved, or your head of marketing involved, or your product management…

Karen Steele:

Or an exec sponsor on each, I agree…

David Lewis:

Exactly. And so, having the accountability box that says, “Gosh, at this stage of the deal with these accounts we really need someone to do this.” [The Accountability Chart] allows that person to get involved in the conversation understand what their role and responsibilities might be…

Kim Davis:

You need to change at the data level as well, don’t you? Because if you’re gonna do ABM it’s insane if you have silos of data — sales over here marketing over there — working on different information about the same account. So that’s got to change as well.

Karen Steele:

Yeah, right absolutely.

David Lewis:

For sure. The fact that the CRM and marketing automation systems are two fundamental systems kind of, still, creates this separation, but it’s really one data set with different views into it by the different applications. I’m often surprised by how many marketing people have never seen the innards of a CRM and know what it looks like to sales or vice-versa. Marketing ever takes a time and say, “Let me show you the power of nurturing. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could send it four touch email with your name on it when you create a contact? I can do that for you if you want. You can automate emails going out to a contact? Yeah, let me show you kind of what it would look like to do it.” You know, that kind of shared knowledge becomes very, very powerful.

You guys discussed, kind of at length about having data confidence…

Karen Steele:

Yep

Q:

So, what steps should marketers, sales organizations in general, take towards gaining data confidence?

David Lewis:

Karen hit it, which is, it starts with people — I was bolting onto [the point that] you got to have a data person in marketing today.

Karen Steele:

Yeah…

David Lewis:

I don’t see it ever done effectively unless someone owns the responsibility for database management in marketing.

Karen Steele:

I agree and I think right now it either defaults to marketing ops or sales ops, depending on the company, but very few people have that title and sort of crossover — there’s not revenue operations in every company, which, in some ways, I wish there were, because then that the whole universe would be brought together — but you’ve got to find a sort of the data czar.  

David Lewis:

The title we’re seeing emerge, and, suggested emerge, is data operations manager or data operations. And larger companies are committing to it, they’re finally going, “Okay, so what’s the role and responsibilities?” List sourcing, data hygiene, data enrichment, data integration, support for analytics — it’s a very much a marketing operations function within marketing operations. But all they do is think and work about data segmentation to enable personalization and targeting ABM account list management. And the companies that are committing to it, they’re doing well.

What we’re also seeing show up is the new title of ABM manager — account-based marketing manager.

Kim Davis:

Oh, that’s interesting.

Karen Steele:

Oh, I haven’t either.

David Lewis:

Daniel Day is at — what’s the name of the company? It’s a cute little name. I’ll come up with it, but yeah, he’s an ABM marketing manager.

Karen Steele:

I’ve seen field markers start to attach to their titles. Which is interesting, just to sort of say “I add more value.”

David Lewis:

And he owns the process and technology and responsibility and that’s what he does. And, you know, what’s interesting is that you don’t have to really be a large company to put someone in that role if what you’re doing is very targeted.

Let’s say you need 15 customers next year. A lot of companies who sell to, like, the public sector — they’re not looking for a really wide net of customers. [They’re] very, very targeted. So, why not have someone who that’s their role and responsibility — to organize and orchestrate across the company — the process and technology for turning those accounts.

Q:

Okay. Kind of a wider question — a larger picture, I guess — the premise of this discussion is that ABM has been around for a while, so why is it taking off now?

David Lewis:

[As] I was saying onstage, it’s taking off now, or in focus, now candidly for two reasons: one is marketing technology companies are always looking to create on the horizon a new shining light…

Karen Steele:

A shiny a new object.

David Lewis:

A New Hope, it’s like Star Wars. Guess what? There’s something else for you to battle the Empire, okay? So that is actually fueling it — companies like Engagio, companies like LeanData, several other companies — have put the ABM moniker on their ships and said, “We’ve got solutions.”

So that is happening, and if you chart on Google Search “ABM” over the last several years, you’ll see that — woosh — it’s all of a sudden became a topic. The reason it’s sticking at this point, and not a fad, is that it is an effective sales strategy that has worked that now marketing can operationalize. We never had the ability to do target account marketing in the past — the tools weren’t there. We could buy or get contact records galore and send emails, or direct mail, or any type of marketing program to them, but we never had a way to aggregate these contacts into accounts and treat them holistically and do things like account scoring, do things like matching the leads together as a buying committee and now we have the tools and technology to do it.

So, it’s really like, if you could do something in the past, and now you’ve invented technology to adapt it to be used in a different department or function — that is really to me why it’s happening. And then there were a bunch of companies who said, “We can enable this. We can take you know a tried-and-true sales approach and help marketing operationalize it.”  

Kim Davis:

And for bigger companies, the technology means you can do it at scale. You can do it across a very large number of accounts, which you couldn’t do before.

David Lewis:

Great point, yeah.

Karen Steele:

And there’s tons of I agree with all of that, and I think over the last couple few years in particular, there’s just been a ton of education happening around ABM. So, whether you have the technology today or not, you can go learn about it. And you now have a whole host of solutions that you can choose from to do different elements of it, whether it’s ad-oriented ABM, or campaign-oriented ABM or whatever it is —there’s a bunch of different choices

.

David Lewis:

Education has been key because it’s a three-letter acronym that, let’s face it, we all went to school and learned about the four Ps and many other things about marketing. We didn’t learn about the process and technologies for ABM — that wasn’t anything in the curriculum.

And even over the past — more than 6 years ago — no companies were practicing this where you could actually hire people who have this experience and know-how. So, the tools weren’t there the know-how wasn’t there and the recommendations are guidance education didn’t exist throughout our careers. So, another reason it’s here is because the tools are creating the practitioner’s ability to say, “Here the recipes how to do it.”

Q:

Are there any dangers of going overboard with ABM?

David Lewis:

I would say it’s making sure you know what your priorities are.

Karen Steele:

Yeah, I think just it’s striking the right balance for. Again, I think I said it, it sort of depends on your what are your sales motions that are going to affect your business in terms of your revenue goals? And just have the right level of focus. I think many companies are doing ABM plus other things, and that’s probably the right mix for a lot of companies.

I don’t know, maybe you do Dave, I don’t know a lot of companies that are just ABM that’s all they’re doing. But I think in the B2B world the customers we talked to they’re doing a mix of things. They have multiple inbound strategies, multiple outbound strategies and somewhere in the mix is ABM.

David Lewis:

We put forward a framework that we called the demand factory. It’s a metaphor for what you’re creating. You know, since we all have all these different tools, what are we doing? Like, if your CEO and your CFO or, kind of, like, your venture capitalist or marketing — they’re giving you the budget — it’s a way to say to them, “Here’s what we’re creating.” And what we’re creating is this demand factory. And the four areas of that factory — it’s called ACME, the name of the factory, so it’s Acquired, Convert, Measure and Expand —and if you don’t assess where you are in each of those disciplines, are we really good at lead acquisition? How are we at conversion, converting leads into customers? How are we measuring marketing performance? How are we at the lower funnel — which is [often] the forgotten country?

If you don’t take that step back approach and say, “What’s the goals of the company? Where are we strong? Let’s put our efforts into increasing that.” If acquisition and conversion would be stronger if you had an account-based marketing and sales strategy, then put that in motion. But if you’re, like, a company that is just generating a tremendous amount of demand and that’s not your problem, and it’s more converting that demand that you’re generating to customers, maybe need to focus their first and put in just some basics like lead scoring and lead nurturing add a contact level before you layer on this account-based approach. If you don’t have any demand at the top of the funnel, you’re gonna have pretty big challenge implementing an ABM strategy. There’s building blocks that need to happen.

Q: All right last question: what books are you reading?

David Lewis:

There’s books that I’ve bought that I don’t read, which my publisher tells me, as an author, that only one in 10 books that are purchased are read.

Tools of Titans is on my nightstand, which is by Tim Ferriss, and I’m reading it for two reasons. One, I like the content, which is all about the recipes of incredibly successful people and what they’ve done. But I’m working on a book called “Change Agents,” which is all about the Karen Steeles of the world and what she’s done — just taking that model and say, “Here’s my playbook of what I’ve done,” in a specific area that Karen has expertise in. So, I’m selfishly reading it to take his approach and bring it to our industry.

Karen Steele:

I’m not currently reading any business book because I’m a little busy, but um I love anything from by Seth Godin or Simon Sinek.

Kim Davis:

Well, I’m not reading anything.

Karen Steele:

But I’m gonna read Change Agents when it comes out.

David Lewis:

Yeah, thank you. Agents of Change or Change Agents? You’re my focus group. I like Change Agents.

Kim Davis:

Yeah.

David Lewis:

Okay done. So, when it comes out you be like, “I helped name that book.”

Q:

All right, thank you guys for taking the time to talk I appreciate it.