ABM – On the threshold of revolution

Posted by Maeve McDonald on March 14, 2018

We’ve hit the ground running in 2018 with multiple ABM engagements kicking off, which turned my thoughts back a couple of months to B2B Marketing’s ABM-focused event “Account Based Everything” which truly felt like a triumphant coming of age, when ABM stepped forward to claim its rightful position at the heart of the Marketing agenda.

While there was probably no need to “make the case” for ABM, B2B Marketing’s event in November felt like a vindication for many of us who have practised and advocated ABM for years now, and inevitably there were stats and facts for the coronation:

  • ABM is consistently demonstrating the highest ROI of all marketing activity.
  • Esteemed marketing guru Malcolm McDonald was quoted by no fewer than three of the speakers; he says ABM is on the threshold of revolutionising marketing.
  • One of the top five global IT companies has said that the future of all its marketing will be account-based
  • New research from B2BM shows that 80% of companies expect their focus on ABM to increase over next 12 months
  • Dorothea Gosling from DXC said “ABM’s proven techniques drive innovation and partnership”
  • McDonald Butler’s own ABM expert Robert Norum (who presented a very insightful session as well as chairing a panel debate) said “ABM puts Marketing at the Top Table”.

Acknowledged ABM pioneer (and author of the bible on ABM) Bev Burgess wrapped up the day with an inspiring call-to-arms which also got very personal: she sees ABM as nothing less than career-making for marketers and was explicit about making the link from ABM leadership to Marketing leadership and through to Business Leadership.

But why now?  What is it about the condition and the culture that seem to have made this the right time for ABM?  There are a few considerations here.  Marketing Automation has allowed us to do low-level personalisation at scale, but when everyone is doing it the advantage disappears, and marketers are looking for something with more impact.  The role of technology is paramount, as ABM is fundamentally driven by its ability to solve strategic revenue objectives. But also let’s not underestimate that customers are both more empowered and more choosy (some may say cynical) than ever.  We need new conversations as well as new solutions.

Restating assumptions

Several speakers offered their own definitions of ABM and I was intrigued and heartened to see that these now all seem to be in broad alignment.  Here are just two of them:

“A strategic approach to marketing and sales, working in combination, to identify and target your most important customers – both new and existing.” – B2B Marketing

“A strategic approach that coordinates relevant departments to open doors and deepen engagements.” – Andrea Clatworthy, Fujitsu

I take three things from the above.  First that ABM is always strategic and not tactical.  It needs careful planning and execution; it’s not a quick fix.  Second is that it co-ordinates or aligns department behind agreed messaging and direction – we always talk about aligning Sales & Marketing but it should include other departments too.  The third is that ABM opens doors – whether this be at net new clients or existing ones, it’s all about driving a more relevant and meaningful engagement.

And so say all of us.

A united front

As the B2B marketing community appear to have agreed what ABM is and what its strategic goals are, do we all agree on the benefits?  Once again I’m pleased to say that, in combining and summarising presentations and conversation from the whole day, there’s broad agreement …

On the benefits:

  • Enhance loyalty
  • Enhance ability to convert the high-value customers
  • Enhance reputation and advocacy
  • Accelerate pipeline
  • Grow strategic accounts
  • Align sales and marketing

On what ABM is not:

  • A quick and easy way of increasing revenues
  • A panacea for all your problems
  • A ‘one size fits all’ solution
  • Easily understood by all

On what good ABM ‘feels like’:

  • Hyper-personalised
  • Insightful – based on real issues and solutions
  • Valuable and transformational
  • Customer-centric ie “My needs not your solutions”

And also on what the “Guiding Principles” should be for successful ABM roll out:

  • Understand customer (research, insight, social listening), in order to align to their agenda: focus on what customers want – not what you want to sell.
  • Develop a bespoke value proposition, put relevancy first, create transformational conversations and “reset perceptions”
  • Increase awareness, build trust, win over multiple stakeholders (which might mean subtly tailored messaging for different audiences)
  • Increase engagement, develop advocates for your proposition and/or brand

Although ABM is about aligning sales and marketing, it shouldn’t mean the marketing department relinquishing any rights and responsibilities when it comes to marketing message and practice.  Sales teams aren’t always happy with letting marketing get closer to the end customer but in actual fact it’s likely that Marketing will more naturally understand customer challenges.

Zoe Hominick from O2 pointed out that as ABM is such a people-based undertaking it’s worth putting that ahead of the technology, which is exactly what she is doing – putting more money into personalisation than into technology per se.

Relevant and resonant

The event as a whole contained too many insightful and thought-provoking sessions to summarise individually, but I’m compelled to mention one, a hugely inspiring presentation from the appropriately-named Julie Wisdom from Alias Partners, on delivering good ABM creative.

After a morning of sessions around best-practice process and quite a lot about the tolls and technology, Julie kicked her session off with a challenge: “All the targeting is meaningless if you aren’t telling human stories that drive persuasive conversations.”

Julie offered some examples of what best practice in ABM creative looks like as opposed to more general marketing:

  • Moving from “high concept” to “on the ground perspectives”
  • Moving from broad reach to micro-targeting,
  • Moving from “reach & frequency” to “depth and duration”

ABM practitioners should add resonance to the storytelling in the creative execution.  ABM creative should wrap your narratives around the customer journey you are proposing, and amplify the tension.  Frame your story around your audience’s existing world view. Why does it matter?  Because if it’s based on their world-view, so they’re more likely to believe it’s relevant and true.

The creative should be very focused on the promise of change, but not scare the audience off – ideally, by persuading them why they should change now.

Julie’s presentation was that great thing: one that made you want to run out of the room and do some great work yourself, right now.  It was the perfect culmination to a great day.

“Intimacy at scale”

One of my very favourite phrases from the day was about the future of ABM and specifically the part that Artificial Intelligence will play – it will deliver “intimacy at scale”.

I’ll leave you with two other quotes from the event, the first of which was said in passing in one of the panel debates and the second is slightly more considered and weighty:

“Like a new combine harvester, ABM can definitely produce impressive results, but only if you do the groundwork first.”

“ABM is about hard work and creative thinking.  There’s nothing ‘account based’ about personalisation.”- Richard Morley, Browne Jacobson.