The C-Suite Is Finally Embracing Account-Based Marketing. Now What?

CMOs should focus on these 3 actions in 2023 to build an effective strategy

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After years of fits and starts, account-based marketing (ABM) is poised for a breakout 2023. The simple yet powerful premise of ABM is tailor-made for tight economic times: You focus marketing spend only on the biggest accounts and juiciest sales opportunities. You either win the deal or you don’t. If your “win rate” is higher for ABM-targeted deals and accounts compared with others, then you have a solid business case to keep doing more ABM.

This is why b-to-b CMOs have managed to get their CEOs and chief revenue officers to understand the immense, largely untapped power that lies in ABM. The return on investment is binary and dead easy to measure. That’s a rare comfort in a down economy.

Without doubt, the C-suite’s embrace of ABM is a welcomed development for chief marketing officers who have already hired marketers with ABM skills, stood up the right ABM tech platforms and established air-tight process discipline between marketing and sales. Yet, I’ve talked with many of my CMO peers in b-to-b who admit that they have not yet made the necessary investments to confidently deploy ABM at scale. And, given that you can’t build ABM overnight, I think we’ll see a lot of nervous CMOs scrambling to roll out their ABM programs this year, with limited notion about what constitutes an effective one.

Based on my experience as an early supporter and practitioner of ABM for more than 10 years, I have identified three areas of strategic focus that can help marketers create a winning ABM Center of Excellence—talent, platforms and discipline.

Talent

The first mistake CMOs make when standing up an ABM practice is thinking that they can staff it with any marketer on their team who shows interest. ABM is all about putting your best resources forward to help sales close the most important deals of the quarter, or even the year. You can be assured that sales will put their best talent on these deals, so why wouldn’t you put only your best marketers forward?

Consider the ABM function to be your SEAL team: Only the best need apply. Your ABMers should be top performers with strong cross-discipline marketing experience, proven track records and the personality needed to work daily with the most aggressive and overachieving salespeople. Your ABMers should think and behave like mini-CMOs who understand the sales strategy intimately, know how to craft a bespoke marketing plan and have a plan for how to get all other marketing functions (content, video, creative, social, etc.) to deliver exactly what is needed at exactly the right time. This is no place for the inexperienced marketer.

Platforms

A common misconception is that standing up an ABM program means buying an ABM tech platform, such as from market leaders Demandbase or 6Sense. Procuring an ABM platform is critical, but not sufficient. Anyone with budget access can buy technology. The key is ensuring it’s guided by smart marketers to drive specific outcomes. It also needs to be tightly woven into several different platforms and processes. Here are some things to be mindful of.

Integrations: Engage sales operations as active partners to ensure you have clean data around existing clients in customer relationship management (CRM) and, most importantly, access to historical pursuits with related win-loss intelligence. You will need that to refine your ideal customer profile (ICP), which is critical to develop a look-alike model for deeper targeting as part of your broader ABM approach. You’ll also need to make sure your marketing automation platform (MAP) and social publishing and advertising platforms can seamlessly integrate into your ABM platform to ensure you can launch multitactic campaigns that include organic social outreach, paid social, emails, webinars and intent-based digital advertising in a holistic, cohesive way. 

Sales visibility: One common mistake is assuming that sales will welcome yet another tech platform into their working lives with open arms. Most sales leadership teams have enough trouble just trying to get field salespeople to update their funnel in the CRM system on a regular basis. The chances that your salespeople will want to be in self-serve mode inside your ABM platform are just south of zero. Leave that job to your ABMers. Instead, work with sales operations to seamlessly ingest only the most important information from your ABM platform into the established CRM system of record. For example, give them the option to turn on notifications, so they see when their customer comes to your website, and show them when the target customer appears to be in a “buying motion” based on predictive signals they exhibit on the web. That’s honestly all they need to know. Let them spend their time selling, not trying to figure out the intricacies of yet another platform.

Fuel for your engine: Even the most sophisticated machine is useless without fuel. The real power of an ABM platform is not just the ability to track your prospects’ digital behavior and identify their predictive buying signals. The real power is using that information to act on those signals using highly targeted digital ads that present the right message at the right moment to the right person at the right company. That requires an advertising budget that can be set aside specifically for use in highly targeted ABM and pursuit marketing campaigns (through your ABM platform’s ad-serving capabilities). So don’t assume the ABM engine will be of much use unless you are prepared to spend significant dollars in advertising “fuel,” and be prepared to protect it from poachers so you have it available on demand as new strategic pursuits come forward for support.

Discipline

Your ABM program is an invitation-only, exclusive club. Make sure you build tight processes and have the discipline to keep it that way. You don’t want it to become just another shiny object that initially excites salespeople, only for them to dutifully lose interest a month later. To avoid this, consider the following.

Limit the number of accounts and deals you support in your ABM program to a very small number at first. This will ensure that the limited supply of spots creates some competition across the best sales teams and opportunities. Establish a high bar for deal value and/or strategic importance as a prerequisite for participation.

Make sure you have the right ratio between ABMers (ABM marketers) and the accounts and deals they can support. Optimally, that ratio should be 1:3 (one ABMer on three deals/accounts), but you can get away with a 1:5 coverage ratio. I would not recommend exceeding that. Otherwise, you run the risk of not paying enough attention to the unique needs of each account. Remember, it’s called account-based marketing for a reason.

Draw up a sales “agreement” for account leads who want ABM support. The agreement should explain all the benefits they will receive from participating in the program (individualized attention, bespoke marketing plans, single points of contact for all marketing needs, targeted advertising, etc.). Such a document would also ensure that account leads have skin in the game by requiring them to share everything they know on account/pursuit strategy, customer dynamics and power maps, and that they also include ABMers in every single pertinent meeting and discussion. They need to agree to treat your marketer as an embedded member of the account/pursuit team and with the same respect as they do other members of the sales team.

Get in early. Ensure that the marketing team is engaged right out of the gate on a strategic sales pursuit. Don’t agree to come in toward the end to apply “911” ABM tactics to help close the deal. ABM is most effective when it’s applied as early as the sales engagement begins so you can build a thoughtful, dovetailed marketing plan that matches the specific pursuit plan. If not, you risk mitigating the impact that marketing can have in closing the deal, and you are teaching your sales team that it’s OK to wait and pull marketing in at the last minute.

ABM is a marketing discipline that is finally firmly established, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and it needs careful planning and significant investment to realize its full potential. Make it a priority and do it right. Not only can it help CMOs dial up the strategic significance of marketing to the business, but it can also help bring sales and marketing much closer together, which is a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.