Greg Salmon is a Partner at Agent3, and leads global customer strategy and success activities.
The modern commercial world is getting personal. In the B2C world, sellers want to build one-to-one, highly personalized relationships with buyers, so they trawl cookies, first-party volunteered information and anything else they can ethically use to understand the needs and desires of current and potential customers. But what happens when B2B organizations want to do the same—and at scale?
We know that for B2B direct relationships to work, having a deep understanding/knowledge of customers is just as important as it is in the B2C world. People buy from people and, ever since business began, it’s been critical to understand the motivations and characteristics of buyers as individuals—and then use that insight as a basis from which to craft engagements that feel personally meaningful to them and their role.
Traditionally, the vehicle for this sort of customer relationship has been the golf course or the restaurant table, but these have faded in relevance in an age when time is even more precious, business moves faster and deal cycles are typically protracted, complex and involve increasing numbers of stakeholders, each with their own priorities.
A range of first-party and third-party data sources provide a hugely powerful means to get close to customers by tracking their content consumption, social media posts, the events they have attended, their hiring patterns, statements made to financial markets and so on. Harnessing all of this data and distilling it into actionable insights has proven to be the bedrock of the best-performing account-based marketing programs. However, this has also tended to be a resource-intensive exercise.
In my years of helping clients succeed with ABM, I’ve found that “traditional” one-to-one ABM motions need plenty of nurturing, time and inter-team alignment. ABM is a good match for very high-value customers and prospects and has proven to make a game-changing difference. Indeed, one survey found that 87% of B2B marketers “reported that their ABM initiatives outperform their other marketing investments in terms of ROI.” That said, ABM also entails inherent risk whereby ROI calculations veer toward all or nothing, depending on opportunities progressing, deals closing and renewals landing over multiple quarters.
Having seen the potency of ABM, many organizations understandably want to roll it out more broadly, so the $64,000 question becomes: How do you scale ABM relationships and get personal with a much larger group of individuals and organizations without compromising on what ABM entails and delivers to your sales counterparts?
Broadening Out: Where Opportunity Meets Challenge
Here’s the conundrum: A traditional ABM trajectory sees companies starting out with a handful of accounts. It’s novel to many, it’s very different from traditional marketing activities, it often creates a buzz and progress is highly visible, so it’s natural for excitement to build.
When ABM proves its value, the “land and expand” phenomenon kicks in and firms will often seek to extend ABM from, say, five to 20 accounts (or even a little more in the case of the largest companies). On this scale, accounts can still be managed in a very structured way with precision control over activity and ample custom marketing activity support. But when these later projects succeed and everyone is delighted by the clear value being delivered, what can marketers do when sales teams say, “OK, let’s apply this to the next dozens or even hundreds of accounts”?
The Best Of Both Worlds
There is a practical way to scale ABM to cover more accounts, and that is by making extensive use of templates and exploiting technology tools to automate tasks. Get this right, and you can gain many of the benefits of “true” ABM but across further swaths of accounts. And achieving this requires three key precepts:
1. Align. To avoid friction and wasted time, define your ABM needs. Which accounts are in most need of attention? Do you have a specific vertical sector or other campaign push across a band of accounts that share similar characteristics? Scaling ABM requires discipline: Apply resources where your assessment points to the largest potential opportunities. Don’t be tempted to spread resources too thin—you can’t have an ABM model for every customer.
2. Structure. Define people and processes. What skill sets and roles do you see as being important as your organization shifts from small-scale ABM to more expansive programs? How can you create a culture of agility by deploying individuals with overlapping skills so they can cover for each other? Be clear that the people leading on scaled ABM must be largely proactive and can’t be stretched to deal with individual sales requests. This is largely a “push” not “pull” model, so be firm: You won’t be able to react to custom sales wants in scaled ABM as you would in traditional one-to-one ABM.
3. Execute. Limit customization because that’s the activity that chews up the most time. Think in terms of “build once, use again,” so far as possible, replicating the ABM approach but stressing reusability and value for money/effort through cluster- or industry-specific messaging and content. Automate detection of buyer-propensity signals to minimize manual inputs. Create “hero” content that can be atomized quickly across a wide roster of customers with minimal editing. Playbooks and solution maps are essential templates here, providing a documented way for everybody to readily understand and activate campaigns.
This is a new age for marketing. Accusations of fluffiness have been banished by the digital tools and transparent, auditable results of modern ABM campaigns with clear ROI cases attached. Today, marketers have a deeper insight into audiences and what they want so they can reduce wasted spend and provide a service to customers that is relevant and helpful. We may not always have the resources to speak directly to every customer, big or small, promising or unpromising in outlooks, but we can readily refine approaches based on known factors, focusing on key targets and delivering relevant content that resonates. A realistic approach to ABM at scale is here, and with it comes the chance to build relationships of mutual value.