Account Based Marketing (ABM): A Primer


If you offer a product or service that requires a very defined type of buyer, chances are you should be marketing your product or service with just as much focus. High-value accounts that are qualified to purchase your product may deserve more of your undivided attention—perhaps to the point that you individually tailor your tactics to target them.

Account Based Marketing, or ABM, doesn’t just let you further narrow your target market—it actually treats individual accounts as their own target market. If you know a business would be perfect to target as a potential customer, why not create a sales process designed to help meet their needs?

ABM skips the part where you use generalized attraction tactics, then wait for leads to convert or get in touch. This method helps determine which tactics are most likely to work before you pursue a lead. By personalizing your marketing tactics for each account, you’ll be able to reach Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) in ways that really resonate with them, and in turn, convert them to Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs), opportunities and customers with more success.

What is Account Based Marketing?

Account Based Marketing (ABM) is a strategic marketing approach that treats individual target accounts as their own markets. Rather than marketing to Buyer Personas as we do with traditional inbound marketing, a marketer using ABM prepares tailored messaging and personalized campaigns for a single target account and key players within it. ABM also enables better alignment between sales and marketing, since marketing efforts are entirely sales-driven from the beginning.

ABM makes use of both inbound and outbound marketing tactics—an ABM content strategy, like an inbound content strategy, seeks to provide helpful content that addresses problems and business issues facing a target account. The tactics used to get this content in front of target accounts are both outbound and inbound. Some familiar inbound tactics include MPR outreach, paid social, narrowly targeted marketing email campaigns, and PPC. More outbound tactics used may include direct mail or location-based traditional media buys (e.g. billboards). These tactics can (and do) work together to create successful ABM campaigns.

What kinds of businesses are a good fit for Account Based Marketing?

ABM can be an excellent marketing strategy for B2B businesses that make the majority of their revenue by closing just a few large accounts, or B2B businesses that make the majority of their revenue by landing accounts of a specific size and industry. For example, think about a B2B organization with a very specific offering. This offering only appeals to businesses of a certain size within a specific industry. Since so few organizations and individuals are interested in—and qualified—to purchase their services, ABM makes sense as a primary marketing strategy.

ABM as a strategy doesn’t make sense for B2C (or even smaller B2B) companies that sell a product or service with wide appeal to a range of Buyer Personas. Take a residential real estate developer, for example. Just about anyone might be interested in renting an apartment, so targeting individuals doesn’t make sense—crafting marketing messaging around likely Buyer Personas is the correct way to market to this potential customer.

Other businesses could benefit from a mix of ABM and pure inbound marketing. For example, imagine a specialty wine and liquor store that has a thriving B2C retail and e-commerce business. Revenue has been boosted by inbound efforts over the past several years, and the store wants to expand the restaurant supply side of their business. In this situation, they could create a list of restaurants with a similar size and clientele to existing won accounts and market to them individually without affecting inbound efforts on the B2C side.

ABM works better for businesses for whom the stakes are high. If there are a limited number of businesses that are able to purchase from them, and the competition is stiff, waiting for a prospect to initiate the research process may mean waiting until it’s too late. By the time a qualified B2B prospect comes across their content, they may already have a new project in place, may have already researched or spoken to the competition, or may simply be sending junior people with little decision-making authority to “see what’s out there”. When a B2B organization’s offering is super-niche, a great deal of leads generated by a pure inbound program may simply be researchers from tangentially related companies. Finally, when opportunities in the market are limited and target accounts are large, it can be very difficult to identify key business issues that resonate with more than one target customer. Sales cycles can be long, and an issue that is important to a key enterprise target now may not be relevant when they’re ready to buy—long after you’ve invested time and resources in creating content for that old, irrelevant issue.

How do you create and execute on an Account Based Marketing plan?

The first step in creating an ABM plan is creating your target account list. The number of accounts on the list will depend on:

  • Number of existing prospects—if there are only 10 companies in the world you can sell to, this list will naturally be very short
  • Business goals for the quarter and year (Do we want to land one large account? Four medium-sized accounts? Generate an additional $5 million in revenue?)
  • Resources available and percentage of marketing budget allocated to ABM

You can begin building your target account list by analyzing your existing customer list and identifying helpful commonalities in account type, size, location, key contacts within the organization, how they were closed, et cetera. You may find that the majority of closed-won customers are located in Ontario, have an annual revenue between $5 and $10 million, and were closed after sales contacted the VP of Finance. This is useful information in identifying the best ABM tactics to use going forward (and you should have been leveraging this data for your inbound marketing efforts anyway!).

Talking to the sales department is a critical step in building your target account list. They can likely tell you which prospects are a good fit for the business, which they have engaged with already, and who the key players are. Ask sales reps for their “dream list” of accounts and work from there.

You can also do a more general search for companies that match your target segment as determined by data mined from your existing customer list. Keeping a target segment in mind allows you to expand your target account list in the future.

Finally, any current customers who are coming up for renewal or preparing to launch new projects should be on your target list. The tactics you use to market to them will be different, but ABM works for extending or expanding current services agreements as well as winning new ones.

Once you have a list of target accounts and key contacts within the account, do research to determine the most pressing issues facing each organization. One of the easiest (and most scalable) ways to do this is to create custom social media monitoring lists that include both their corporate SM accounts and the accounts of key contacts within the organization. Then, craft tailored messaging for each target account to help guide the rest of your plan.

Example: Target Company A sells highly customizable car insurance that can be purchased 100% online. They want to better serve their customers by anticipating and responding to their needs. They are collecting data on which insurance modules are most often purchased via their e-commerce platform and data on what types of claims are most often submitted via a proprietary internal claims processing platform, but have no easy way to combine these data sets to figure out what kind of discounted insurance package would appeal most to their average customer. Your company sells a product, Product X, that would solve their analytics problem.

Since you’re creating a campaign specifically for Target Company A and you know their major pain point, you don’t need to pad out an entire funnel with three separate TOF, MOF, and BOF-focused offers and hope that a paid social or outreach campaign pulls a few decision-makers into the funnel to be nurtured. You can create a “How Product X Helps Target Company A Leverage Analytics to Build Better-Selling Insurance Packages” whitepaper and offer a free hour-long product demo at the end, then send it to the key account contacts you’ve already identified.

The tactics used in the above example are creating a prospect-specific offer (using their name and addressing a specific pain point identified by your research), and using an offer designed to get a meeting (follow-up is an hour-long product demo and research report). Other tactics you can use in your ABM plan include:

  • Social media targeting and retargeting—depending on the size of the target company, you may be able to craft a LinkedIn campaign that only reaches their employees. This is a great opportunity to use the tactic from the example above and promote a prospect-specific offer. You can also use more inbound-y retargeting tactics on social media.
  • Display ad targeting—this is possible using tech such as Terminus,  DemandBase and others which offer the ability to serve up ads on networks across the web to specific companies based on IP addresses or cookie-based targeting. This isn’t cheap, but can be very effective.
  • Direct mail—this sounds like a dirty word to an inbound marketer, but customized direct mail is a bit different from your usual blowout sale flyer.  Software company Apttus has a great example of direct mail success. They sent out 3,000 direct mail messages to potential clients, offering them a chance to win a brand new Tesla. The catch? They had to do a meeting, demo or attend an education session by Apttus. Over a third of the 3,000 target accounts met with Apttus to become eligible to win the car—and learned all about Apttus in the process.
  • C-level outreach campaigns—although this is a marketing-lead initiative, it requires some effort from the C-suite. Crafting a one-to-one outreach campaign between your own CEO, CFO, etc to a C-level executive in the target company can pay big dividends if the stakes are high.
  • Personalized sales content—if a sales rep is meeting with a prospect to try to move along or close the deal, personalizing existing sales collateral is a relatively quick and low-cost way to optimize that interaction.
  • Talking about the target—if it’s too soon to talk to the target company, you can always talk about them. Mention them by name as an example in your latest blog. Then you can also tag them on social media when you promote the post.
  • Smart content—also a popular inbound tactic. Use personalized site content to welcome repeat visitors back to your site. For even better results, tailor what they see on your site to address the pain point you know their company is struggling with.
  • Even more personalized email—while automation still has a place in an ABM plan, ultra-tailored email campaigns that go beyond First Name insertion should be used. Include job titles and references to pain points, upcoming events you know the contact is attending, and references to their social media posts, if possible. Templated emails will work better than automated ones. ABM plans need to be scalable, but not as much as pure inbound strategies.
  • Event-based marketing—in combination with the other tactics on this list, create campaigns around industry events such as trade shows that you know your prospects will be attending.
  • PPC—get more granular with AdWords Customer Match. This tactic only works if you have enough information about your prospects but, if you’ve done your initial research, it shouldn’t be an issue. According to Google, AdWords Customer Match allows you to reach prospects whose email addresses are known by displaying personalized ads at the top of their Google Inbox. You can also optimize your Search Network ad campaigns based on what you know about customer behaviour (e.g. increasing your bid for a certain term when you know it’s one of your target account contacts initiating the search). See here for more information about Customer Match.

Working closely with sales, identify which tactics will work best to carry your customized messaging to key contacts within your target accounts, and craft your plan from there. Decide at which point sales will take over closing the deal by agreeing on a mutual definition of sales-ready (you won’t have to worry about qualifying marketing-ready leads, as explained in the next section).

Like an inbound marketing plan, an ABM plan requires accurate measurement and constant data-driven iteration to succeed. If you do this correctly, it’s even easier to calculate precise the ROI of all of your Account Based Marketing efforts versus a pure inbound plan.

How should you measure your Account Based Marketing efforts?

TOF Metrics

Using a more traditional approach, lead-to-account mapping would happen at the Opportunity stage. For example, if two contacts from Prospect Company B converted on an offer, completed a nurturing sequence, and became SQLs, the sales department wouldn’t treat them as two separate potential deals—that would be a waste of time and would artificially inflate pipeline value.

With ABM, lead-to-account mapping happens even before the Awareness stage, when your plan is being created. Knowing exactly which leads your plan is intended to pursue means that there is no need to determine what does and doesn’t make an MQL. If a contact from your target company engages with your marketing efforts, they are automatically counted as an MQL. If multiple contacts from the same company engage with your marketing content, their combined interactions contribute to moving the deal down the pipeline.

Example: Person A, Person B, and Person C all work for Company D and have all interacted with your marketing content. Person A downloaded a TOF offer and then disappeared. Person B then interacted with your MOF offer, gave you more information, and then opened your BOF offer—and disappeared. Three days later, Person C appeared out of nowhere and requested your BOF demo and was handed off to sales.

Person A was the researcher for Company D, Person B is a mid-level executive or typical product user at Company D, and Person C is the decision maker for Company D. Because we’re treating Company D as an entire market (vs. a Buyer Persona representing one individual person), we successfully led Company D through the funnel and enabled sales to close the deal, even though only Person A’s interaction will be counted when we measure TOF metrics.

When we measure the effectiveness of an inbound marketing plan, we may report on metrics such as views of a PPC ad or clicks on a CTA. With an ABM plan, the only useful awareness metric to report on is how many individuals within our target list saw or engaged with our content. If 100 people saw a piece of content but 0 of them work for an organization on our prospect list, our awareness level is still 0.

MOF Metrics

If you thought you were getting off easy thanks to not having to worry about lead scoring / MQL criteria, think again! Engagement Scoring is an important component of measuring the effectiveness of your ABM plan. Engagement Scoring is the sum of the following three parts:

  • Key Persona Engagement—are you engaging with the right people at your target company? Think of the researcher, user, and decision maker from the example above.
  • Account Depth—how many people within the target company have you engaged? Have you only reached two or three junior level employees, or have you reached half of the C-suite?
  • Engagement Frequency & Recency—how many times has each target account engaged, and when was the last time?

Creating the best formula for calculating Engagement Score—and ultimately determining the Engagement Score threshold for sales readiness—will depend on how valuable each activity is to your plan. Like inbound lead scoring, this will require some adjustments along the way based on your collected data.

BOF Metrics

The effectiveness of an ABM plan is really simple to measure—either you closed the deal with the target account, or you didn’t. Collecting more holistic BOF data, however, will help streamline your ABM efforts in the future. Looking at your marketing efforts as a whole, did implementing ABM tactics increase your…

  • Pipeline Velocity—how quickly did the account move down the funnel? Did any one engagement or interaction speed things up considerably? Did anything slow it down?
  • Win Rate—what percentage of deals did you close? If you analyze data collected from both closed-won and closed-lost deals, what can you conclude? For example, what’s the win rate when you engage with more than 10 account contacts vs. when you engage with fewer than 10 (assuming all target accounts are of a similar size)? Do you have better success with C-level outreach or direct mail versus personalized offers tailored to researchers?
  • Revenue—did you make more money? What was the ROI of ABM vs. inbound or more traditional marketing methods, if that data is available? This is, ultimately, the only metric that matters, and the one you should optimize for.

Getting started on your ABM plan

ABM works best for businesses whose products or services are sold to a very defined type of customer. It’s not for every situation—but when used in the right context it can be an extremely powerful strategy. Treating an account as their own target market is a big investment of both money and time, but can be very fruitful when done right.

As far as your existing inbound marketing strategy goes, don’t worry about ABM interfering. ABM isn’t a replacement for inbound, it’s a complementary approach that will help accelerate the acquisition of those big accounts you have your sights on. Research is key when it comes to ABM, and your sales and marketing teams will need to collaborate to identify key information and execute a sales strategy for each separate target account.

So what do you think? Is ABM right for your business? If the ideas are already flowing, or you’re curious about how to create your strategy, check out our sample ABM plan. This sample plan, although a fictitious tale, will give you an idea of how an ABM strategy comes together, and what kind of information you may be looking for when creating your own.

Download our sample ABM plan today, and get inspired to start sifting through your own customer list to see where opportunities lie.


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