B2B Wins #6: ABM is dead. Long live ABM.
We all do it. We all struggle.
As a technologist I’ve always been a bit of an ABM skeptic. My large enterprise experience doesn’t help. I witnessed the early days of the MQL-SQL Definition Wars (MSDW) that left conference rooms littered with the tortured souls of the Sales and Marketing tribes.
The reason ABM induces eye rolling from yours truly is that by and large it seemed like a technology solution in pursuit of business sponsorship. It was purported to support a business process that didn't exist in any operational form--Account Based Marketing. Now before you get testy, hear me out.
It's not tech, it's a process.
Automating a mess yields an automated mess.—Michael Hammer
Now some will argue that account based marketing been around a long time. Not really. It was foreseen by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers back in the early 90s when they talked about a future where personalized marketing would occur. However, the actual phrase was coined in 2004 by the ITSMA (consultants love their acronyms).
The key to ABM is not tech, it's people. People who work in different functions working together for common purpose. More on this later.
At the heart of that work is a process that is very odd for marketing and sales folks. Instead of being rooted in a philosophy of marketing finding the leads and sales closing them, ABM flips the equation. It starts with the types of businesses that a company thinks it can close and then focuses both marketing and sales efforts at those companies. Those are the accounts in ABM.
Before you buy any tech, get the process right. That's going to mean getting the people right.
This is not the tech you're looking for
"...the vast majority of B2B leads — over 99%, according to Forrester Research — never become customers."—Terminus
In order for B2B leads to become customers the leads need to be the right ones.
You should write that down. It's pure gold.
An ABM approach can increase the likelihood that the folks attracted to your business are the right ones. It's just logical that if you start by targeting companies that need your solution and don't target companies that don't need your solution the odds of a deal go up. So why doesn't ABM tech help with that process?
When you ask folks who practice ABM, like the folks at Demand Gen Report did for their 2022 ABM Benchmark Survey, the picture becomes clearer. Instead of some fancy ABM tech they cite the following as the top three technologies that enable a successful program:
CRM (76%): Yup, you got one.
Marketing Automation (58%): Got one of them too.
Measurement and Reporting Tools (52%): More than enough of these!
So, do you really need ABM tech? Well, one thing that has been hailed as a must have for ABM is understanding which of those accounts you're interested in is interested in buying. Wouldn't it be nice to know the purchase intent of prospects? Of course it would. Easier said than done it turns out.
Intent? What intent?
“The answers have ranged from it's very helpful for us to target customers who are further down the funnel to it was completely useless because we contacted the prospect and they had already made a purchase of a competitors product”—Reddit comment re one vendor's intent data
“It’s a load of bullshit and the rep couldn’t even explain properly how the signals were generated.”—Reddit comment re that same vendor's intent data
Knowing whether an account is in market for your solution would be a nice thing to know. In the good old days you had to wait for someone at the account to raise their hand by responding to a marketing tactic before you know if they're really interested. That's hard work. That's patient work.
Now some crafty folks have tried to get under this notion of intent but sniffing out the data of people who are in market. There are basically two ways of doing this:
Bidstream Data: Look at who is clicking on ads related to a market.
Website Tracking: Look at who is reading articles about a market to discern signals about interest.
Bombora, the leader in this type of data, has over 4,000 publisher's website (e.g. Forbes, Fast Company, etc) in its ecosystem so it has a good sense of when folks from certain companies (accounts) are looking at certain topics. They use a variety of weights to discern casual interest from a stronger signal.
Tech companies that don’t want to pay Bombora for the data have tried the Bidstream approach. Is clicking on an add really an intent signal? If it is, how strong would that signal be? I suspect that spending time reading articles about a topic is a far stronger signal that ad clicking. Others argue this as well.
If you believe everything you read on the internet, the website tracking method favored by Bombora seems to yield better signal. It's also been my experience using a technology that relied upon Bidstream data. I never felt that the intent data was worth...anything. I can’t recall a single account every responding positively when I targeted them off the Bidstream intent data. Your mileage may vary.
Some vendor’s intent data is dodgy. But there are some who can at least find an intent pulse. I’m looking at you Bombora. If you're interested in going down this path check out Bombora or technologies that are powered by Bombora.
Maturity is the key.
59% of experienced practitioners (those with ABM programs more than a year old) indicated their ABM programs are meeting or greatly exceeding their expectations, while only 45% of novices (those with ABM programs less than one year old) could say the same. --Demand Gen Report, ABM Benchmark Survey 2022
"You'll understand when you're older."
I don't recall being told that when I was younger but I'm sure I got some version of that. There's a bit of a chicken and an egg going on here. You're not going to get the real benefits until the program matures. Everyone, including your boss, is impatient. Here's why they should be patient.
According to the Demand Gen Report, experienced practitioners have:
Better alignment between sales and Marketing (70% vs 44%)
Faster sales cycles (31% vs 24%)
Stronger, more trustworthy relationships with accounts (48% vs 39%)
Now proving ROI remains the biggest ABM challenge for survey respondents. But that's not unique to ABM. Attribution is tricking in any B2B program due to organizational and data complexity. But don't those three things above sound like solid business benefits?
Process. Alignment. Commitment.
The person who owns the budget dictates the priorities.—Anyone who has ever worked in company knows this
If you really want to make a difference with your ABM work it really comes down to three critical elements.
Process: We've already discussed this. Is there one? If not, make one.
Alignment: This is more than process. What we're talking about here is an organizational shift to support the process. Are people assigned to the critical roles? Do they know what they're supposed to be doing? Do they do it?
Commitment: Herein lies the ground truth. I refer to these as the Three Ms of ABM commitment. They are also the Three Ms of any successful business initiative. Unless you have these nailed, you're doing ABM Dinner Theater.
Measurements: Do you understand the outcomes you want? Do you now how to measure it? Are your processes and systems instrumented to provide the data?
Management System: One of the things that kills any program, and ABM is highly susceptible to this, is that the boss says to do one thing "support ABM" but then runs a weekly cadence that only supports his functional organization. The management system has to be aligned with the desired outcomes.
Money: The most important of any of this. If you have the budget you can dictate the priorities. If someone else owns the budget they set the priorities. Is that budget aligned to support the ABM work?
I'm still not convinced that much of the gee whiz tech deployed on ABM really matters. In fact, I encourage you to forget the tech. You have enough tech. You heard from the ABM leaders that ABM tech is not the key to success.
Focus on what is important. Focus on process. Focus on people. Focus on a commitment to deliver business results.
“3 Ms of ABM” and “ABM Dinner Theater” are trademarks of Zakur Consulting LLC. Any unauthorized use of these trademarks will result in a severe scolding and lifelong internet shame (if such a thing exists).