Account-Based Marketing: Don't Believe the Hype

You’ve got to hand it to the marketing industry – they know how to create a buzz around new products and services. Just look at the hype surrounding account-based marketing (ABM). In the last couple of years, ABM has been touted as the answer to every B2B marketer’s woes, from stifled demand generation to sclerotic sales growth, writes Alisha Lyndon (pictured below), CEO, MomentumABM, exclusively for ExchangeWire.

Everyone, it seems, wants to get in on the act: from technology companies to ad agencies that claim that they will ‘take the strain’ out of ABM.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of all these breathless claims about ABM – and businesses’ ability to deliver it – is little more than hot air, and often strays into snake oil territory. The truth is that ABM is only suitable for a relatively narrow range of B2B applications, and in fact may do far more harm than good when organisations misunderstand the point of ABM, or misapply it to their marketing.

ABM gone wrong

Take the example of one Fortune 500 hygiene/personal care company. This well-known, market-leading, and highly respected business decided to implement a wide-ranging ABM campaign and, at the expense of its traditional marketing activities, pushed all its resources into focusing on its top 50 prospect accounts. Kimberly-Clark got the basics right; it conducted in-depth research into each of these target accounts, yet all this hard work was utterly wasted.

All the insight it generated in its research was useless because it simply couldn’t be applied to generate compelling messaging that showed how Kimberly-Clark could solve its customers’ biggest challenges. Instead, it came across as gimmicky and irrelevant, and the entire programme led directly to a nosedive in lead generation – and a swathe of perplexed customers.

As businesses are beginning to discover, there’s no point in spending hundreds of hours or more researching prospective customers’ pain points or the challenges they face in the market, when all you want to do is sell them soap.

The philosophy of ABM

Alisha Lyndon, CEO, MomentumABM

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with this company and all the other businesses that have been seduced by the often-grandiose promises made about ABM. There is so much hype surrounding this marketing approach that the real philosophy behind account-based marketing – and it is first and foremost a philosophical approach to marketing – becomes obscured.

Because ABM isn’t just about shifting product, selling services, or even creating leads. It is about building relationships with accounts by demonstrating a willingness to understand each customer’s unique situation and problems, and crafting individual campaigns that show how your business can be a long-term partner that helps them achieve their goals.

The true message of ABM is being obscured by vendors and agencies that either lack a proper understanding of this approach, or are looking to varnish their existing offerings with the gloss of ABM hype.

And there are signs that this hype is losing its allure. According to research late last year conducted by Chief Marketer magazine, the percentage of businesses saying they are pursuing ABM fell slightly, from 43% to 38%. Those numbers might not look dramatic, but consider the huge amount of energy put into creating a buzz around ABM and it suggests that businesses are beginning to become disillusioned with the hype.

Our own research has found that 84% of marketers say ABM delivers higher ROI than any other marketing approach; but this number will fall unless we are clear about which types of businesses, products, or scenarios are suited to ABM – and which aren’t. 

Who’s suited to ABM?

Account-based marketing is never a good idea if your business operates in a simple market with a low number of small-scale customers. Similarly, if your offering is easy to understand and everybody already knows what you sell, it’s difficult to see the advantages of crafting carefully-tailored creative and targeting it at decision-makers in your target accounts.

The companies that stand to gain from ABM, on the other hand, are those that have a defined set of accounts that have the propensity to generate most of their revenue, and which have offerings that are complex and difficult to understand. Similarly, if your customers are themselves complex enterprises with a range of complicated, rapidly changing challenges, then ABM is ideal for crafting messages that demand attention from their recipients. Above all, if you are prepared and able to adapt your sales and strategy – and even your offering – to solve individual customers’ problems, then ABM may well meet, or even exceed, the grand promises of its proponents.

Before you begin…

I’m a big believer in getting stuck in with ABM, rather than waiting to plan the perfect campaign before getting started. Account-based marketing should be an iterative approach, one based on experimentation, trial and error, and constant feedback between sales and marketing about what works and what doesn’t.

But before even considering whether it is the answer, it’s vital that marketers have fully grasped what ABM is and what it isn’t – something that many technology vendors and agencies seem reluctant to do. Here, then, are my six key tenets of ABM:

1. ABM is a go-to-market strategy, not a technology, tool, or tactic
2. It requires close cooperation between marketing and sales, without which any campaign is doomed to failure
3. ABM is, above all, insights-based with a deep understanding of target accounts
4. Value-based messaging, rather than ‘personalisation’ for the sake of it
5. Multi-touch: ABM is an end-to-end process encompassing research, messaging, creative, and measurement – not a single tactic
6. Engagement and deals – not number of leads

If you take the time to understand ABM for what it really is, you’ll be able to cut through the hype and decide if it’s an approach that will work wonders for your business – or if it’s a diversion that will end up costing you time, money and your ability to focus on what really works for you.