Account-Based Marketing in the Trenches: Lessons from Failure (Part 1)

Plenty of content from Martech and consultancies offer tips about getting started with Account-Based Marketing (ABM). While much of this content offer sugarcoated testimonials from marketers, few are willing to share their hard lessons learned from failed ABM efforts. This is my story with ABM from the trenches of a program that worked and another that didn’t. As you’ll read, many of these lessons aren’t only for ABM but about mastering the basics of Marketing in general.

What is Account-Based Marketing?

Account-Based Marketing, Account-Based Sales Dev, Account-Based Analytics, and Account-Based Everything (ABx) have been the hype in B2B tech for years now. This is because technology sales deal complexity continues to rise and the number of people involved in a business’ purchasing decisions continues to grow. Buying is more commonly than not a group decision, often spanning members multiple departments, versus only a decision by one person.

The concept behind Account-Based Marketing is this: target companies with the most likelihood of buying your product and engage with buyer and influencer contacts within the company with hyper-personalized messages and specific value propositions. Account-Based Marketing has therefore always been possible to do, but often impractical to pull off at scale to get an ROI. To solve this, a myriad of technology options and services emerged in the past half-decade to executive Account-Based Marketing programs, including:

  • Contact source data and enrichment
  • Lead scoring
  • IP targeting display ads
  • Social ad targeting
  • Content personalization
  • Email and marketing automation
  • Sales development automation
  • Account-based digital analytics
  • CRM add-ons
  • Giftbox kitting
  • Handwritten letter writing services

Real world ABM experiences: success and failure

After running two Account-Based Marketing programs at two different companies, I’m led to believe that if ABM is part of the strategy, then it should be just one component of the overall Sales and Marketing strategy. ABM is not easy, and as a practice it is not nearly as mature as other marketing strategies, like digital and content marketing. Marketing, Sales, and the company must be ready from a maturity and culture standpoint. Most importantly, people must align and many key elements of the marketing strategy must be in place to pull off a successful ABM program.

The first ABM program I ran was in more or less a greenfield opportunity. At a small private-equity backed software company, I was brought in to reorganize all marketing and communication functions and to mature their marketing and sales enablement capabilities. Within days, I determined that we had to start fresh and redo everything marketing except the company name. But fortunately, the company had two great things going for it: a great client base of marquee logos, and their largest competitor embroiled in accounting scandal. Recognizing this as an opportunity to introduce ABM, we implemented hyper-targeted 1:1 outbound email and inbound content offers and site personalization to take away competitors. The result? Within just a quarter, we more than tripled our sales pipeline and won substantially more deals compared to the same quarter last year.

On the heels of that success, the private equity merged us with that competitor over 10X our size whose customers we had targeted for take away. Now a $250M company, I found myself working for a CMO whose small org structure resembled pre-digital marketing and whose relationship with Sales was strained to say the least. Desperate to rebuild pipeline that had eroded due to accounting scandal, Sales asked for my assistance to support their shadow marketing ABM campaign already in its early stages of execution. Being fait accompli, there was little I could offer aside from executional support. After two short months, the campaign was cancelled for poor performance.

In Part 1 of this post series, I will cover the high-level things companies must do to get their house in order before taking on an ABM strategy. In Part 2, I will cover more specific tactics in preparing for your ABM program.

Don’t even think about ABM until you’ve got …

CRO and CMO alignment

This may seem obvious, but I’ve encountered a bad situation in the past where the CRO and CMO are not aligned on much of anything, nevermind ABM. This is unfortunately not uncommon especially if Marketing and Sales departments are separate. Marketing and Sales alignment is table stakes, not only for ABM but to generally have a well-managed business. Winning revenue is a team sport, and ABM will test the team. If the CRO is skeptical of what unproven marketers are able to deliver for Sales, as some are, I recommend making quick wins first and building trust before tackling a program as demanding as ABM.

Market segmentation

Divvy up your TAM by categorical attributes. It could be firmographics (i.e. region, revenue, number of employees, sector, industry, etc. ), technographics, and more. What products do you offer for each segment? What is the value of each segment? What is the average and variance of bookings in each segment? What is your company’s bookings plan? What percentage of bookings do you expect to come from each segment?

Clear program goals supporting the revenue plan

This may seem obvious as well, but on one past occasion I heard the stated goal of of an ABM campaign was to “build pipeline now at any cost” which, even if we are being generous calling it a goal, it isn’t a well-defined one. ABM goals and indeed most revenue-centric B2B marketing goals should be quantifiable and based on conversion rates in your purchasing funnel (pick any methodology you prefer). Perhaps better-defined goals that are quantifiable, realistic, achievable, and time-bound would be something like “Build $20M pipeline resulting in $5M bookings based on our 25% win rate within 12mo.” Also note that, the goal for ABM should be based on meaningful bookings and revenue results and not necessarily quantities like the quantity of leads captured or deals closed. ABM isn’t about that.

Clean and operationally sound CRM

Any successful marketing campaign would rely on a company CRM to track all contacts and related activities. Such is the case with ABM, but the complexity is compounded by the need to analyze and report behaviors among different contacts and different personas within the same prospect account.

Additionally, are contact and account engagement behaviors with your content (e.g. email opens and click thrus, site visits) being captured in the CRM? Are lead contacts related to their respective accounts? Are that data delivered in easy-to-understand report formats to enable account owners to act upon it? Can you track and attribute bookings to multiple touchpoints and channels? Furthermore, does your Sales leadership actively manage and ensure CRM data accuracy and recency, or are the data in the CRM always behind until the end of the quarter? If your answer to any of these questions is “No,” then more work on your CRM and is required for sales and marketing success in general and ABM in particular.

Years, not months, to dedicate

Since ABM requires much alignment, planning, and preparation, it is not something to try just once and only abandon if it doesn’t achieve the goal the first time. While there could be early indicators to make adjustments to the program and campaigns, an ABM program should be measured over at least three full sales cycles. Therefore, ABM may not be appropriate for companies that typically need to make every quarter and have scarce Sales and Marketing resources to spend without seeing quick results.

The right sales org design

ABM requires dedicated marketers and salespeople committed to the program. The set of activities for sales (prospecting and closing new logos, cross-sells and upsells within the base, renewals, RFP responses, and account management) often leaves little time for the sort of hyper-personalization and outreach required for proper Account-Based Marketing. Given the effort and timeframes required of a typical ABM program, there is a significant opportunity cost if a salesperson prioritizes the ABM program over other activities. Therefore, the best and most effective sales forces design their organization for specialized sales roles. In ABM, that typically means working with a team of sales and sales support (sales development, sales engineering, field marketing) dedicated to new logos.

Done. What’s next?

In Part 2, I’ll detail more tactical steps that are necessary for ABM including:

  • Personas for each member of the buying group
  • Ideal customer profiles
  • Account targeting strategy and levels of personalization
  • Account and contact research, monitoring, and engagement
  • Value propositions and content
  • The importance of experimentation and doing things the hard way first

Stay tuned!