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Account-Based Marketing (ABM) Crash Course for Content Marketers

Account-based marketing is one of the hottest topics at enterprise organizations these days. And for good reason, as it represents a strategic, efficient way to engage your highest value prospects.  

For content marketers, it can be hard to understand how your content strategies and tactical processes fit in an ABM approach. 

In their presentation at ContentTECH 2019, Convince & Convert’s Jenny Magic and Springbox’s Jennalee Reiff delivered a crash course on why this people-centric strategy is worth pursuing, what it takes to make it work, and the role content plays in its most successful executions.

Here’s a summary of the key details from their presentation, along with some practical tips they shared in a follow-up conversation with our editorial team.

Rethinking the B2B funnel

The buyer’s journey is more like a labyrinth than a linear path. With so many messages, channels, and stakeholders factoring into every buying process, it can be tough to reach and engage the right targets, let alone deliver relevant content at the right time to influence their purchase decisions.

The buyer’s journey is more like a labyrinth than a linear path, says @joderama. Share on X

Using content to help sales teams generate demand and nurture leads to conversion becomes even more challenging for large, complex B2B purchases. One reason is an increasingly outdated marketing funnel.

As Jenny explains, “The traditional marketing funnel was all about volume, the most semi-qualified leads as possible. We didn’t know who they were, so we would personalize and engage and nurture and try to connect just so they would tell us their email address.”

Once that all-important contact comes in, it typically gets entered into a CRM or other system to be scored, ranked, and handed to sales.

“[But] that is an expensive way to play,” Jenny points out, “as getting attention costs more and more, and organic channels are giving us less and less return.”

#ABM is critical way for B2B to flip the funnel and focus on a set of roles, says @joderama. Share on X

In contrast, ABM offers a critical way for B2B businesses to flip the funnel. Instead of working from a high volume of minimally qualified leads, ABM focuses on a set of roles within organizations determined to be valuable prospects.

Once sales has scored and prioritized their leads that fit these roles, they can work collaboratively with the marketing team to build a well-informed profile of the ideal customers to target. And that gives marketers the critical insights to craft salient messaging and personalize it to address their needs and interests.

How ABM works

ABM shifts from thinking about buyers as individuals and toward thinking about them as individuals within an organization who decide together.

In an ABM model, the sales team leads the charge by identifying the highest-priority accounts, determining which teams and individuals are directly involved in their buying processes, and building detailed profiles of the roles for marketing to engage through strategic messaging campaigns.

From there, marketers develop and deliver customized content to target these accounts as a unified group based on their collective informational needs as a decision-making entity.

Instead of marketers scoring leads and handing them to sales, ABM helps marketers start conversations with fewer but more likely prospects. They can send those warmer relationships to sales to close the deal.

Its ability to build and heat up high-value customer relationships is, perhaps, ABM’s greatest power: Enterprise marketers can get highly personalized messages in front of the right decision-makers at the right time. They keep content efforts focused on those prospects who represent the strongest potential to positively impact the bottom line.

#ABM’s ability to heat up high-value customer relationships is its greatest power, says @joderama. Share on X

ABM in practice

CMI’s annual Enterprise Content Marketing research indicates that businesses are willing to give ABM a shot: 34% of respondents said they use the technique and another 21% said they planned to incorporate it prior to the end of 2018.

34% respondents use #ABM & another 21% planned to incorporate it prior to the end of 2018. @cmicontent #research Share on X

Choose your type

The first decision to make is which type of ABM best suits your needs. ABM is a broad term that covers quite a few concepts, but there are three main tiers.

One-to-one ABM: This is typically a sales-led initiative that uses highly personalized content to target a handful of valuable accounts – ones that are a top priority for sales.

Jenny shared a client example from computer vision company GumGum, which was working to close T-Mobile as a client. Upon learning that the company’s CEO was a comic book lover, GumGum worked with custom illustrators to create a comic book called T-Man and Gums, the Girl Wonder. They mailed it directly to the CEO’s office and published it online. Within hours the CEO saw it, praised it on Twitter, and set up a meeting with GumGum, which ultimately led to T-Mobile becoming a client.

This kind of approach can require a big investment; but when you’ve got a big fish on the line it might be worth delivering above-and-beyond content.

Deliver above-and-beyond personalized #content if you’ve got a big fish on the line, says @JennyLMagic. Share on X

One-to-few ABM: The next tier involves customizing content and messaging for clusters of accounts that share similar business imperatives. Content for executing on this approach might include a custom landing page with information or solution offers around a specific vertical.

Jenny shared an example from Influitive – an advocacy engagement platform that helps customers build relationships with advocates and get more reviews. Influitive sent copies of the target client’s positive reviews (gathered from sites like G2 Crowd) along with a personalized note from Influitive’s sales rep.

The messages positioned Influitive as a way to help generate additional positive online reviews. To grab recipients’ attention, the messages were delivered in a cute burro backpack. According to Jenny, not only were these “piñata-grams” hard to ignore, they generated an impressive 36% response rate.

One-to-many ABM: Lastly, the more programmatic approach combines the techniques found in one-to-one and one-to-few targeting to appeal to multiple account roles. For instance, marketers might dynamically create ad content that targets an individual on the account, while also leveraging existing content clustered around the needs of a few additional stakeholders on that account.

Jenny shared an example of this approach from WP Engine, a WordPress hosting platform that targets creative agencies. For this effort, WP Engine divided its account list into two groups, delivering personalized ads to one group and generic creative to the other. It followed up with both groups via emails, social media, and phone calls.

Email open rates for the group that received the personalized ads increased by nearly 60%, with a 29% increase in reply rates and a 28% increase in opportunities. “They achieved really significant numbers by planting the seed and letting sales and marketing work really closely together on these custom messages,” Jenny says.

Build a foundation for ABM success

Clearly, ABM can offer some compelling advantages; but that doesn’t mean businesses can just decide to reorganize their sales and marketing functions around an ABM model and achieve those benefits overnight.

There’s a lot that goes into ABM planning. For example, a successful implementation may require sales and marketing to adjust working processes to function optimally in their roles and in how they work with each other. “You have to create a strong sense of alignment between the sales and marketing team that can carry through the whole process,” says Jennalee. “Make sure there’s up-front accountability and clarity around [each department’s] roles, definitions, KPIs, and incentives.”

Create strong alignment between #sales & #marketing that can carry through the process. @jennaleereiff #ABM Share on X

In addition, every business must plan for three foundational components to implementing an ABM-led program:

  1. People-centric strategy: Identify your ideal customer accounts, comparatively evaluate the value each one offers, and determine which accounts to target. From there, sales and marketing teams should work together to map the details of those accounts – buying process, who’s involved in decision-making, and the key motivating factors and pain points your content will address.
  2. Killer content: To engage the high-value accounts identified by sales, marketers must deliver content that speaks to their needs and interests on a personal level. Once you take stock of existing content to help solve their problems, decide what new content to create, how it maps to each stage of the buyer’s journey, and how to position it so that it will perform to your team’s expectations. 
  3. Integrated tech stack: To deliver personalized content to your target audiences, you need to put the right data systems and components in place and have a plan for collaboratively managing the processes involved. You also must understand how each component contributes to the consistent engagement experience you intend to provide.
Successful #ABM has people-centric strategy, killer content, integrated tech stack. @JennyLMagic @jennaleereiff Share on X

Gather helpful insights and measure actions

Jenny and Jennalee elaborated on some tactical considerations involved in developing a people-centric strategy during a follow-up conversation. 

Both rightly point out that marketers really can’t create personalized content without a thorough understanding of the people in their target audience groups and the goals each audience is trying to achieve at each stage of their decision-making process.

Content marketers should be familiar with one process commonly used to build this understanding: buyer personas. However, with ABM, an additional customer profiling step involves creating an ideal customer profile (ICP) to help sales determine which accounts to prioritize and target.

Though ideal customer profiles and buyer personas work best in tandem, Jenny explains the distinction between the two profiling techniques:

  • An ICP is an account persona (describing the organization’s geographies, revenue, vertical, etc.)
  • A buyer persona is a profile of the individuals (or roles) within that account

“The best way to figure out what your buyers really need is to talk to the people who are already talking to them – your sales and support team. Or, even better, ask to talk to them directly,” Jenny says. “Ask them what pain points they are facing, how your business can help solve them, what content meets those needs … Pack that into your buyer persona and you’ll have the insights you need to create the personalized content you’ll use to engage them.”

The best way to figure out what your buyers really need is to talk to them, says @JennyLMagic. #ABM Share on X

And, of course, another huge part of making ABM work involves having the ability to measure the impact of your content on the buyers you target.

To this point, Jenny and Jennalee shared a framework that ABM-driven teams can use to align everyone’s efforts around the goals most important to their business and to track the appropriate metrics for gauging and optimizing content performance.

As Jenna explains, the “v” metrics in the framework – volume, velocity, and value – are examples of easy-to-pool measurements to create an initial benchmark of your marketing performance. “What you are hoping to achieve is to push further into the ‘e’s’ – effectiveness and efficiency. That’s where you’re going to find the more high-value quality leads,” she says.

Does ABM work?

When managed strategically, ABM can produce multidimensional benefits. On the sales side, these can include a shorter sales cycle, a better pipeline, and lower acquisition costs.

And, because marketers start their process with clear targets and customer needs outlined, they can experience more effective marketing re-engagement, which can open up additional upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

“[Audiences] are more engaged because the messages that they’re receiving are more relevant. That ultimately leads to a better customer experience, higher retention rates and, of course, higher ROI,” says Jennalee. In fact, 87% of respondents in an ITSMA benchmark report say the technique drives higher ROI than any other type of marketing they do.

ABM can also be effective in engaging hard-to-reach C-suite folks – execs typically dismissive of direct mail pieces but more likely to respond to content personalized to their needs and use cases. According to the 2018 State of Account-Based Marketing report by #FlipMyFunnel, 27% of ABM marketers reported a 50% increase in C-level engagement.

ABM also facilitates the achievement of a goal from which the entire enterprise stands to benefit  — closer alignment between sales and marketing. Encouragingly, a recent custom research study CMI conducted with LinkedIn found an association between ABM and better sales and marketing alignment. “Ultimately it’s a great way to bring together two teams to collaborate instead of compete,” says Jennalee.

Don’t let a fear of change hinder your content’s potential

Implementing a new operational approach like ABM is never a decision that should be taken lightly – transformational shifts of this nature can certainly require a considerable investment in terms of set-up time and effort – not to mention a firm commitment from multiple stakeholders throughout the enterprise.

But the benefits that B2B companies can realize through ABM-driven marketing may simply be too appealing to overlook. Given the complexity of today’s B2B buying process, rising marketing costs, and diminished returns from broadly targeted marketing campaigns, a content strategy with an ABM-based foundation may present the greatest opportunity to create interdisciplinary alignment and efficiency, develop strong relationships with the right customers, and deliver meaningful results for your business.

Here’s an excerpt from Jenny and Jennalee’s talk:

Ready to learn more to implement a quality ABM program? Attend The Demand Generation – Account-Based Marketing Workshop on Sept. 3 as part of Content Marketing World. And stay for the full conference to learn even more. Register today using code CMIBLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute