This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of CCO.

How much confusion is there about account-based marketing (ABM) and its relationship to content marketing?

JC: ABM comes around largely because of a massive shortcoming in the classic content-driven demand-gen model. That massive shortcoming is it takes an unbelievably long time for a company to produce enough content that it provides enough demand generation to drive the business.

Each blog post you write, each e-book you create, will provide some increment of leads. But what you need is an accumulation of lots and lots of content to be able to drop enough hooks in the water to catch enough fish to feed your town. Companies got frustrated with this. Boards got frustrated with this. Executives got frustrated with this. Marketing leaders got frustrated with this.

Along comes ABM, which is essentially a better way to do outbound marketing.

Isn’t ABM a reversal of the top-down funnel approach of content marketing?

Yes, absolutely correct. In content marketing, the burden shifts to sales. Marketing’s job is to build as large an audience possible, shove that audience into a funnel, and then let sales worry about which leads are good and which leads aren’t so good.

But I’m prone to say, “Show me how I’m measured, I’ll show you how I behave.” And if marketing is measured on a raw number of leads coming in, then marketing is going to do what marketing does; which is write content that appeals to the widest audience possible with relevance taking a back seat.

Along comes ABM. It reverses the whole thing. Marketing now bears the burden. Sales says, “What specific accounts do I want to sell to next year?” And they come up with a list for marketing to worry about.

In a perfect world, marketing would help them come up with this list, but usually sales comes up with this list and then says, “Hey, marketing. Joke’s on you this time. You’ve got to figure out a way to command the attention and get me in front of these companies.”

It’s really in marketing’s best interest to have some say in the companies that are on the list.

A little rivalry between marketing and sales departments isn’t unusual. How do you bring together the two sides for an ABM strategy to be effective?

Sales and marketing need to start by coming together and developing an ideal customer profile (ICP). Before naming accounts to try to sell to, the head of sales and the head of marketing can look each other in the eye and say, “We’re going to sell to companies with this employee range, in these industries, that have this particular role on the account, that are in these geographies, that have these types of technologies in their technology stack.”

Collaboratively, get really specific about the attributes of the companies you’re trying to sell to. Then, and only then, go about figuring out who is going to do what and when to try to get in front of these organizations.

In the content marketing world, a lot is made of sales and marketing alignment, but in ABM, alignment isn’t enough. You almost need the two functions to be integrated because it’s very much a dance. John Miller [CEO and co-founder of Engagio and co-founder of Marketo] uses the word “orchestration” a lot. It’s a very good term because each plays a part. Sometimes one part leads or one part is louder. Then there are times when that part recedes, and the other group takes the fore. It tends to go back and forth. Simply being aligned – that is, one side knowing what the other is doing – is not enough. It really needs to be orchestrated.

There’s no such thing as leads. It’s accounts and contacts, says @jchernov. #ABM Click To Tweet

How might an ideal customer profile for an ABM strategy differ from customer profiles marketers may already be using?

It’s not different. Companies may have this. What changes is the fidelity to it, the degree of rigor applied to it. You really cannot get too specific.

I’ve talked about ICP in the singular, but you really have to think about it in the plural because big software is bought by committee.

When you implement these programs, what you also find is there are these sorts of proxy personas. In larger companies there may be a junior person who is dispatched by the head of sales operations or dispatched by the CFO or the COO to do the product research. We could see a fairly junior person spending a lot of time on our website and on our pricing page and consuming our content. If we were stubborn, saying, “Well, this person doesn’t match the ICP,” then we could essentially fail to follow up on a good account.

Sales and #marketing need to come together and develop an ideal customer profile, says @JChernov.#ABM Click To Tweet

Here’s how we’ve gone about engineering this. There is no way we’re going to be able to know everybody who matters on an account because there are any number of these ghost or proxy personas. Instead, we have a concept called a marketing-qualified account (MQA) – a named account that shows a level of engagement with us deep enough that we require sales to follow up.

There are three ways to become a marketing-qualified account. You can request a demo or contact sales. If it’s somebody that’s reasonably close to our ICP, we’ll take a hard look. There can be a single person deeply involved in the account. Or there can be a committee of people, each of whom is involved lightly. We can go about it horizontally or deeply. Either will trigger the MQA to be created.

However, once the MQA is created, the salesperson’s job is to engage the contacts on the account. But if the head of sales operations is not on the account, then the salesperson’s job is to use the engaged people to try to reach the target persona.

They’ve got to “enrich the account,” as we call it, to be able to engage the entire buyer committee and fill in the missing persona from that account.

Is it advisable or even possible to run a wide play, audience-building content marketing strategy and an ABM strategy in parallel, or is it one or the other?

Look, there’s really no wide play. If you have a specific list of companies that you’re going to try to sell to, then there is no wide play.

My father-in-law sells software to nuclear power plants. If he went with a wide play, he’s going to attract prospects that he will never sell to. So, what is the point of a wide play?

What does this mean for the content marketing the team may already be doing, such as blogs and e-books? Are tactics traditionally thought of as wide plays still relevant in an ABM context?

Everything needs to get more targeted. Yes, the funnel still has a top. It’s just a narrower top.

I’ll give you a very specific example. Before we made this shift, we wrote blog posts with headlines like, “How B2B Sales is Like the Game of Thrones.” They would get predictable day-one traffic. Maybe some of them got shared a bunch of times on social and the blogger felt good because he’s measured on views and he did his job. But I don’t really care if Game of Thrones fans happen to read that blog post unless they meet my ideal customer profile.

Our blog now is really inside baseball; very niche. It’s very specific to the needs of sales operations people. None of these posts will ever go viral. They are just too wonky. But our traffic is up significantly because we have found a home with the right readership.

You still need that top-of-funnel content, but you need to resist the temptation to aspire to a larger audience. What you want is a greater composition of the right audience. What is the ratio of right reader to reader? That’s more important than absolute number of readers.

How does an ABM strategy impact how marketers use data and measure performance?

What’s hard is that you’re working with smaller data sets so your data can be skewed more easily, especially early on.

If you have a bunch of reps, each with 25 accounts, it’s going to take you a while to be confident enough in the data to know that this subject line is performing better than that subject line because you’re not sending it to thousands; you’re sending it to handfuls. When a handful of customer wins can skew your results, you have to apply more judgment than you might in a marketing-automated, classic demand-gen world.

You know this strategy is working when you see that deals are getting bigger, deals are closing faster. Our conversion rates within the funnel are all increasing so that the funnel shape is changing to be more cylindrical. Those in the end are the metrics.

This is a really great opportunity to jerk the wheel on the way marketing has historically been measured: How many leads did we procure? What’s the quality of those leads? What were the sources for those conversions? What’s the cost per lead?

Get away from some of those indicator metrics and look at output. Did the accounts that marketing engaged close at a higher clip? Did they close faster? Did they close larger?

If marketing sourced the deal, if we were the first ones to engage the account, did they engage with sales more frequently? Did they pick up the phone faster when sales called?

Your marketing KPIs can start to sound an awful lot like sales KPIs – and that’s a good thing. If you’re measuring the marketing team in those ways, it’s going to force them to think a lot more like sales.

That’s really what ABM is. It’s the fusion of those two functions.