How to build an account-based marketing strategy – and launch a pilot programme
As Sue Duris recently discussed, while technology and tools can play a valuable role in supporting account-based marketing (ABM), it is first and foremost a strategy.
As an over-arching philosophy, it can enable clearer marketing focus, provide greater alignment between sales and marketing, and transform customer relationships. But those organisations that fail to adopt a strategic approach to ABM will likely find it difficult to achieve any of these goals.
“It is a strategic approach to driving increased revenue from key and named accounts – it is not a tactical, quick-fix campaign that can be turned on and turned off at will,” warns Clive Armitage, managing partner at Agent3.
“Embarking on ABM requires time, new skills and changes in behaviour and practice. These things, therefore, have to be planned and agreed because they require buy-in across the business and not just from the marketing department itself.”
Rishi Dave, CMO at Dun & Bradstreet, adds: “ABM is all about customising the customer experience, and that’s not something you can just jump into without corporate alignment, shared goals, and a lot of pertinent insights.
“Because ABM is a more tailored approach, it requires much more structure and coordination across departments in order to really see results. In fact, I’d say it’s nearly impossible to execute an ABM program without first creating a comprehensive strategy.”
Where to start
So how do you start to bring a strategic approach to ABM?
Armitage outlines the three foundations of an ABM strategy:
- A clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve through ABM.
- A plan that reflects those objectives but outlines clear, measurable KPIs and defined accountability from stakeholders.
- Communication of the plan and its goals, with expectations set accordingly.
The process of aligning the teams behind this plan will in turn require preparation for how wider alignment will be achieved.
Dave explains: “You absolutely must have alignment between sales and marketing teams. In fact, I see this as account-based marketing and sales, rather than just account-based marketing. When it’s done well, you can’t tell where marketing ends and sales begins. In order to create that alignment, you must have shared processes, shared data and insights, and shared measurements. We’ve even gone as far as measuring our marketing team against closed sales, not just pipeline, because pipeline doesn’t pay the bills; sales does.
“Secondly, you need to change the way your organisation thinks about accounts and the way your teams are structured. There really is a culture shift that needs to happen when you move from “batch and blast” and cold calling to a more account-based approach. “
When the teams are structured in such a way that they can easily work together – breaking through traditional silos, encouraging collaborative thinking and nimble actions across departments and functions – then the preparations need to be in place for them to be able to identify key accounts. And this requires significant planning and preparation around data.
You need to change the way your organisation thinks about accounts and the way your teams are structured.
“You must start with structured, connected, real-time data,” says Dave. “You need to understand your current customer base to figure out who your best customers are and then identify more accounts like those. As well, you have to use predictive analytics to prioritise highest revenue opportunities. This starts with collecting data on every customer touch point, both on and offline.
“It also requires implementing a master data strategy so you can build a 360 degree view of the customer account across the organisation. Once this master data strategy is in place, you must determine how to surface the insights from that data to the right systems and people who can then act on the data in real-time.”
Once organisations have identified their most attractive and important customers, they will need to develop a smart content marketing strategy that speaks their language and helps them meet their goals.
What we have outlined so far are the broad theoretical components of an ABM strategy. In practice, the strategy will depend on the businesses’ specific needs, goals and drivers – and also whether or not the organisation opts to start executing ABM on a small scale and grow it, or to be more ambitious from the get go.
Claire Nash, group strategy director at MomentumABM, explains: “Many strategies start very small – e.g. focused on one or two accounts – and evolve over time. Others start by looking at the needs of a broader set of accounts which need to be segmented into clusters.”
Therefore, the organsiation will need to consider different questions during the strategic planning stage, depending on whether they are going to start account-based marketing at an account-level or across the entire marketing programme. Nash provides the following examples.
Those tackling programme level ABM should consider:
- How does ABM fit within the broader sales and marketing ecosystem?
- Organisation and governance – who owns ABM and who are the key stakeholders?
- Account selection and segmentation – which accounts are we going after? What blend of ABM are we going to align with different segments?
- What are the success metrics across accounts?
Those tackling account level ABM should consider:
- Account insight and planning – how do we understand the needs of specific accounts or groups of accounts and the stakeholders in them?
- Account proposition development - how do we determine the messaging and propositions?
- How do we execute content, creative and communication planning?
- What are the success metrics for individual accounts?
Whatever the decision, once the strategy is in place, it is recommended that organisations first run a pilot programme to test its effectiveness and highlight any obstacles.
“In reality, the only place to get going with ABM is starting small – and invariably this means a pilot. Few companies start with big budgets or big teams, it’s about starting with what you’ve got and showing some early value,” says Nash.
“But even when you look at the theory behind starting an ABM pilot it’s natural to feel daunted. You’re told to choose an ABM model, assess the functional and organisational impact, establish a metrics framework and educate the business.
“That’s a lot to do on top of the day job! Especially when most ABMers start account-based marketing on top of the day job.”
Therefore, Nash advises keeping the groundwork for the pilot very simple. She recommends the following steps:
- Choose a couple of accounts with high-growth potential and strong engagement from the sales team.
- Worry less about ABM models and frameworks – try, test and refine a couple of techniques.
- Get sales onboard! This is probably the number one critical success factor – so get your sales sponsors aligned behind a common set of goals and principles.
- Show early value – chances are you won’t have a fully-baked metrics framework so agree a couple of success metrics that demonstrate value. And don’t get seduced by numbers and percentages – a comment from a customer or a senior sales sponsor goes a long way.
- Excite and evangelise – give the business (especially sales) something to get behind with some tangible deliverables that they can understand and use.
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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.