Guest Post by Emily Sue Tomac, Research Analyst at TrustRadius

As new software features and vendor positioning race to join the ABM trend, B2B marketing leaders share enthusiasm, skepticism, and details about their ABM programs at the Marketing Nation Summit. While some are just getting started with ABM, others have more mature programs that have already gone through multiple iterations.

At its recent Marketing Nation user conference in Las Vegas, Marketo announced the upcoming release of new features for account-based marketing automation. According to Marketo’s product marketing team, the release, planned for August 2016, will “surface account data that was there all along behind the scenes,” making it easier to plan, trigger, and track campaigns around the account object rather than leads. Marketo also plans to update the Sales Insights module, giving salespeople visibility into how their accounts are engaging with marketing campaigns.

The new features could create competition between Marketo and LaunchPoint partners whose products bridge the gap between lead and account objects. However, representatives from Marketo were quick to note that leading ABM vendors like Engagio are quickly building out their products with more advanced features and additional use cases. Engagio’s thought leadership around ‘account-based everything’ is spearheaded by the company’s co-founder Jon Miller, formerly CMO and co-founder at Marketo.

The TrustRadius Research team attended the conference and spoke to vendors, experts, and practitioners about developments in ABM software and their own ABM programs. Here is a high-level view of their tips for marketing peers interested in ABM:

  • As more vendors release automation features to help with ABM, marketers are likely to become more and more focused on the account object—but remember not to lose sight of the human element! The people receiving your campaigns should still be addressed as people, rather than as companies.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of ABM is how to strike a balance between scale and depth. Personalization is key to the high revenue impact successful ABM practitioners are seeing. This may only be able to scale so far, so know your limits.
  • In addition to reaching multiple roles at an account with messages targeted to their stake in your product, you should also be thinking about how to create conversations between those stakeholders.
  • Testing and measuring new ABM programs alongside existing/inbound programs will help you find a good mix of tactics.

Is ABM Maturing, or Just Getting Carried Away?

Lately, the trend around ABM has been escalating at a breakneck pace. This is celebrated, and perhaps joshed about, with taglines like “The rise and rise of Account-based Marketing,”—actually a fairly reasonable description, considering the amount of interest ABM is generating among B2B marketers. In the past year, Google search traffic for keywords like ‘account-based marketing’ and ‘abm’ has nearly tripled. While many marketers and vendors are following this trend, by designing new account-based programs and/or branding their software product as an ABM solution, others approach the topic with a grain of salt.

For example, LeanData’s CMO Adam New-Waterson sees the rapid proliferation of ABM tools as artificial and confusing. LeanData is a sales intelligence platform that focuses on lead to account matching and data cleanliness. New-Waterson thinks that while software can be helpful for ABM initiatives, vendors are currently caught in a tailspin of over-branding, which is not helpful for buyers.  “Everyone is talking about ABM right now, so every vendor is glomming their product onto ABM in a big way. But it’s such an open-ended phrase. There are predictive vendors, data vendors, and content vendors—all of those could be involved in ABM, but it doesn’t make sense to compare them,” explained New-Waterson. Based on our research into ABM, TrustRadius agrees that it is not yet a fully-fledged software category, as it lacks a standard set of features.

New-Waterson pointed out that Marketo has long been known for being built around the lead object. He said Marketo’s ABM feature release announcement could be a sign that the market may be shifting towards real product changes to help marketers with account-based tactics. New-Waterson says B2B marketing teams, including his own, are also starting to design stronger, more mature processes around accounts: “Moving forward, I think the conversation will start becoming less about positioning to align with ABM, and more about the core value of the product. What is it doing to help drive real business value? Likewise, I think we’re starting to see ABM methodologies become more concrete. On my team, what we’re trying to do is figure out how we can influence all of the individuals within an organization to have the conversations with each other that result in our technology being selected. That’s our ABM goal right now.”

Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing, agrees that, “If you’re working on a larger deal with multiple buyers, they’re all going to have their own perspective. It’s key if you can create conversations between the roles, but that’s difficult to engineer.” However, he sees this engineering feat as “Marketing’s job,” in terms of both building pipeline for Sales and creating sales enablement content for further down the funnel. Heinz recommends structuring your content plan as a matrix, to view side by side the priorities of the buyers involved at any given stage in the decision. “Start with a content map that shows the different roles and the stages of the buyer’s journey. For each role at each stage, what messages do you need to go sell? That content matrix can help you be more effective at getting everyone involved and on board in their own mind with the solution,” Heinz said.

Decoding the Buzzword: Different Flavors & Potential Limitations of ABM

Jeremy Bromwell, now VP of Marketing at TripActions, formerly Sr. Marketing Director at Zenefits, also has reservations about ABM—not because he doubts the value of a target account strategy, but because he considers the hype around ABM as potentially blinding. He urges marketers to spend time understanding what vendors and thought leaders mean by ‘account-based marketing,’ and reflect on how this could impact their marketing strategy for better and worse.

Zenefits is an online HR and benefits administration platform. Bromwell himself has been doing account-based marketing for a while. He thinks it’s important to distinguish between two very different strategies that are often grouped under the ABM moniker:

1) Account targeting: developing a list of key accounts and a strategy for connecting with multiple roles/influencers within those organizations.

2) Account expansion: selling multiple products within an account, or selling a product to multiple areas within a larger account.

As Bromwell sees it, all B2B marketers can benefit from the first flavor of ABM, but depending on the product/service and type of customer, not all marketers can utilize the second. “For us at Zenefits, we could only win once at an account. So before people were talking about ‘account-based everything,’ we were figuring out the hierarchy of personas to go after within a company to help create the relationship, and thinking about them as an account. There wasn’t an out-of-box solution, but using a company name as the key in programmatic campaigns has allowed marketers to do account-based marketing for a long time now,” says Bromwell.

Bromwell acknowledges that setting up account-based programs without ABM-specific technology is more difficult, since it requires custom coding. But he worries that with new tools built around the account object, there could be a deterioration in conversation value. He reminds fellow marketers that messaging needs to be addressed to individuals, even if campaigns are automated and account-based: “I think it’s great on the one hand that people are thinking more about how to approach a company as a company, but one of my fears is that, with all of the ABM solutions built around the account object, marketers will lose sight of the people at that company and will all of a sudden just start seeing the company, which is not a human object.  At worst, it could mean that messaging starts to get less human and more robotic. That’s not actually the way to create a relationship with someone that will drive high lifetime value and advocacy.”

Maintaining a Mix between Inbound and ABM

As marketers with existing ABM programs scale their efforts, they are starting to refine the balance between traditional inbound tactics and personalized outbound tactics. CMOs like Scott Vaughan, of Integrate, are working to find the optimal mix of skill sets, data sources, tools, and budget spend. Integrate is a demand generation tool with lead management, data quality, and marketing ROI analytics features. Vaughan says his team plans to spend more time developing a solid process before they ramp up ABM at scale.

“In terms of ABM, we have a dynamic list that we update every quarter, developed in conjunction with Sales. Our goal is for Marketing to generate a specific amount of opportunities within those target accounts on the list. We do not turn off broader demand gen—it’s a mix,” said Vaughan. Because Integrate is a marketing technology, Vaughan has learned partly from watching customers re-allocate resources within their own marketing departments. He explained, “We’ve watched some of our customers try to replace demand gen with ABM tactics, and their pipeline dries up very quickly. Besides regular content for demand gen, Marketing works on a specific set of accounts, the top 10-20, on a very personalized basis. We’ve put together a customized program all the way from direct mail to outreach, relabeling and repackaging content for that account. (We’re not at the individual level yet.) We know that ultimately this program is not scalable, but right now we’re just trying to build the model. Then we’ll automate and scale.”

Paul Gottsegen, CMO at MindTree, a technology services provider, described similar challenges with depth vs. breadth: “We’ve been honing our account-based-marketing approach for 2 years now. Once a qualified lead is deep into the sales funnel, we spring into action with a suite of marketing deliverables that demonstrate our interest, knowledge and hunger to win their business. Major obstacle is finding the right balance between scale and depth—each account needs its own specific messages that are compelling and distinct for that opportunity, and if you try to do that for too many accounts, you lose that formula.” While new tools and features promise to automate some aspects of ABM, addressing the challenge of scale, Gottsegen’s comment points out a fundamental tension in the type of content that is appropriate to send to a wide swath of accounts, versus the type of content that makes sense only for one particular account. Personalization, which has long been a question for inbound marketers, will be even more relevant and tricky for account-based marketers, especially as programs scale.

Aaron Dun, SVP Marketing at SnapApp, an interactive content marketing platform, sees a complementary, and to some extent reactionary, relationship between inbound and ABM tactics. Dun says the trend towards ABM (and outbound tactics in general), is a predictable swing of the needle, following the longstanding buzz around inbound, largely fueled by HubSpot’s wildly successful thought leadership/content marketing efforts. “Account-based marketing feels to me like a natural outgrowth of inbound. The promise of inbound, and to some extent content marketing, is if you get out there and tell a really good story, people will come to you. But it takes time to do that—and a bit of trust that if you do the work, people will read your content, subscribe to your blog, engage, etc.,” he explained. Dun thinks product-market fit and strong messaging (both of which can be tested during inbound campaigns) as prerequisites for a successful, scalable ABM program. He clarified that even at established businesses, “marketers should still be doing inbound. But in cases where you have a very defined market segment, and the messaging and positioning are honed to the point where you’ve tested it and know what’s going to work within that defined segment, then I think ABM strategies make a ton of sense, because you can really focus your efforts and drive business that way. But if you’ve got a product offering where you’re trying to reach billions of people, it’s not going to work as well.”

Like Vaughan, Dun thinks ABM should be paired with ongoing inbound programs (including content marketing). Dun is unsure whether a full-fledged account program makes sense for SnapApp itself at this stage, but he sees an opportunity for SnapApp’s content platform to become more account-friendly: “There is an opportunity to add functionality to our own product to help marketers do account-based marketing, which we’ll be working on this year.”

Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group, also sees a close connection between content marketing and ABM. In addition to new technology for ABM, Brenner says content—the substance of a conversation—is the main differentiator between the age-old tradition of relationship marketing/selling, where golf and dinner were the primary assets, and ABM. He thinks content is the missing piece of the ABM puzzle for many companies who are planning account-based strategies.  “We still don’t talk about the importance of what you do once you define the relationships you want to create at an account. I think ABM, and this is maybe a little controversial, is just a distribution mechanism of an effective content marketing strategy. It’s a repackaging of stuff that every company should already have if they do content marketing. Companies that have not strategically invested in content marketing are going to struggle,” said Brenner. For Brenner, investments in content to fuel inbound marketing and content to fuel ABM go hand in hand.

Jocelyn Davé is the Head of Demand Generation at DoubleDutch, a mobile event management platform. Davé is in the process of designing an ABM program because traditional inbound tactics were creating an unbalanced pipeline, skewed towards SMB leads. She sees introducing ABM as a way to restore balance to the pipeline and better enable DoubleDutch’s enterprise sales team.

For DoubleDutch, account expansion is definitely part of the ABM plan. “We have a different ABM strategy for accounts that we’re already in, whether we’ve powered one or a few of their events. It’s trying to really provide a more personalized message by utilizing our internal champion to help us expand that account. We haven’t quite started, but we’re planning to use that inroad to have our champions advocate for potential great use cases for our product where it’s not being used today. We’ll help them do things like lunch-and-learns, or a group webinar, and other onsite events. One person has already utilized our product, so having them talk and rave about our product rather than us is a better approach—we’ll be helping them educate their company about what our product can do. It will be more of a support role in that way,” said Davé.

Does it make sense for ABM Tactics to Spread Down Market?

Largely, practitioners described ABM as most appropriate for high-value enterprise accounts. Chris Bolman, Director of Integrated Marketing and Growth at Percolate, a content marketing platform, shared his reasoning on why it makes sense for sales and marketing to work together closely on key enterprise accounts: “We see ABM, particularly in the enterprise, as a way to combine the thoughtful, on-the-ground, consultative sales organization with more air coverage, making sure different parts of the prospect organization are engaging with our content, reading our blog, and understanding who we are and what we do. We’re not just selling to one person or even one team. We might be selling to different brands, different corporate functions, or different teams within a department. There’s really no way a single salesperson, or even a small sales team, can get breadth of coverage on an organization like that to make sure we’re staying top of mind and driving brand awareness to educate the buyer(s). But these are things that Marketing is really good at. Marketing can look broadly from a database perspective at who to target. Then we get color and perspective from the account owner and collaborate on specific campaigns and activations. Effectively, ABM gives the salesperson a warmer intro when they walk into a meeting; they don’t have to start at square one.”

Most of the marketing leaders I spoke with felt ABM could have the highest ROI with up-market target accounts. However, some said they are applying key lessons from account-based marketing to smaller market segments as well. In particular, they found that paying deeper attention to a more focused set of target prospects can yield better content engagement and campaign results. For example, Baxter Denney, VP Growth Marketing at New Relic, said that the ABM mindset is helping his team meet their marketing goals across company size segments. New Relic is an SaaS application performance management analytics company. Denney sees ABM tools with automation and target-list features as useful because they enable scale, which is especially important for programs where an individual account may not be as large and profitable. “Thanks to some of the tools that are available, what I’ve found is that actually even if you’re looking at smaller companies you can define a set of target accounts using some of those tools and try to engage with them, rather than trying to engage the whole market. We’re finding a lot of value in that approach,” said Denney.

Note, though, that Denney does not emphasize revenue responsibility in down-market accounts. Rather than measuring the impact of ABM on the bottom line, which is an important metric of success in the enterprise segment, his goal at small accounts is to increase campaign engagement. To some extent, this is a pragmatic issue that may change as Denney’s team develops more advanced ABM analytics: “Because it’s a challenging and new area, we don’t have the mature level of analytics I would like around our ABM program yet. But one of the things that’s big for us is measuring engagement across that set of target accounts. So regardless of downfunnel metrics, like revenue, if we’re seeing increased engagement across our target account list—people are coming to the website, reading our content, attending webinars—that’s success, that’s good in and of itself. Once we double down on key accounts as marketers, it’s up to sales to handle the follow up.”

ABM Measurement: the Antidote to the Buzz

Michael O’Connell, Sr. Manager of Demand Generation and Marketing Ops. at Quantcast, notes that while much of the hype around ABM is vendor led, it’s a useful approach across the customer lifecycle and doesn’t necessarily require ABM-specific software to execute. Quantcast provides ad-serving & retargeting and analytics software. O’Connell says in context of his business, account expansion and account-based customer success—part of ‘account-based everything,’ to use the latest escalating terminology—may be more fruitful than just targeting new accounts: “ABM is a bit of a buzzword right now. I used to call it key account marketing. We’re doing that already, we’re just not using any particular ABM tool for it. It works for customer acquisition, but I think for us, account-based programs are going to be most valuable in terms of retention. Jon Miller talks about engagement and footprint as key metrics of success for ABM—these will be important for measuring the impact of ABM at Quantcast.”

In terms of what’s on his marketing technology wishlist, O’Connell says he’s interested in ABM analytics: “I do like some of the ABM tools, but I think specifically it’s something that allows us to integrate the measurement piece with our existing measurement stack. If we’re trying to put an investment into ABM technology, both from a customer retention and new account growth perspective, I think measurement is really important.”

This sentiment was echoed by other marketing leaders as well. Many stressed the importance of marketing analytics and expressed interest in developing more advanced, tightly integrated measurement solutions, either in-house or through partnerships with analytics vendors. Across my conversations with practitioners, measurement was seen as the antidote for trendiness—if they are able to test and track their efforts, marketers can empirically determine the right level of investment in ABM. As interest in account-based tactics balloons, measuring the efficacy of new programs will help marketers determine which approaches to ABM will actually impact their engagement, lead/opportunity goals, and revenue contribution.

If you’re interested in getting a more in-depth lens on technologies that support ABM and how leading account-based marketers are developing their own programs, we talked to Matt Senatore, Sirius Decisions, and Tyler Lessard, Vidyard about changes in ABM—read more about what they had to say here. If you are currently evaluating ABM solutions, you can also read end-user reviews of individual tools like Terminus, Mintigo, and DemandBase.