How to Do ABM Without Selling Your Soul

B2B Marketing


Mayo on a sandwich. Hot sauce on a taco. Hot fudge on a sundae. All things that — when used correctly — make the thing they complement way better.

But If you use too much of any of them, or use them in the wrong context (hot sauce on a sundae? No thanks.), or simply use them wrong (gobs of mayo, instead of a thin layer), you’ve ruined a perfectly tasty snack.

As a marketer, the same concept applies to everything you do. If used correctly, every technology and tactic has the power to create better connections with your potential customers. If done without care, it can drive a wedge between you and your buyers.

Take social media. At HubSpot, people ask us all the time: “Will social media work for my business?” The answer? Yes, absolutely! But only if you do it in a way that fits in with the way your buyer wants to interact with you.

On social, people feel interrupted if you’re just sending spammy mass messages. If you’re not providing them with quality content that their mom, friend, or coworker could have sent them, you’re just another brand in the crowd. Or worse, a brand annoying them in their personal space, where they don’t expect to see brands interrupting. When you’re cold, interruptive, and irrelevant, nobody wins.

It’s not just social. It’s virtually every tactic in today’s marketing playbook. Email, ads, popup forms, video, and all the rest. Do it in a human-friendly way, and everybody wins. Do it in a permissionless, cold, disruptive way, and you’re in trouble.

Account Based Marketing fits squarely into this thread. Done right — in a customer-centric and human-friendly way — it can play an impactful role in an effective marketing strategy. Put simply, a company-centric B2B approach doesn’t have to be spammy.

What is ABM, Anyway?

Account-based marketing looks slightly different depending on who you ask. But at its core is one central theme: the idea of company-centricity.

If you’re B2B, you’re selling to businesses. Generating five thousand leads doesn’t matter much if those leads aren’t within the businesses you want to sell to. This idea of company-centricity applies to everything in ABM. You generate accounts (rather than leads). You engage with all the key stakeholders within those accounts. You close accounts. And you measure account engagement and growth.

What is ABM Not?

More often than not, the concept of ABM is associated with targeted outbound. It looks like this: choose a set of companies you’d like to market and sell to. Use online databases to build an org chart for those companies. Use tactics like cold email and calls, direct mail, and live events to engage the key stakeholders at those accounts that you found in your research. Close deals with those accounts. Then “land and expand” into other parts of the business using similar tactics.

This outbound-heavy interpretation of account-based marketing is misguided and miserable

We see examples of soul-less ABM emails all the time. I’m sure you do too. Rather than call any one company out — here’s a compiled fictional example of the types of targeted outbound emails we get.  

abm email.png

Now, technically this is an account-based email.  It reflects a unique data-point on my company: The Business Insider article.  It demonstrates the land and expand practice of branching off of a colleague of mine’s interest. But it still feels cold, right?  There are a few things wrong with this type of ABM email from a recipient experience standpoint.

First, even though my colleague had an interest — there’s no consideration as to whether I even know that colleague or a demonstrated understanding of how or if we work together.

Second, while I appreciate the mention of the recent article on us, it has nothing to do with the purpose of the email. It almost feels as though it’s in there just to prove that the sender took the time to Google us. Crummy experience for the recipient. Poor results for the sender. Nobody wins.

So, even though the email is personalized to my context — It still feels like cold outbound and odds are, I’m not going to bite. 

My email inbox is littered with emails like these. So is my voicemail. What about yours?

The good news: ABM doesn’t have to look like this. There’s a better way. One that’s warmer, more human, and a whole lot more buyer-friendly.

How to do ABM the Right Way

What does ABM done right look like? In this section, we’ll walk you through it, step by step.

Get specific about your target.

Who do you want to market and sell to? Imagine your ideal customer were to walk through the door. What would they look like? What would they sound like? What would they talk about? We call these ideal customer profiles buyer personas.

A few important best practices to remember when creating your buyer personas, as it relates to an account-based strategy:

If you’re B2B, your personas should include insights about the person’s company. What size is it? What role do they play? Who do they report to? Are they a decision-maker or an influencer? What’s their budget and what other things are they spending it on? What industry are they in? Where are they located? What other tools do they use? While, in the end, it’s the people that make the buying decisions, their company dynamics play a big role in the purchasing process.

It’s perfectly okay — and, often, necessary — to have more than one persona in the same company. At HubSpot, we sell both marketing and sales software, so it’s vital that we understand the core characteristics and motivations of both marketing and sales leaders. Sometimes, the same person plays both roles. More often than not, we’re marketing to the two separately. To do so effectively, we need to understand not only the nuances of marketers and salespeople individually, but also the way they interact in the workplace.

Marketing and sales should be tightly aligned in the creation of personas. Personas aren’t an arts-and-crafts project undertaken by the marketing team on a rainy day. They’re the glue that holds every function at your company together. If you’re a marketer, take into consideration your sales team’s feedback on the types of accounts they’re interacting with most. 

What generalizations can they make about the different types of customers you serve best? If you’re a salesperson, what lessons can you pass along to your marketing counterparts from the front lines? What’s driving conversations forward? Sales and marketing should be in lockstep throughout the inbound process; that’s especially important in the creation of personas.

A common question that often comes up around personas and ABM: if you’re B2B, should you select one specific set of a few companies to target? The simple answer: in general, no. Even if your target “universe” of potential customers is small — big banks, universities, etc. — think about what your target persona has in common.

Let’s say your primary decision-making persona is the VP of risk management at a big bank. Do the VPs of risk management at Wells Fargo and CitiBank have vastly differents sets of motivations and priorities? Do they hang out on different social networks? Are they concerned about different changes in the market? Probably not.

The personas you create should be very specific to your best customer fit, but broad enough to be applicable beyond a single person at a single company.

Create valuable content for those personas.

Next up: creating content. ABM and Inbound are in lockstep here. Once you’ve gotten clear on your target, it’s all about creating content that’s personalized, relevant, helpful, and valuable for your potential buyers.

The bitter truth: today’s buyer doesn’t care about your company. They don’t care about how you’ve just launched the coolest widget since sliced bread. They don’t want to book a 15 minute meeting with you, if they’ve never heard of your company. They want things that’ll make them better at what they do, or teach them something they don’t know, or fill in a blind spot in their day. Even better if it makes them look good to their colleagues and managers.

How do you ensure that you’re creating content your target personas will actually want to engage with? By combining two key concepts: personas, which we covered above, and the buyer’s journey. The buyer’s journey is the process buyers go through to become aware of, evaluate, and purchase a new product or service. The journey is a three-step process:

  • Awareness Stage: At this point, a buyer is trying to solve problems, get an answer, or meet a need. They’re looking for top-level educational content to help direct them to a solution.
  • Consideration Stage: The buyer defines their problem and researches options to solve it. In HubSpot’s case, our customers might realize they have a problem organizing and managing their sales processes, and in the consideration stage, they’re considering the different strategies for addressing that: Excel, adopting a CRM, outsourcing sales, etc.
  • Decision Stage: The buyer chooses a solution. In HubSpot’s case, our buyers have determined that they’ll adopt a CRM in the consideration stage, and now it’s time to compare HubSpot to the other CRMs, and to make a final decision.

Once you’ve defined your personas and mapped out the buyer’s journey for each one, the next step is to ensure that you have at least one piece of content for each of your personas, at each stage of their journey. Here’s how to visualize that process:

buyers journey content map.png

Whether you’re B2B, B2C, or anything else, this process is pivotal. The best part: its simplicity. You’re answering two questions: who’s your product or service for, and what does their path to you look like? Answer those questions, and you’re well on your way to an effective content strategy.

Get that content in front of the right people at the right companies.

Once you’ve mapped out and created your content, you’re ready to ship it out into the world. The key concept: engage with your personas where they’re at. But how do you do that? In the world of traditional ABM, you’d use targeted outbound: a combination of cold emails and calls, direct mail, and other strategies.

But how can you get your content in front of your most important accounts without using ineffective interruptive tactics? HubSpot Partner Kuno Creative puts it well (in this case, IBM is a target account):

It’s not as hard as it sounds. First, I create blogs, some visual content like an infographic and maybe a video or podcast about a very specific topic that I know will interest the IBM account team. I publish my content on our website and promote it using search engine marketing and paid media ads with messaging and keyword phrases that highlight the benefits to the account team.

I even mention IBM, possibly even the people on the team, in my content and social media posts. Companies like IBM are always looking for company mentions on social media and are likely to pass them along to their team members. Once I get their attention and attract them to my website, I can use retargeting strategies to remind them of our content and bring them back for more.

Remember: how you promote your content depends entirely on your target persona. Are the members of the account teams at your ideal customer companies on LinkedIn? Quora? Do they go to industry meetups? Do they follow other industry blogs? When they search on Google, what do they search for? Align your content promotion with your persona’s defining patterns.

As you create relevant content, the stakeholders at your target accounts will naturally come to you. In traditional ABM, a fishing analogy is often used: ABM is spear-fishing, whereas inbound is casting a wide net.

Think about it this way: what good is spearfishing if there aren’t any fish within a mile of your boat? If there aren’t any fish to catch, it doesn’t matter whether you use a net or a spear; you’re out of luck. Your content is your bait. It’s what brings the people that matter into your company’s sphere of trust and influence.

Turn interest in your content into truly engaged leads using your conversion method of choice: landing pages, pop-up forms, or live chat.

Identify your Accounts

Let’s say you’ve done all the right things so far. Defined your personas, including company characteristics. Created content and put it in front of the right people at the right companies. And actually generated interest and engagement from companies that fit your target persona. What happens next?

If you didn’t choose a specific set of accounts on which to focus your efforts during your persona development, now’s the time. What’s the best way to home in on the right accounts? Here are a few ideas:

  • Dig into what you know about the company. Explore both demographics, the job titles and other traits of the people in your database, and firmographics, the characteristics of their companies (size, industry, location, etc.). Match up the data you’ve collected on your leads and accounts with the personas you put together at the beginning of the process.
  • Work closely with your sales team. They’ve worked accounts before. Chances are that their gut on what makes a good-fit account is spot-on.
  • Think in terms of revenue. Which of the accounts has the potential to bring the most business at the end of the day?
  • Use account scoring to determine which accounts are actually engaged with your company, and how many contacts at each one have interacted with you. Here’s what that looks like in HubSpot:

    Account score.png

Once you’ve decided on your target accounts, use your automation tools to mark the target accounts in your database:

set target account.png

Pro tip: Use tools that make tracking companies easy. A filterable database of companies and an integrated company profile — where you can see all associated contacts, create custom properties, communicate with your contacts at the company, and view all past and future engagements — are two absolute musts.

Company profile.png

Expand your Reach

If you’re B2B, the natural next question is: how can we make sure to engage more than just one member of the buying team at an account? Here are two ideas to get your mind rolling:

  • Create content that helps one persona influence another. As an example, at HubSpot, we created an offer called “100 Stats, Charts, and Graphs to get Inbound Marketing Buy-in.” It’s designed to help a marketing manager make the case for inbound to his or her management team, and has helped our marketing and sales teams to bring the decision-makers into the conversation.
  • Make your content easily sharable. Include sharing links on your thank-you pages and in your follow-up emails, to help get more of the buying team exposed to your content.

 

sharable content 1.png

Nurture your accounts using company-level insights.

Once you have an engaged audience within a target account, use company-level data to continue the conversation with those accounts, and pull them through your marketing funnel. The best ways we’ve found to do that:

  • Create drip email campaigns. Below is an simple example. The workflow enrolls contacts within target accounts whose title includes “marketing,” sends them a specific nurture email, then alerts their account rep if they’ve opened the email.

    Sample nurturing flow.png

  • Website personalization. Adapt the content on your website to specific audiences based on both lead and company intelligence. For example, show a VP at one of your target accounts a specific call-to-action when they land on your pricing page next time around.
  • Online ads. Ad platforms today are a whole lot more sophisticated than they were even five years ago. Show ads to your target buyers that align with their specific context — in just the right places online. Use an ad platform that syncs with your CRM to show personalized, targeted ads to the members of your target accounts. Many of these platforms even automatically update your ads as new data is added to your CRM. 

Report on Company Engagement, not Just Leads

If you’re B2B, contact-level metrics like leads generated and website conversion rates only tell a part of the story. ABM requires a deep understanding of the company-level dynamics too. Here are three reports that our best customers use to report on their ABM success:

  • Growth of companies over time. How many companies are in your database? Break down your chart by lifecycle stage — to determine how many marketing-qualified accounts you’ve generated — or by original marketing source.

    New Companies by Source.png

  • Reach within target accounts. How many contacts from each of your target accounts do you have in your database? How engaged are they, from a high level?

    Reach within Target Accounts.png

  • Breakdown of contacts within a specific target account. What job titles do your known contacts hold? Are you generating enough interest from decision-makers? Where are your gaps? Use this report to find out.

    Contacts by job title.png

  • Engagement of contacts within a specific target account. How engaged are the contacts within a specific account? Who are the most engaged? 

    Most Engaged Contacts from HubSpot.png

  • Most popular content within target accounts. Of those most-engaged contacts, what type of content are they actually engaging with? Use this report to determine the most relevent topics with which to nurture those accounts. 

    Most popular content within target account.png

The elephant in the room: Isn’t Inbound wasteful?

ABM experts sometimes bring up the idea that inbound and other popular demand gen strategies are wasteful, because they focus energy across a broad target, and end up producing leads that’ll never end up closing.

There are two vital questions to ask yourself as you think about spending your time on the right marketing strategies.

First, where’s the leverage, and which strategies scale? Leverage is the concept of using a small initial investment to gain a disproportionately high return. Put in a small initial effort, and see that effort yield exponentially greater results over time. The concept of leverage is especially important on teams with limited bandwidth. 

At HubSpot, the leverage has come from Inbound. How do we know? Check out this stat: over 90% of our blogs leads come from old posts (i.e. posts published prior to the current month). That means the work we did last month, last year, five years ago, continues to pay exponentially greater dividents.

Put another way, if HubSpot’s blogging team took next month off, we’d still hit 92% of our lead goal. Will all those leads end up closing? No. Does every single one fit into our ideal persona? No. But because we’ve carefully mapped out our personas and created content that’s truly aligned with their motivations and goals, the blog continues to be the primary source of qualified accounts for our sales team.

As you think about ABM, apply this same concept. Where can you find leverage? If you’re working with four different internal teams to create a unique piece of content for each stakeholder within a specific target account, how does that scale? How does the output of your effort relate to the input? What happens when, inevitably, a big chunk of your target accounts don’t close? Where do you go for your next customer?

Second, which strategies give you the most flexibility to pivot over time? Here’s another example, from our own past. When we started HubSpot over a decade ago, we sold marketing software. We wrote content about marketing, and that content generated us a ton of leads. But that content did more than just win us customers in that moment. It positioned us as a trusted source of thought leadership, and gained us an avid following of brand evangelists: people who would support HubSpot, even if our product wasn’t a fit for them at that very moment. 

But what about when HubSpot’s product improved? What about when we launched a new sales productivity tool in 2014, then a CRM in 2015? Because of that content we’d built years earlier, we already had a base of loyal followers ready to jump on the new tools.

If you focus your efforts closely on one specific set of target accounts, what happens when the market shifts, or your priorities change, or new technologies come about, or you launch a new product line? How do you find your early adopters and brand advocates?

Use these two concepts — leverage and flexibility — to inform how you combine ABM and Inbound.

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