Disclaimer: there will be a number of 3rd party companies mentioned throughout this article. While I have no affiliation with either, I consider them the tested tools for account based marketing. There are many, many others like them and the choice to go with one or the other is based on your unique campaign guidelines and your personal approach.
A few years ago, account based marketing, simply referred to as ABM, started to be the fashionable choice especially if you were targeting enterprises and managing thought leadership campaigns. The ability to go super focused after just a few accounts that would bring tenfold ROI or MRR (or ARR, depending on contract details) seemed like a perfect scenario that could make any marketer just drop the SMB pipeline and focus on just getting these clients on board.
I got lucky enough to be a somewhat early adopter of ABM tactics so consider the approach below a beaten path (but one that worked in specific situations like targeting B2B IT companies). As my end goal was to create thought leadership campaigns with specific clients in mind, I had the luxury of a great marketing team with extensive know how and a large enough budget to use anything available that I thought would work.
But before you embark on your own ABM strategic quest, there are some things you have to take into consideration.
- How much am I willing to invest?
You can create ABM campaigns using a more growth hacking approach, but it will require a lot more manual work (manual research vs employing a company) thus a lot of time usually spent creating or optimizing other channels (see point 2). Your budget will also determine the channels you want to use as some have high CPM/CPC.
2. How much potential immediate loss of revenue am I willing to risk?
If you are working for a SMB, make sure to calculate potential lost business due to change of focus and how many accounts you’d have to sign up to be worth it.
Depending on the product/pricing, ABM has a conversion rate of about 3–4% and the sales cycle increases in direct proportion with the size of the company you are after. For example, a SMB customer might close in a few weeks to a short few months after first exposure to a sales message, while Enterprise level companies can have a sales cycle as long as 18 months.
If your ABM efforts and budget are directed towards larger companies you might experience a loss in SMB leads which ultimately might negatively impact profitability (especially when you’re doing QBRs, for example).
Make sure to properly understand how will the potential loss of revenue impact business and whether that is something that the company can absorb?
You can create an equation to determine profitability by dividing the total revenue brought in by 3% of the companies on your list by the amount of time invested in these campaigns. Then subtract the loss of potential revenue displaced from SMB campaigns in that specific timeframe (you can use a budget-revenue correlation). If the result is still positive, it might be worth it in the end. If it’s negative, you might reassess if this is for you, at this specific time.
Although working agile is vital for any company and one of the best things about the digital transformation is that you can start and stop campaigns as soon as it makes sense, one of the pillars of the success of ABM campaigns is the ability to stay focused once you understand the risks. Make sure to get a team bet in place so that more departments can commit so that the sales team that wants to see their commission faster doesn’t want to call it quits after a month or two.
Step 1. Create the targeted accounts list.
The best way to approach this is through a perfect collaboration between sales and marketing. If you’re usually creating funnels and lead scoring models that push the general user, company-agnostic, to the salesperson only after a rigorous process (usually, multiple touches), in my experience ABM campaigns start with a sales-marketing enabling conversation.
What basically happens is that the sales team comes up with a list of companies based on a set criteria (eg. company development plan, companies similar with existing clients that bring in a specific revenue, etc) which (in a perfect competitive collaboration) is then discussed with the marketing team that is tasked to create a plan to reach these targets.
Obviously, the process can be done the other way around — the marketing team requests the existing client list or creates a target companies list based on market signals (aka propensity to buy), discusses it with the sales team and both decide to go for it. There really is no right or wrong approach, just an open collaboration.
If you’re just starting and your product calls for an ABM approach, you can come up with the target list by carefully designing the perfect customer and what companies they are working at plus the job titles they would have (relevant later).
Another way is to use list vendors like ZoomInfo (which positions itself as ‘the best in class contact database). Because after acquiring email lists using the provided filters you’d be basically sending cold emails, there are some things to take into consideration:
- Because of GDPR, you might not be able to send automated emails to users in the EU. In the US is generally fine, as long as you have an unsubscribe link and you comply with California Consumer Privacy Act.
- Although Zoominfo (and the likes) provides data about companies around the world, most of their user base consists of US-based targets so if you plan on creating ABM campaigns in Singapore, for example, you might want to go to a local vendor rather than an international one.
- You can get ideas about targeted companies by using filters (company size, location, industry, etc) or use the database to find out who is using your competitors’ products (there’s a ‘technology’ field; the more well known your competitor is, the better chance you have to find companies you might be interested in).
Because it’s very targeted and the revenue potential is high, a well-researched list should have between 10 and 100 companies — the less companies you have, the more granular your approach will be.
Step 2. Work with a marketing research company to determine propensity to buy — where in the sales cycle your targeted accounts are to further determine which will still stay on the list and are worth the investment.
Say you’re selling an email marketing automation tool. A market research company should bring you info about who the companies on your list are under contract with, from your competitors, and when are those contracts expiring. For example, if you think company X would sign with you if it would not still be under contract with competitor 0 for another year, you might want to develop a campaign and pricing strategy that focuses not only on the pain point of moving their user base infrastructure to your product but also diminishes the costs of breaking the contract.
Company Y might be in a completely different scenario, which is why ABM campaigns require a lot of focus: you just can’t have a one size fits all approach.
If you feel a bit lost but have the budget for it, you can use a company similar to Mintigo, now known as Anaplan, which is a self serving platform to check market sentiment for specific targeted companies and if it’s worth investing more to go after them. You can think of these types of platforms as shields against sunk costs fallacies.
3. Create campaigns to go after these accounts.
Like it’s that simple, right?
I am a huge fan of a multi-channel, holistic, approach. So for example, if you’re going to use an acquired email list, after creating a logic to send communications to, you can also import the list to serve display ads, thus making sure your audience sees your message.
Email logic is based on ‘if → then’ approach and usually has three steps:
- 1st email blast to the full list;
2. 2nd email blast →
- if user opened the email but did not click, then they should get a specific email usually in the same funnel stage
- If user opened, clicked but did not convert, then they should get an email that moves them further down the funnel
3. 3rd email blast follows the 2nd blast logic and excludes those who unsubscribed or have been previously touched twice but did not take any action — did not even open the email.
There are several channels and approaches to targeting emails with banner ads. The ‘traditional’ channels are GDN, Facebook and LinkedIn, which have a minimum list size that might impact campaign status (and might not work for such specific campaigns, as for example LinkedIn has a minimum of 300 contacts) but you can always add your email list to pre-existing campaigns with similar audiences.
Another thing you can do is upload your company list to services like Terminus keeping in mind that it’s a great tool for awareness stage but has a pretty high CPC and CPM (for a B2B campaign I used to work for I paid over $10 CPM on a good day). One of the tricks I love about Terminus is that you upload the company list and then choose who to target from that company (has a few core functions like IT, HR, etc) and have C-level as backup.
In comparison, Demandbase, which has the awesome function of serving personalized banners across the web (for example, if you’re targeting company X, they will see their name on the banners) does not have the function capability (or didn’t when I used to work with them) so I couldn’t be very sure just who from the company would see my ads (if I was targeting CIOs but HR would mostly be exposed to my messaging, my campaign would not be efficient).
Obviously, these are only a few of the tools you can use for efficient and multi-channel ABM campaigns, as there is one key for success — do your research and create a focused approach. And like always in the realm of digital marketing — data is king.