The Marketing Strategist:

Three Ways to Apply Account-Based Marketing Successfully

June 14, 2011

Jeff Sands is Vice President and Account-Based Marketing (ABM) Practice Lead at ITSMA. In 2008 Jeff led the effort to develop the second iteration of the ITSMA ABM Model. Since then, he has been continually developing the methodology to support and drive today’s business and marketing needs. I recently sat with Jeff to understand where ABM is, how it has changed since the early days, and how B2B marketers can embrace it. Q: We’ve all heard of key account marketing, strategic account marketing, or client centric marketing. How do you define Account-Based Marketing? How is it different from what I’m already doing? A: Account-Based Marketing (ABM) is a way to build stronger relationships with your most important customers and prospects by creating highly targeted marketing programs that demonstrate your in-depth understanding of their business and technology issues. It’s a way to increase your customer’s awareness of the total value you can bring to them and, hopefully, it heightens their interest in you. The whole point of ABM is to tailor your marketing and selling activities to the customer’s needs identified through in-depth profiling of the account. While you may already have a relationship with the customer, ABM forces you to step back from that relationship and look at the customer holistically. You look not just at the customer but also the customer’s markets; the clients, issues, and competitors; and the economy and any governmental regulations affecting them. You put yourself in the customer’s shoes and get to know them as well as they know themselves. Q: It sounds a little like “common sense” marketing. Why should I focus specifically on ABM? A: Because ABM changes the level of the conversation. It enables you to engage your customer in a discussion about what you have learned about their business as opposed to focusing on the products and services you are selling. Every account team struggles to get the attention of the C-suite, but as ITSMA’s How Customers Choose research shows, executives are actually reducing the number of solution providers they work with, and they have no time to educate you. So to remain on the short list, you have to relate to the customer in a different way and that way has to be about the customer and its business. Q: When does ABM make the most sense? Is it right for all accounts? A: I see three situations that are ideal for ABM. You can apply ABM to an account when you want to:
  • Change perception. If, based on past experiences with you, the customer sees you primarily as a provider of a specific technology/solution set, you can use ABM to promote your business acumen in addition to your technology knowledge. You can build a trusted advisor relationship based on your understanding of the customer’s business needs and your proactive responses. The goal is to make them aware of the total value you can bring to them.
  • Increase share of wallet through up-selling and cross-selling. When you’re working with a large company, it’s not uncommon to be successful with one group but have no visibility with other business units. Using ABM, you can showcase your success and your understanding of the customer in that one area, and leverage that to penetrate other business units. The key is to demonstrate that you have the customer’s best interests in mind.
  • Improve opportunity pursuit. If there’s a major opportunity coming up that may result in an RFP, ABM can give you a way to respond that takes advantage of in-depth knowledge of the customer’s business issues. This knowledge helps establish your credibility and builds the customer’s confidence in you. If done correctly, it will move you up the short list of potential service providers and may lead to more sole-source opportunities. It changes the way you think about responding.
Q: How do I know which accounts are ready for ABM? A: Any time you get a sense that something is different in the account or something happens that makes you think differently, you want to think about an ABM approach. Based on my experience, the biggest drivers of ABM are:
  • Increased competition in accounts
  • Opportunities to increase share of wallet in account
  • Account relationships at risk
  • Lack of cohesive strategy for deepening account relationships
Q: Let’s say I want to start tomorrow. What’s the first thing I should do? A: First, you need to develop criteria for selecting your pilot accounts and define what you mean by success. Is it to penetrate a new division? It can also be aligning yourself with them because they are a leader in their industry. Do you want to expand share of wallet within the target accounts? Is it a perception change you are looking to create? Are you looking to build deeper and higher-level relationships? After laying the initial groundwork, you leverage your investment in your existing marketing programs (for example, digital, events, thought leadership, collateral) and identify ways to tailor the content and bring it inside the account, targeting specific audiences identified in your analysis. For example, if you’re already doing a solution seminar, you could do a private Web briefing and tailor the content to the specific opportunity. Likewise, you look at your other marketing content and see how you can tailor that so that it resonates with the people inside the company. You also develop targeted value propositions and messages that show you know the customer’s issues and problems, and then weave these into the storyline. Q: OK, then what? A: Our research shows that there are four stages to ABM:
  • Pilot. You need a few successes under your belt before you can consider expanding the program.
  • Build. You begin to build a formal program by securing executive commitment to ABM and expanding the number of accounts covered.
  • Standardize. As the number of ABM accounts expands, you start to need a governance model, a program management office and standard metrics and success criteria across all accounts.
  • Scale. Finally, you scale the program by creating shared services and letting ABM concepts trickle down into other areas of marketing.
There are more things to talk about within each stage, but these are the four major steps that we see companies taking today. To learn more about how companies are using ABM, read how Xerox successfully implemented account based marketing.

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