account based marketing

The Beginner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing (ABM)

Mateusz Makosiewicz
Marketing researcher and educator at Ahrefs. Mateusz has over 10 years of experience in marketing gained in agencies, SaaS and hardware businesses. When not writing, he's composing music or enjoying long walks.
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    Marketing departments are often criticized for bringing in low-quality leads that sales can’t convert. This kind of situation is caused by the fact that marketing and sales KPIs are often separate by design. 

    This leads to a common paradox—marketing can hit its goals by bringing in a high volume of leads, but sales can’t hit its goals because those same leads are poorly qualified.

    Account-based marketing (ABM) aims to fix that by tightly aligning all marketing and sales operations and working towards shared goals.

    In this guide, you’ll learn:

    Account-based marketing (ABM) is a type of B2B marketing that focuses on aligning marketing and sales to reach specific target accounts. ABM considers target accounts as markets-of-one and emphasizes the quality of accounts over the number of leads.

    The crucial thing to understand about ABM is that it isn’t a specific marketing tactic or tool. It’s how far you go with identifying and targeting your potential customers. Everything else is secondary.

    Let me explain:

    Most “traditional” marketing strategies—content marketing, inbound marketing, etc.—start from generalizations about the ideal customer. They don’t need to “know” the prospect by name (in theory) because the actual customer will reveal itself after following a series of touchpoints and eventually filling a form or signing up for a trial.

    Initially, ABM teams will do the same. They will start from their buyer personas or ideal customer profiles. However, ABM goes a step further and identifies the customer instead of waiting to let them identify themselves. 

    If I had to show one image to sum up how ABM works, I’d show this screenshot from a product demo of an ABM ad solution:

    Look closely: What you’re seeing here is a dream come true for many B2B marketers. The dashboard shows the number of interactions made by targeted companies (read: previously selected companies) with a company’s ads.

    Based on those interactions, marketers and sales reps know who is showing purchase intent and how to personalize a conversation with them to close the deal.

    Let’s look at the main types of ABM and some examples to learn more about how ABM works.

    Types and examples of account-based marketing

    Depending on the granularity of account targeting (be it potential or existing clients), ABM teams will typically do one of the following types of account-based marketing.

    One-to-one ABM

    Targets 5–10 companies. Delivers personalized content and messaging directly to target accounts (markets of one) and relies heavily on relationships with those accounts. Used when going after the most lucrative accounts.

    Example:

    Intridea, a software and UX agency, wanted to land a gig with the legendary advertising agency: Ogilvy. So they decided to get their attention with something they couldn’t miss—a giant billboard with Ogilvy’s name on it, right next to their office.

    As you can see, the ad encouraged (or rather provoked) the company to visit oglethis.co where the landing page explained the benefits of working together.

    Needless to say, they managed to book a meeting with the famous agency.

    One-to-few ABM

    Targets clusters of accounts that share similar characteristics (usually 3–5 clusters, typically each with 50–100 accounts). Lighter personalization; instead of crafting different messages for each company, this approach scales up messaging to larger groups of accounts.

    Example:

    When Datanyze, a technographics provider, wanted to promote a new Marketo integration, they created an awareness email campaign and sent it out to accounts using either Marketo or HubSpot.

    The campaign was based on the insight that Datanyze’s most valuable customers were the ones that used a CRM or a marketing automation platform.

    As a result, the campaign had 37% higher open rates than their non-ABM emails, had a positive ROI, and allowed for closing new deals:

    Source: Rollworks

    One-to-many ABM

    Targets lists of 100–1,000 companies (but there’s no fixed limit). While the types above were more about personalization and building relationships, this type of ABM is about generating leads.

    Example:

    Microsoft targeted a list of 2,000 accounts using LinkedIn Ads with the goal of increasing awareness of its innovative offer and gathering contacts (especially senior decision-makers). The company also wanted to increase its share of voice (SOV) in the field of AI.

    During the campaign, Microsoft ran sponsored content promoting ebooks with integrated LinkedIn Lead Gen Forms:

    Source: LinkedIn

    The result: Microsoft generated 863 new leads from the account list (43% director level or above) and increased its SOV from 30% to 40%, all with costs and CTR below the UK tech benchmark.

    Important: ABM types are not mutually exclusive

    ABM teams don’t have to use just one of the above three ABM types. They can be combined or used interchangeably.

    For example, a company might want to start with just a few promising accounts (one-to-one) and then scale their success (one-to-few). Alternatively, some may want to start from a more macro perspective and then move to laser-focused targeting.

    You may have already heard a thing or two about some incredible benefits of account-based marketing. Indeed, with stats like these, account-based marketing can be tempting:

    • 97% of marketers say ABM has a “somewhat higher ROI or much higher” than other marketing activities (source).
    • Account-based marketing delivers a 40% decrease in customer acquisition costs (source).

    However, this survey shows that not everyone is sold on the idea. 

    So is there value in ABM for you, or should you give it a pass?

    In brief, if ABM were a product, I would say the ideal customer profile for it would be something like this:

    • Companies that target B2B clients. If your business targets both B2B and B2C (like Microsoft), save ABM for the former. You don’t need to become an ABM-only company if it doesn’t make sense.
    • Companies with a solid brand and a reputation that can back up the company’s value proposition. New companies can have a harder time applying ABM.
    • Need to go after a carefully selected number of clients. Ideally ones they can identify by name (e.g., only Fortune 500 companies).
    • Clients they want to go after have a high contract value. Naturally, the value of the contract is relative for every business.
    • Have a sales team. You can’t do ABM without one.
    • Prepared to form close relationships with their accounts over a longer period.
    • Have the budget for ABM tools. An ABM platform can cost you $800 per month for starters. You’ll also need a data provider (roughly $55-$550/mo) and probably an ABM ad platform, too (last time I checked, this costs around $1,000 just for the tool—excluding ad spend).
    • Are unsatisfied with their current sales and marketing or at least want to experiment with a new approach.

    Data from another study suggests that your competition may already be using account-based marketing if you’re in the software or technology industry.

    On the flip side, if you’re in one of the industries with lower ABM adoption, provided this strategy fits your business, ABM could give you an edge over your competitors.

    Additionally, there’s one other thing that can make or break your AMB efforts – geography. One of the most powerful ABM tactics is ABM advertising, but it’s not equally as effective in every part of the world.

    This is because cookie data outside the US is limited, and therefore cookie-based ad targeting is limited. For example, because of GDPR in the EU, you won’t be able to show ads to contacts once they’re off the office WiFi (which is most of the time for in-house employees and 100% of the time with remote employees).

    Also, keep in mind that some web browsers like Firefox and Safari disable tracking third-party cookies by default.

    If you already suspect that account-based marketing isn’t the right fit for your business, check out this guide to inbound marketing—a marketing strategy often seen as ABM’s opposite.

    Otherwise, let’s look at how ABM is implemented.

    ABM 101: before doing anything, ABM teams need to align marketing and sales departments. Alignment here means three things:

    1. There are no serious conflicts that could undermine productivity or the flow of information.
    2. Sales and marketing can assign different roles within the same process of targeting accounts. Example roles within the process are ABM lead, ABM campaign manager, account development (BDR/SDR).
    3. Sales and marketing share metrics and goals. Examples: engaged account rate, account win rate, sales velocity.

    Often, the customer success department is sometimes included in the process of developing and practicing ABM too.

    Once that’s off the list, ABM practitioners will employ a framework to get their tactics off the ground.

    Here’s an example of an ABM framework – the TEAM framework. TEAM stands for:

    • Target – selecting target accounts. Instead of stopping at buyer personas or ideal customer profiles, ABM marketers identify and target real companies (called “accounts”).
    • Engage – create and orchestrate engagements with your target accounts. Engagements are basically tactics for reaching an account. For example, an ad, email campaign, or some kind of personalized content.
    • Activate – this is where sales representatives step in to connect (call, email, meet) with an account that has engaged with the company in the previous phase of the process.
    • Measure – KPI monitoring and reporting.

    If you’re seeing some resemblance to the typical marketing funnel or AARRR metrics, you’re right. Account-based marketing is not a completely revolutionary approach to attracting customers. It’s just more focused and perhaps more streamlined than a “traditional” funnel or sales cycle.

    I wouldn’t even say that ABM is something completely new, for that matter. Those of you who have ever seen a good ol’ outbound sales process (“find a potential client and call them”) would probably say that ABM has been around for ages.

    But one thing is unique to ABM for sure—the ABM technology stack.

    Remember the screenshot of the ABM tool from earlier? Frameworks and interdepartmental negotiations aside, the tech is what makes this kind of insight possible.

    And so the most mature models of ABM will use a mix of these tools:

    • ABM platforms. Organize all contact data, campaigns, and conversations in one place; a home for any successful account-based marketing program. Examples: Hubspot, Marketo, Pardot.
    • ABM advertising platforms. Demand-side platforms that allow marketers to run ads across multiple publishers. They pull in data from various sources, including first-party and third-party data (if applicable), to show ads to specific people within the accounts. Examples: Terminus, Rollworks.
    • ABM data providers. Help with researching account data (prospecting, data enrichment, intent data). Examples: Zoominfo, LinkedIn Sales Navigator, Bombora.

    As I mentioned earlier, account-based marketing is often seen as an oppositional strategy to inbound marketing. This is because the latter is about getting discovered by an unknown client that will reveal itself somewhere along the marketing funnel, and the former is a rather outbound practice of going after carefully selected accounts.

    This means that ABM typically shouldn’t care about search engine visibility and SEO content.

    But that’s what things look like only on the surface. In reality, you can use inbound marketing and ABM together to maximize the outcome of marketing tactics.

    Here’s some data to back up this claim.

    In 2014, Google and Millward Brown Digital conducted a study on the research and purchase habits among B2B decision-makers. That study revealed some interesting insights for B2B marketers:

    1. B2B researchers who are not in the C‑Suite influence purchase decisions.
    2. 71% of B2B researchers start their research with generic search (instead of branded search).
    3. Nearly half of all B2B researchers are millennials (millennials are typically defined as people born between 1981 to 1996)—a 70% increase compared to 2012.

    The key takeaway for marketers is that most people who influence B2B buying decisions actually use a search engine like Google to research possible solutions to their company’s challenges and needs.

    And this is something that can be easily confirmed by looking at keyword search volumes.

    For instance, an ERP system is something only businesses purchase, so it’s safe to say that only B2B researchers would type keywords like “erp system” or “erp software” into Google. And as you can see below, these keywords get a substantial number of searches every month in the US:

    Estimated monthly search volumes for “erp system” and “erp software” via Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.

    Going further, Oracle, an ERP provider, ranks for those keywords (among many) with a simple piece of content—and they get thousands of organic visits every month as a result:

    Estimated monthly organic traffic to Oracle’s page, via Ahrefs’ Site Explorer

    You may also have noticed in the screenshot above that the estimated “value” of that traffic is $645.4K per month. This is because many of the keywords the page ranks for have high average CPC values, meaning that companies are willing to pay Google lots of money for clicks from them.

    For example, their page ranks in the top three for these keywords—all of which have average CPC values of $50+:

    You may think that the study from Google is too outdated to be applicable today. But it’s a generational change that drives the trend towards using search engines in B2B research.

    Millennials are now even more influential, and they surely haven’t stopped using technology in their research—and nor will the generations that come after them.

    Think about it, people looking for information on the internet expect to find it. And the actions they take from that point will depend on the information they find.

    Easily accessible information is important in B2B. According to Gartner’s study on the B2B buying journey, “buyers value suppliers that make it easier for them to navigate the purchase process.”

    Moreover, educational content increases your chances of landing a bigger deal:

    Source: Gartner

    This means that if your content is visible in search engine result pages and your content is good, you get in front of people with the power to influence the decision to buy your product or service.

    In other words, if there’s search demand, there’s business intent you can potentially address. And whether you miss out on that search demand or not should be a careful decision.

    Let’s look at an example, straight from the ABM world.

    Terminus, an ABM platform provider, used a combination of inbound marketing and typical ABM.

    First, they created the ABM Cookbook, an open-for-all guide explaining ABM strategies with cooking metaphors. Then, after seeing the initial success of this content piece, they sent out a printed version together with some branded cooking utensils to their top-of-the-funnel prospects.

    So they went from:

    … to:

    Source: Sendoso

    Interestingly enough, even an ABM provider like Terminus leverages inbound marketing. They run a blog with educational content, put a lot of effort into their ebooks, run a YouTube channel, publish reports, and even have a free ABM ROI calculator.

    Fun fact, Terminus’ competitor Rollworks does the same.

    But I’m not saying any of those companies claim that these strategies can’t “marry” each other. Naturally, they “drink their own champagne” and use their own ABM platforms too. What they’re doing is smart because if done right, inbound marketing and ABM are a match made in marketing heaven.

    After all, ABM and inbound marketing share the same principle of solving the buyer’s problem rather than just promoting a solution.

    Of course, we’re only scratching the surface of ABM in this guide. We don’t have time to cover everything in detail. But before you go, let me share four pieces of advice to help you blend inbound and ABM:

    1. Use SEO content from the top to the middle of the funnel. Use ABM at the bottom of the funnel to follow up with the most promising leads. Consider gated content for capturing contact information.
    2. Use content and PR for establishing thought leadership and visibility. Making your brand recognizable can only help your outreach team.
    3. Create SEO content for leveraging search-demand-related opportunities in your niche. Prioritize content creation based on keyword research. Next, personalize and repurpose that content in your ABM plays. Consider using a content experience platform.
    4. Use keyword research as your intent data. Find what people are looking for and adapt your content to it.

    Final thoughts

    I think the greatest takeaway from account-based marketing is the alignment of marketing and sales. Whether you choose to experiment with this marketing strategy or not, ABM teaches us that when marketing and sales truly work together, great things can happen.

    The credit that we can certainly give ABM here is that it’s trying to find new ways of solving some common marketing (and sales) problems. Fortunately, marketing is constantly evolving, and from time to time, it will offer all of us new solutions.

    But is ABM the answer? You be the judge. There are different types of ABM to choose from, plus you can still have the best of both worlds if you take parts of ABM and incorporate them in your tried and tested marketing strategy.

    Got questions? Ping me on Twitter.

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