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Account-Based Marketing Takes on Inbound: Which Will Win?

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Over the past decade, inbound marketing has become one of the most important forms of B2B demand generation. But as inbound marketing approaches middle age in Internet years, some wrinkles are appearing. Is account-based marketing (ABM) a better alternative, at least for some B2B companies?

The inbound approach has many good things going for it, which is why it has become very popular. It maps well with how people research and buy today: they search on Google for information, share useful or entertaining content via social media, and search for online reviews—all often before talking with sales reps.

Moreover, a vendor is in a psychologically stronger position with a prospective customer if the interactions start with the customer approaching the vendor rather than the vendor "interrupting" the customer's regular activities with presumably unwelcome advertising, spam emails, and unsolicited cold calls.

An Alternative to Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing, however, has run into problems as it has grown in popularity.

Although inbound promises to generate lots of new contacts and leads, it can be lonely and frustrating to wait for the bigger companies (with budgets to do larger deals and provide a high lifetime value) to stumble upon your content and raise their hand.

Over the past decade, there has been a growing alternative approach especially focused on engaging with and eventually closing and growing the largest, most valuable B2B accounts: ABM.

Benefits of ABM

ABM claims to align Marketing and Sales better than inbound because it requires their deep cooperation from day one (that's highly desirable for inbound but often not present). Also, ABM speaks the language of Sales, which is more interested in closing and growing accounts than with individual leads. In some companies, the ABM team pairs with an account-based sales counterpart.

As ABM matures in a company, it may involve other areas beyond Sales and Marketing, too, such as Customer Service, Support, Partners, and even Product Development. That account-centric approach, focused on the largest opportunities, may be better aligned with the company's strategic goals.

The B2B buying process often involves a team (which includes executives, business managers, end users, technical reviewers, the CFO, procurement, etc.) rather than just an individual buyer. Each of those buying team members may have different evaluation and selection criteria that the vendor has to address. With ABM, teams can do so.

ABM also is more efficient. Some practitioners refer to it as fishing with a spear rather than a net from which you toss out the vast majority of the creatures dredged up. Early on, Sales and Marketing decide on the target accounts that they want to add or grow. Sales can be very helpful in then identifying the most important contacts and decision-makers. Helpful content created by Marketing is still valuable in educating the people at that company and creating interest, if not preference, for the vendor. With ABM, you direct the content toward those individuals rather than wait for them to find it.

ABM is explicitly outbound, not inbound.

One of the biggest challenges in Sales is getting the attention of the senior people in target accounts who are often uninterested in unsolicited information. An effective tactic is to send the prospect a one- or two-page benchmark summary of the company's performance, or some other highly personalized content, and suggest a competitive analysis as a foot-in-the-door next step. It's hard for companies to ignore competitive information. Some vendors use expensive and creative dimensional mailers to gain the attention of people in target accounts or one-to-one personalized events—and because the deal sizes are large, the investment is worth it.


The technology is now available to hyper-target and scale ABM. For example:

  • The DiscoveryOrg platform helps ABM teams put together information on the key contacts, organizational structure, and trigger events of targeted accounts.
  • Demandbase and El Toro target ads by IP address. Vendor ads only appear to the companies targeted. That may be more effective for growing existing accounts where you have offerings that can serve many parts of a customer than landing new ones.
  • Terminus provides cookie-based targeting that supports showing a vendor's online ads only to the specific individuals targeted by the ABM program; the vendor can even vary those ads based on the role of the person being targeted.
  • Engagio supplements traditional contact-based marketing automation platforms with ABM and outbound marketing capabilities and analytics.

Drawbacks of ABM

ABM has its drawbacks, too, and often they are the flip issues to inbound marketing.

Perhaps most challenging is that ABM takes time. Most of the accounts that you target will not be looking to buy now, whereas in the inbound world searching on certain keywords for industry solutions may be a very good signal of imminent buying intent.

ABM is not a short-term marketing program. It is an approach that will reap rewards over months and years, not days and weeks.

Also, ABM is only for large accounts and deals. You would never use ABM to close small accounts or a consumer product to millions of individuals. So, it only makes sense for B2B companies with large enough deals to justify the investment in time and effort.

Moreover, you still need to develop a lot of content for ABM. Mostly that content will be developed to address the concerns of the different personas on the buying team, and in some cases the content will be highly specific for just one account.

Cooperation Needed

ABM takes deep cooperation between Sales and Marketing in terms of identifying the accounts and the people on the buying team, understanding the personas, developing useful content, and getting it to people at the right time.

Faced with a skeptical field sales force, some companies start with the small subset of accounts whose sales reps are supportive. Then they expand as other reps see the value of the approach and buy in. Late in the selling process, the rep must have the ability to tell Marketing to take an individual out of the ABM program, so he or she doesn't get inappropriate messages that don't really apply to where that person is now.

ABM Analytics

The analytics for ABM are very different from those for inbound.

Inbound marketing measures new leads and their contribution to revenue as the most important measures.

Because the accounts are already known before the ABM program begins, and the contacts are known or identified early on, ABM has squishier metrics such as how many of the buying team members are you interacting with, how much time are they spending with your company (in any form), and ultimately, whether you are accelerating deals or improving close rates.

Although difficult to measure, ABM "has the highest return-on-investment of any B2B marketing strategy or tactic," according to ITSMA. "Period." Perhaps that ROI is achieved because ABM isn't really just a marketing campaign, it is a program that involves the whole company up to the highest executives. And it helps close and grow the accounts with the highest lifetime value.

* * *

So which is better: inbound or ABM?

A company with only a couple hundred possible customers may only need ABM, but many B2B companies will want to use both. They can use ABM to approach, close and grow the largest, most valuable accounts, and inbound to attract interest from the thousands of other, less valuable accounts that they still want to do business with.

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Louis Gudema is the president of revenue + associates, which helps companies significantly increase revenue through measurable improvements in sales and marketing.

LinkedIn: Louis Gudema 

Twitter: @LouisGudema

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  • by Stephan Hovnanian Thu Jan 21, 2016 via web

    Great comparison Louis, I'm curious if you feel "customer success" is a subset of ABM. Seems like there are similarities between the two.

  • by Matt Benati Thu Jan 21, 2016 via web

    Nice article, Louis. Key to successful ABM programs is the ability to target accounts and perform lead-to-account matching for new contacts. Doing this well allows sales and marketing teams to more quickly penetrate target accounts and accelerate opportunities. I look forward to reading other comments and reading more of your articles. Please feel free to reach out to me to continue to this discussion (

  • by Dave Vranicar Thu Jan 21, 2016 via web

    Thanks for a terrific article, Louis. Your comparison of account-based marketing and inbound marketing is badly needed. I think it helps eliminate a lot of potential confusion.

    I fully agree with the points you make about when each is likely to be the better alternative.

    I also agree that for some companies, it may make sense to do both account-based marketing and inbound marketing.

    Thanks again.

  • by Faramawi Sun Jan 24, 2016 via web

    Great Interpretation, but Why we should select between them anyway? :)
    I believe Inbound Marketing can help positively on the impact of ABM.. specially that we consider Inbound marketing as a concept of thinking & Acting and not just tools & metrics we use. Educative & Entertaining Content can play a good role along the ABM relationship life-cycle.

  • by Adena DeMonte Thu Jan 28, 2016 via web

    If you think of your ABM strategy as Outbound only, you're missing out on a HUGE opportunity. If you're a B2B company, then all of your marketing strategy should be ABM strategy. ABM is not about going after a short list of accounts (though this is part of ABM.) IMO, ABM is applying an account-centric lens on ALL marketing efforts. At Reflektive, where I run marketing, my goal is to market to companies. Within those companies, there are specific people I hope to reach -- buyers, influencers, and sponsors. If our inbound strategies are not successfully reaching accounts, and being measured with an account-centric view and success metrics, then our inbound strategies are failing.

  • by Nicolas Cassidy Mon Jun 6, 2016 via web

    Account-Based Marketing has more incentives than inbound marketing, which means bigger payoffs and usually higher conversion rates. The pros/cons for ABM vs Inbound marketing part was awesome. Couldn't agree more with your analysis. We wrote a similar article on this topic at Torchlite if you want to source any of our info:

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