You've probably seen the reports, case studies, and testimonials about the advantages of account-based marketing ( ABM). But let's be honest: Although some marketers are successful with ABM, many struggle to achieve its promised value.

Implementing a successful ABM program is a big, complex job requiring new thinking and new processes. It also requires a new role: the account private investigator, AKA account PI.

Defining the Account PI

A few years ago, I worked with a small marketing team that served as a support function to sales. Those marketers focused 90% of their time on current accounts, working with Sales to help expand the business within each account. A byproduct of that situation was that the marketing team had a profile and an intimate knowledge of each account.

The team was actually responsible for mapping and staying current with everything that might affect business opportunities in an account. The marketers mapped the key contacts, executives, and varying people who affected the health of the account. They mapped the structure of the account and created relationship trees for key players. They mapped the multiple other business divisions and stakeholders in each for potential expansion opportunities. The team mapped messaging for each account by following and reviewing the account's websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook accounts.

To understand the business direction and plans, the marketers digested annual reports and CEO publications. They researched the competitive landscape for each account as well as how each one played in their industry.

In other words, the marketing team served as an account PI—investigating and discovering all relevant information and co-planning marketing programs based on those discoveries.

The account PI's essential role is to identify and pursue account-expansion opportunities. That "account mapping" activity is a key function when working in a major account strategy, as illustrated in the prior example. The rub has always been who executes that time-consuming and challenging function. I've seen it as a function of Sales more often than I have seen it as a function of Marketing.

However, as you embark on an ABM journey, adopting that practice and becoming an account PI is vital to your ultimate success as a marketer.

So, how do you go about ensuring ABM success? Begin by creating an account persona profile, a research process, and a dedicated account PI function.

The Account Persona

The account persona profile is like a regular persona profile in that it includes the information you need to effectively engage with key stakeholders.

Taking the time to make a template is the first step. Work with Sales to define elements of the account persona. Depending on your type of business, you might also work with other customer-facing groups in your organization. You might want to include some information about...

  • Basics of the company, such as revenue, number of employees, type of company, growth rates, etc.
  • Working environment, including recent acquisitions or mergers, new leadership, operating models, and culture
  • Corporate goals, such as growth, cost-cutting, consolidation, etc.
  • Pains (your opportunities)
  • The way it positions itself in the market; its messaging and value proposition to clients
  • Key players and how they are structured (who reports to whom and in what divisions)

You can quickly see that gathering and curating this kind of account information is more complex and requires great sleuthing skills. None of that information lives in one place. Creating a research process is the next step.

The Research Process

As a researcher myself (I'm working on my PhD), I can tell you two things: First, research takes time. And second, having an institutionalized research process in place pays big dividends.

Considering the time-consuming nature of account-mapping work, taking the time to outline where to go to find different bits of information—along with defining where and how to store that information—is a key step to do ABM at scale.

You also want to define the curation process for the information you gather. For example, how often do you update information, and how do you share the updates? Having a defined research process will improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of the actual research work and your results.

For each piece of information you need to gather (based on your account persona), you should do the following:

  • Create a list of source types (social, business publications, annual reports, analysts, your internal systems) and sources with usable links.
  • Determine who else needs access to the information and what they will do with it.
  • Determine where and how to store the information piece so it is usable.
  • Determine how often to update the piece of information.
  • Determine how to share updates.
  • Create a training module on your research process.

The Dedicated Account PI Role

First, you must give a specific person or select people on your team direct account PI responsibilities. It cannot be a "do it if you have time" activity: Marketers never have excess time on their hands. It needs to be written into a job description, and it needs to include key deliverables in specified periods of time.

As you look around your team, there is a particular skillset that I've seen be effective. A great set of account PI skills include the following traits:

  • Curiosity: Helps the job be fun
  • Business acumen: Helps deciding how to distill information so it is usable
  • Interpersonal skills, with strong written and oral communication skills: Help in working with Sales (and other customer-facing groups) to gather, share, and defend research
  • Digital skills: Help maximize online sources
  • Organizational skills: Help to organize the research and the information that is gleaned so it is usable
  • Initiative: Helps the PI go beyond a defined research process, because every account situation is different
  • Analytical skills: Help to decide what is important, what it means to your company, and how to present the information

ABM is about more than working with Sales, defining a list of target accounts, and creating campaigns. The essence of ABM is to understand the account persona and to engage based on that understanding. That can happen only if you have an account PI on the job.

Account PI work is time-consuming and challenging, but it creates the foundation for your ABM success. Don't ignore the role. Embrace it, and you'll have a much better chance of reaping the rewards of ABM.

Note: This article is the first in a series of three monthly articles that aim to help marketers establish and run an account-based marketing program.

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The Secret to ABM Success: How to Use Private Investigator Skills to Build a Winning Program

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image of Dr. Debbie Qaqish

Dr. Debbie Qaqish is the principal and chief strategy officer at The Pedowitz Group, a management consulting group that helps sales and marketing executives drive more revenue.

LinkedIn: Dr. Debbie Qaqish