Marketers have long believed that consumers and business buyers' paths to purchase are inherently different.

B2C vs. B2B

Consumers, the thinking goes, want to forge personal connections with brands through a series of connection points, typically consulting with friends and family for second (or third) opinions. Their path to purchase looks less like a straight line and more like a circular pattern of touchpoints.

B2B buyers, as the term implies, are all business, the thinking goes. Rather than let emotion drive their purchases, they're more swayed by the facts, putting major stock in research and specifications. As opposed to gathering opinions from friends and family, they follow a formal procurement process, which involves cross-departmental communication and collaboration.

Thanks to the digital revolution, however, the distinctions between the two groups are beginning to blur. We're witnessing the consumerization of the business buyer, who's no longer satisfied with one-size-fits-all content offerings. B2B customers desire a new level of personalization.

For marketers, that means a clear shift in strategy.

Enter account-based marketing ( ABM), which narrows your marketing funnel and allows you to specifically target high-value accounts' prospects in a way that appeals to the consumer within them.

Three Steps for Implementing a Successful Account-Based Effort

ABM is not a new strategy, but more and more B2B marketers are embracing it, in part because they're dissatisfied with their current lead generation programs. According to a report on B2B lead generation, only 16% of marketers indicated their current efforts were extremely effective; and although generating high-quality leads is the No. 1 priority for 68% of B2B marketers, nearly 60% also said it was their greatest challenge.

ABM helps bridge that challenge because it delivers highly specific messaging directly to high-value targets, helping brands build stronger client relationships that convert to sales. Case in point: 97% of marketers report that ABM provides better return on investment than other marketing strategies.

All that to say, it makes sense that ABM has gotten a lot of attention over the past year, but it's critical that you don't get tangled up in the hype. Simply deciding to implement an account-based effort doesn't guarantee results. Success relies on a careful approach.

Here's how to drive results with ABM.

1. Close the knowledge gap

A study by SiriusDecisions discovered that just over 90% of marketers see the value in ABM, yet only 20% have successfully established a full ABM program.

That gap exists as the result of a lack of knowledge. For starters, ABM is not an exclusively inbound or outbound marketing strategy; rather, ABM should capitalize on both. The targeting aspect resembles an outbound strategy: It helps you put your messaging in front of the exact right customers. However, it should not do so disruptively, which is where you incorporate inbound-marketing practices.

The overwhelming majority of organizations use content marketing to spark engagement. In a crowded space, your messaging has to provide business buyers with a valuable takeaway. So your ABM strategy should include personalized, high-quality content.

The combination of inbound and outbound efforts means that you end up delivering effective, appealing messaging to your high-priority prospects and clients.

2. Unite the fronts

A prevailing myth states that ABM is solely within the purview of the marketing department. But when you consider that ABM is used to generate more targeted prospects, it becomes clear that your sales department should have a large stake in the effort. Salespeople, after all, will have the essential knowledge about which accounts to target and what issues or solutions are important to them—information that's critical to building a sound ABM strategy.

Plus, syncing up with Sales pays dividends: Organizations with well-aligned sales and marketing teams enjoy customer retention rates that are 36% higher, and their sales win rates are nearly 40% higher.

Before you begin planning your first campaign, assemble a core group of people from both Sales and Marketing. Together, you should establish your plan of attack. Your overarching goal is to make profitable connections with high-value clients, but it's important for you to dig deeper into what that means.

What metrics would indicate the success of your program? A certain engagement rate or a target return on investment? Knowing that will help you determine which channels and methods you use to contact targets, as well as the type of content you put in front of them.

Also, consider which channels have usually driven the most revenue for your company, and evaluate your audience, perhaps in terms of market verticals, buyer personas, and deal sizes.

3. Arm yourself with tech, prioritize targets, and roll out

With your unique situation and approach in mind, it's time to evaluate ABM tech tools. They are a necessary component of your plan because they streamline your strategy and allow you to implement it at scale. The technology connects you with prospects through digital channels, and it can be customized to an individual lead or account. Become familiar with your options, and evaluate each software's features against your goals to pick the right one.

Next, with all the rest of the pieces in place, you're finally ready to identify the specific accounts to engage. Always come back to your goals and buyer personas; otherwise, your ABM efforts will fall short. After all, the whole point is to get the right message in front of the right prospects. You can use predictive technologies and data tools to cross-check your database and determine exactly who fits into your ideal buyer persona.

Then, it's time to select your channels (whether email campaigns, webinars, or search engine ads), create and deploy content, and start sales outreach and follow-up. Your ABM strategy should set the stage for more valuable, engaging sales calls.

As a final step, it's critical to evaluate your efforts and optimize where needed. Return to the key performance indicators you set with your sales team allies, and measure your performance against them.

* * *

It's fair to say that the hype behind ABM is justified, but don't hop on the bandwagon just because you feel you need to. B2B marketers consistently attain better results when they use ABM, but it requires understanding how and where it can add value.

So approach it with the right team and a thoughtful strategy, and you'll obtain the returns you want.

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image of Jonathan Herrick

Jonathan Herrick is a co-founder and the chief sales officer, chief marketing officer, and chief high-fiver of Hatchbuck, an all-in-one sales and marketing platform.

LinkedIn: Jonathan Herrick

Twitter: @JonathanHerrick