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

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image of Louis Gudema

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