Account-Based Hype: How ABM Makes Outbound Sales Cool Again for B2B
The term “outbound” became a dirty word for many revenue teams.
The common wisdom holds that traditional outbound sales and interruption marketing are relics of a pre-internet era, and should be replaced by permission based, inbound approaches.
The thought process goes as follows:
The modern consumer doesn’t respond to cold calls or spammy emails. They’re empowered with more information and more choice than ever before. Businesses should produce quality content to win over prospects on their terms, long before they have any purchase intent.
But it’s increasingly clear to me—and to many B2B professionals—that inbound marketing alone isn’t enough. The methodology is too reliant on automation and casts too wide of a net for the niche targeting needs of most B2B businesses.
Inbound sales fundamentalists end up sifting through mounds of low-interest, low-fit leads, while waiting patiently for the best accounts to stumble into a funnel. Account-based marketing offers an alternate narrative, making outbound strategies seem cool again.
How ABM Flipped the Funnel
The term “account-based marketing” is thought to have been first used by ITSMA around 2004. The concept didn’t receive widespread attention, though, until at least 2015.
ABM didn’t evolve organically out of revenue masterminds, and it wasn’t popularized by impartial thought-leaders. ABM was marketed.
Most of the initial account-based marketing hype originated from companies selling programmatic advertising technology. Evangelists like Sangram Vajre of Terminus successfully leveraged growing industry disillusionment with the limits of inbound marketing. He and other professionals positioned ABM as the better alternative for B2B.
Leads are great — the spiel goes — but not if they don’t turn into revenue. Businesses should stop chasing every lead and focus all their efforts on engaging with the best-fit accounts.
Part of ABM’s popularity is undoubtedly due to its seemingly-diametric opposition to inbound marketing. I mean, ABM’s inverted funnel literally “flipped” the inbound script.
And in fact, ABM is a better fit for many B2B businesses.
Done correctly, ABM can give revenue teams increased focus and control. The strategy is now supported by a variety of technology products. According to a recent survey, nearly 70% of B2B companies have implemented to it some degree.
Beneath a thin layer of new jargon, however, account-based marketing is little more than a revitalization of the best version of outbound sales.
A quick aside…
I feel like I should clarify some terminology.
There are multiple “account-based” terms (account-based marketing, account-based sales, account-based advertising, etc.). While each can be understood to have a specific meaning, they’re largely unnecessary distinctions.
Marketing and Sales execute an account-based strategy in tandem. This requires significant alignment between the two departments, so separate terminology has far less utility than with other practices.
For clarity, in this post I will use “account-based marketing” to describe the entire technique. ABM will essentially be the “one ring to rule them all.”
I know how you sales guys and girls feel about “the M-word.” Don’t worry, it’s only semantics.
How ABM Rebranded Outbound Sales
To better understand account-based marketing, it’s helpful to break it down to its separate parts. When you do, you see no individual component is particularly groundbreaking. Rather than redefining sales and marketing, ABM seeks to reinforce the best outbound practices, while tossing out the junk.
This rebranding is a good thing. It served to rescue the outbound-baby from being ditched with the outbound-bathwater. While not offering anything particularly new, the culmination of the following elements nevertheless sets ABM apart. In this case, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Accounts, Not Leads
One of the fundamental tenants of an account-based approach is that Sales and Marketing should focus on entire accounts rather than individual leads. By concentrating on decision makers and influencers, a company can reduce the length of sales cycles and increase customer retention. Marketing has always understood the importance of branding and non-converting engagement. Now, ABM seeks to introduce a similar concept to sales.
The value of personalized outreach is not a new concept. But, with the arsenal of sales and marketing automation tools available, it’s easy for revenue teams to downplay its importance. With ABM, however, personalized outreach isn’t optional. Associates manage fewer accounts, so each outreach effort needs to be well-researched and personalized.
All Channels Open
“Outreach through various channels” has been a mantra since “various channels” were invented. A thought leader in the early part of the 20th Century would have advised companies to use both the phone and the radio to reach prospects. However, knowing and doing are two different things. With ABM, a multi-channel approach is mandatory. Along with email, phone and social, ABM spurred a renewed interest in direct mail and personalized gifts.
Sales & Marketing Alignment
ABM will not work without a high degree of Sales and Marketing alignment. The natural animosity between the departments has existed since the beginning of… well…Sales and Marketing. But revenue teams that adopt an ABM approach will not have the luxury of segmentation.
If ABM contributes something new, it’s the ability to target key people from specific accounts on programmatic ad networks. This enables Marketing to directly support Sales by targeting the same messages to the same accounts. According to ABM ad solutions like Demandbase or Terminus (not the town of cannibals in The Walking Dead), you can get extremely granular with ad targeting. This is revolutionary and has a great number of creative uses…if it’s true.
The Programmatic Problem
Account-based marketing’s popularity is due, in no small part, to the efforts of companies selling programmatic advertising technology. These products are inextricable from any understanding of the account-based model. They are often thought to be a necessary component; the linchpin on which ABM depends.
The degree of targeting these companies promise is fantastic. To be able to show display ads to a specific department, or even an individual person, at a company is incredibly powerful. But there are two main problems that should be acknowledged.
I’m about to slag on ABM a little. I am going to back up my claim, but I feel like I should confess: We don’t currently use an ABM advertising solution. My opinions are based on hours of obsessive research, and product demos from the three largest players.
I have no firsthand knowledge and have not conducted any tests. My suspicions are purely my opinion. Readers are advised to salt them to taste.
First, these companies likely overstate their ability to target. None can clearly explain how such granular information as employer and job title could be widely available for programmatic ad targeting. Most seem to be using behavioral data and reverse IP mapping to approximate this ability.
Second, these solutions are expensive. The base product costs anywhere from $30-60K annually even before any ad buys. The recommended ad budget of at least $5K per month means that businesses would need to allocate at least $90K annually to this single channel.
The high price-tag works to obscure the issues around targeting. Think of it this way: if a dietary supplement requires its users to restrict calories and exercise, how can anyone know if the supplement or the lifestyle changes had the greater impact?
Companies that spend a minimum of $90K on a single channel, and holistically implement an ABM strategy, will certainly see results. But how much of an impact did the programmatic advertising have? And does it really matter?
At the end of the day, the businesses with the budget will benefit from these solutions. Regardless of their limitations, the new targeting methods offered by companies like Terminus are still worlds better than historical targeting techniques.
A Smarter ABM Implementation Strategy
Regardless of the methodology, account-based marketing is well-tested. According to a survey conducted by ITSMA, nearly all businesses using an ABM strategy saw a higher return on investment compared to other marketing methods. 77% of companies using ABM report an ROI at least 10% greater than with other types of marketing, and nearly one in five said ABM was over 200% more effective.
Despite the (probably) overstated claims of some programmatic advertising solutions, there is little doubt of ABM’s effectiveness. So, ditch your inbound strategy, burn everything down, open your wallet and start anew? Of course not.
The good news is that, despite the pitch, ABM is not actually incongruent with inbound marketing. You also don’t need to commit six figures annually toward your ad budget to be successful. Here are some simple ways to implement account-based marketing philosophy without overinvesting:
- Use qualified top-of-funnel inbound leads to build your target accounts
One flaw with inbound marketing is — it often results in leads from non-decision makers. Interns download eBooks, and low-level analysts attend webinars. Instead of being frustrated, view this engagement as an opportunity, and start targeting more people at that account.
- LinkedIn is your friend
LinkedIn is the only platform where a business can reliably target ads to specific job titles at specific companies. Doing so is expensive, but it doesn’t require any upfront investment. You don’t achieve the ubiquitous coverage possible through a programmatic network, but you can still find an audience.
- Retrofit your current outbound strategy
ABM utilizes and augments the best parts of outbound sales, so revenue teams already have the necessary elements of ABM in place. It’s just a matter of improving targeting, broadening focus, and increasing personalization.
Account-Based Marketing is Here to Stay
ABM presents revenue teams the opportunity to maximize their efforts and transform Marketing and Sales from disparate departments into a cohesive, collaborative force. B2B marketers don’t need to ditch their inbound strategy, and sales reps don’t need to take on an impossible workload.
It will take careful planning and coordination to implement, but account-based processes represent the next step for B2B sales and marketing.
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