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If Account-based Marketing (ABM) is to work, then it must be strategic. But, as Peter Drucker (allegedly) explains, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So, having a solid strategy isn’t enough: you have to have the buy-in of the business – not just the sales team – if your ABM is going to succeed.
In his introduction to B2B Marketing’s 2018 Account-Based Marketing census, our CSD Marcus Hiles concluded that many organisations are spinning their wheels when it comes to ABM. The census found that 59% of ABM adopters have yet to deploy it – indicating a significant gap between desire and implementation. It also highlighted several areas where marketers are struggling to find the necessary resources for ABM (and I’m not talking about money for once – 99% said ABM teams lack all the requisite skills and 84% see data and insight as a concern). But I’m willing to bet that the biggest hurdle marketers face when it comes to getting their ABM initiatives up and running smoothly is the alignment (or lack thereof) of the business around its objectives.
ABM is a transformational initiative with far-reaching and positive implications for how you go-to and engage your markets, the results you deliver and how marketers are perceived inside their own organisation.
If it’s done properly (and if it’s not done properly, then what’s the point!) then ABM also entails fundamental change: in orientation – from a company’s own products and services towards the customer; in approach – from filling a pipeline to teeing up sales conversations; in focus – from thousands of prospects to a few strategic accounts; and in expectation – from near-term interactions to long-term engagement. And that degree of change is hard – and often uncomfortable for those that encounter it.
As Debbie Qaqish points out, marketers today are change agents that must manage the transformation mandated by an activity like ABM. Drucker’s quote tells us that even the best strategy will be ignored if the culture isn’t ready to adopt it: so, that means winning hearts as well as minds – not just coming up with an approach but actively engaging with the influencers in the organisation to ensure that the benefits for each are properly understood. And, in doing so, putting the case for ABM in their language.
Skin in the game
So, which stakeholders should be involved? The majority of ABM articles out there focus on sales and marketing alignment (I’ve also offered my views on this in a previous blog). However, whilst this is the fundamental axis on which good ABM practice should revolve, it’s wise to align as much of the business as possible around the new approach: in particular, it’s important to reach out to finance, operations and – in the case of many of our clients – their technology specialists.
Finance holds the budget for ABM activity but is unlikely to have more than a limited understanding of its benefits. But it’s easy to frame ABM in a manner that will make sense to them. They will listen eagerly when you tell that that ABM is proven to deliver a better ROI than other forms of marketing and that companies taking this approach gain competitive advantage over those that do not. They will also be pleased to know that aligning sales and marketing to a common set of objectives centred around the customer should lead to better conversion and greater sales volumes. And they will be delighted to hear that ABM activities are more easily and accurately measured – from engagement to deal – than traditional volumetric activities, enabling marketing to provide financial impact reports directly to the business. Put all that together and you have a strong case for their buy-in and support.
Operations not only runs day-to-day activities but also has to deliver against the contracts, expectations and promises made by sales and marketing. It is therefore helpful for marketers to understand how they feel about the obligations under which they are being placed and to share with them customer insights gained from ABM activities that can inform operational optimisation and innovation.
The Technology community has a vital role to play, given that ABM looks beyond quarterly sales targets and towards building sustainable long-term relationships with customers and prospects. The R&D team are creating solutions that won’t be in market for perhaps 12 or 18 months so they can shed light on the customer challenges that these can address and give a ’heads up’ on product roadmaps and the differential capabilities they might provide in the future. But there is a quid pro quo in play here: ABM activity will generate intelligence on key market and customer trends, competitor activity and customer feedback that will help to inform product development.
Finance and Operations will have at least an informal say in how budgets and KPIs are set and how performance is evaluated for ABM initiatives; and so there needs to be a clear consensus on ‘how to measure’ the activity in alignment with and in support of strategic business growth objectives. And for example, if a new or extended MarTech stack in being implemented to help deploy ABM, then the rationale for – and impact of – this needs to be shared with and understood by all parties.
In reaching out to the business units, it’s important to set clear expectations that navigate a course between the hype that surrounds ABM and the very real potential it has for delivering sustainable, longer-term results to the business. So, you must set realistic outcomes – what your business can expect to see and when – balanced with a realistic assessment of the contributions the business units have to make if these outcomes are to be realised.
Not the path of least resistance
The bottom line is that ABM may be the road to maximum reward – but it is not the path of least resistance. It requires marketers to engage as peers with other business units and stakeholders – which drags many of us out of our comfort zones. However, I don’t think it’s alarmist to suggest that the more business units that remain out of the ABM loop, the higher the probability that the initiative will spin its wheels: a failure to engage doesn’t eliminate resistance to ABM, it just stores it up for further down the line – so, better to engage early and give yourself time to build understanding and support.
One final caveat: while I do think that a lack of broader business alignment is impacting the overall success of ABM initiatives, all the internal engagement in the world will not compensate for a lack of customer insight.
If you have contextual, actionable insight AND the understanding and support of the business in what you are doing, then you have set your ABM up for success.