ABM v2 ABE Puts Focus Back on Building One-to-One Relationships

ABM v2 ABE Puts Focus Back on Building One-to-One Relationships

Terry Arnold
Vice President, Marketing, True Influence

You sell to people, not to companies — This adage may seem a bit out of date in the era of Account-based Marketing (ABM), when so much of B2B sellers’ efforts are devoted to data-driven analysis that taps into the group purchasing dynamics of target accounts. We meticulously model out the buying groups that make buying decisions. And we work with third-party data and lead-gen partners to target each of these key personas across a wide variety of channels.

Unfortunately, many B2B sellers fail to go that final mile and personally connect with the prospects they’ve identified through these ABM methodologies. We target the personas and, sure, we set a few variable fields in our outbound mail to use first names and the like. But we essentially offer the  same content, stressing the same value points, to every contact on our list.

That’s not what ABM is really all about, plus it’s leaving money on the table.

Enter Account-based Engagement (ABE), a new way of thinking about data-driven marketing that’s gaining traction in the B2B sales industry.

What is ABE?

I like to think of ABE as ABM 2.0

With ABM, we’ve laid the groundwork with data and personas, and now we need to commit to building one-to-one relationships with each of these individuals.

ABE focuses on extended, highly personalized engagements that grow over time as each person moves along their specific purchase journey. ABE builds individual relationships that sales can use as the foundation for closing more business and solving more of your customers’ problems. 

To realize this, we need to clear two major hurdles:

1. Build continuity across the whole customer relationship

ABM is typically led by marketing, since that team is building the audiences and segments that are the foundation of the entire methodology. But customer engagement spans the entire revenue cycle, from the first email drop to the last sales call.

In fact, this post co-sponsored by Salesforce suggests that Account-based Marketing may be something of a problematic misnomer, in that the account-based approach must be adopted by the entire revenue chain: marketing, sales, and customer service/success teams.

Our Adam Ady posted recently about the emergence of RevOps as a model for building cohesion across marketing and sales efforts. As he notes, marketing segments audiences, builds targeted ABM lists and creates the bulk of personalized content – much of the work to set up ABM/ABE falls on its plate. That’s not likely to change. However, one of the things I have done since taking the leadership role in our marketing organization is to actively plan and run our weekly sales meetings. For us, we’re trying to create a culture of collaboration where we all have a common understanding of the challenges associated with customer engagement.   Let’s just say that communication is essential to any business process, and marketing and sales have to be on the same page about how you talk to prospects.

Whatever structure you implement to build this culture in your own business, it’s a critical step toward ABE.

2. Commit to highly personalized communications at all stages

An IT specialist and a CFO do not think about data warehousing solutions in the same way. One is concerned mostly about uptime and security protocols; the other stays up at night worrying about the ultimate financial risk of a breach. You can’t just send them both the same whitepaper and expect to engage with them. People only listen to conversations that are relevant to them. Otherwise, they just tune out.

This is the most immediate barrier I see to realizing deep Account-based Engagement. We know who to talk to – we just don’t know how to talk to them. Or at least, we aren’t putting our knowledge of our best customers into meaningful action.

ABM is working – it can get better

Before I go on, let me be clear – ABM is proving its value for those sales and marketing organizations who fully commit to it. Survey after survey shows that most companies that have successfully adopted ABM, as many as 75 percent, are seeing elevated ROI on their campaigns. 

I highlight successfully above, because so many studies, including the one I linked to, are conducted among established practitioners. They’ve learned through trial and error what works, and that includes significant investment in content that’s specific to the persona or segment you are trying to reach. In fact, they understand that high-quality content personalization is a key investment in scaling ABM, which most plan to do.

So, again, ABE is not a replacement for ABM – it’s an evolution.

What we need to accomplish true one-on-one engagement in ABE

Now that we’ve identified the challenge, let’s look at some of the resources and tactics B2B sellers need to make ABE a reality.

Budget & expertise

Let’s get this one out of the way – the big lift for a lot of marketing teams is simply creating the volume of content needed to effectively execute an ABE strategy. In moments of candor, a CMO might tell you they consider it a big win if they can create five high-quality pieces of content for a campaign. The idea of producing dozens of content offerings, tailored for five or more key buying group personas, is just not on the table.

Everybody agrees that content creation is important. In fact, it often tops the list of “priorities” in annual surveys. 

But the real commitment to it varies. More than four-fifths of content marketers reported that their budgets remained flat or shrunk in 2020, according to respondents to the annual survey from the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs. Of course, the pandemic upended everyone’s budget – but in many cases it highlighted the need for high-quality content marketing in an era where trade shows and business dinners were a non-starter. In fact, many surveys showed that marketers planned to increase their content budgets for 2021.

But budget alone can’t solve every problem. Most large organizations, the likely adopters of ABM, still outsource some if not all of their content creation. Along with budget, finding qualified creators who understand the needs of the target audience are listed as the key challenges.

Document a formal content strategy

Only 42 percent of content marketers have a formal, documented strategy, according to the Content Marketing survey (check out page 7 of the report here for more details). That’s up from 33 percent in the previous year.

I don’t know what to add to this stat, other than that’s not going to get the job done. ABM/ABE is a structured methodology. The topic and voice of your content must be as carefully planned out as your audience segments.

Talk to your best customers

Intent and Big Data analysis is core to ABM, but you also need to anticipate the questions that your customers are not asking, at least not about your specific product. Understanding what “success” really means to a company helps you frame your solution as part of the overall answer, particularly to high-level strategists and decision makers.

Your sales and customer service teams should constantly be providing this kind of feedback, but sometimes you need to step outside the pressures of daily business and just ask your customers why they like working with you. You can then use their own language and values to connect with similar prospects. Analysts call this a “”customer value articulation assessment,” and I am personally working through this process with some of our best customers here at True Influence.

We’re hoping this feedback will help us position ourselves as a strategic, scalable partner, not just a stop-gap fix for a slow revenue quarter. This level of context will help build personal engagement throughout the relationship, from high-funnel marketing copy to talking points on sales calls. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a worthwhile investment.

Use intent to hear what they don’t tell you directly

Perhaps one of the least utilized assets for content personalization is intent signal monitoring, a category we helped pioneer here at True Influence.

We often talk about how purchase intent data activity around core topics is a critical factor in sizing your market and prioritizing named accounts for outreach. However, we should probably talk more about how interest in secondary or tertiary topics can help you personalize content.

Looking back on my data warehousing example, let’s say you find that your CFO and other executive Buying Group personas are reading content about a new technical standard on data encryption. Not what you’d expect, but buyers’ behavior is not always predictable.

Such an expression of interest from an ABM audience segment can justify a quick sidebar on page 2 of your whitepaper that runs through recent specs and how they relate to your solution. You may find opportunities for this level of personalization across an entire persona, or even at the account level, if the deal on the table justifies the effort.

Go past your core personas based on prospects personal interest

One of the downsides to having access to so much data is that it tempts marketers to focus too narrowly on what they consider their bread-and-butter personas. But when you realize that account-based sales and marketing is about building engagement, connecting with an actively interested manager who doesn’t quite fit your core demo becomes a worthwhile investment.

We encourage our customers here at True Influence to look beyond their core lists to find interest that they can convert to engagement. Intent intelligence can be your guide here, or you may simply run a few high-funnel tests to see what you learn. Even if the prospect you engage is not in your core buying group model, the relationship you build with them can certainly influence the team that will make the buy call.

Talk to your marketing partners

If you are working with a led-gen or content syndication partner, ask them what types of content are yielding the most success in your key ABM segments. Of course, they aren’t going to share proprietary information about your competitors’ campaigns, but they can provide you pointers on topics, format, and distribution channels.

We offer this feedback to our own content syndication customers here at True Influence, and any credible partner will do the same.

ABE is all about relationships

Intent monitoring, Big Data analytics and marketing automation solutions have empowered marketers to find and target prospects at scale through ABM. But we’ve yet to complete the circuit and build truly personal connections with all the individuals we identify. Account-Based Engagement (ABE) is an evolution of ABM that puts the focus back on the one-to-one relationships that result in long-term customer relationships.

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