If you work in B2B marketing, chances are that you’ve got ABM (Account Based Marketing) on your radar but have yet to whip out this most powerful marketing approach.

That’s understandable. ABM was only created by consulting firm ITSMA in 2004. Since then, the method has crept into the mainstream and now plays an important role in the marketing strategies of many large corporations – including O2, Marketo and SAP. 97% of marketers say their ABM approach has generated greater ROI than other marketing techniques.

If you haven’t started using ABM, now’s the time. The practice is gaining traction and visibility fast. This article explains what ABM is, the different types of ABM and the process to follow to make it work in your business.

Let’s get started.

First: what is ABM?

Most traditional marketing strategies are variations on a theme. Marketers create customer personas, execute campaigns targeted at these customers and then nurture them towards a sale.

ABM turns this approach on its head. Instead, you start by choosing the target accounts (specific companies) you want to win, gather data and insight on those accounts and then create bespoke, personalised marketing campaigns and content to appeal to them.

If traditional marketing is fishing with a net, ABM is more like fishing with a spear. We’ll talk more about the ABM process later in this article, but first, let’s cover the different types of ABM, and when they work best.

What are the different types of ABM?

1:1 ABM

Also known as strategic ABM, this is thoroughbred ABM.

More popular in the UK than the US, 1:1 ABM involves selecting individual accounts and treating them like markets in themselves. This means spending time to map out, in detail, the decision-making unit (DMU) in the company; gathering deep data and insight on the account, then creating marketing campaigns specifically targeted at the individuals involved in the account DMU.

This type of ABM is often used when a company is targeting a large account, either to tempt them away from a competitor or to protect and grow them as an existing account. It’s also especially relevant after suppliers have offered a high-value RFP (request for proposal).

High-risk and high-reward, 1:1 ABM is a considerable investment and shouldn’t be taken on lightly. We’ve recently kicked off an ABM campaign with one of our own clients, and the research and planning alone has taken weeks. In this way, failed campaigns are expensive – but if the stakes are high enough, then this could be the right approach for your business.

1:few ABM

This approach is less risky because it allows marketers to spread their bets. Rather than targeting a few, large accounts, this approach targets clusters of accounts that have lots of things in common. They may all be in the same vertical or trade association, for example, or have similar needs and challenges.

Unlike traditional marketing focused on certain verticals, however, 1:few ABM is focused on specific target companies.

This is where most companies start with ABM, especially if their resources won’t stretch to the 1:1 approach above. There is a cost, however. 1:few ABM approaches offer less opportunity to research targets in detail; campaigns are therefore less personalised and may have a weaker impact on target customers.

1:many ABM

Also known as programmatic ABM, this approach uses tech to (you guessed it) target many accounts. First, marketers create a bank of content that addresses their target accounts’ common challenges. They then use intent data generated by marketing automation platforms like Marketo to send relevant content to targets, at the right time.

1:many ABM is closely aligned with traditional marketing and is the most common form of ABM in the US. The approach requires a sophisticated marketing technology setup and offers the lowest form of personalisation, so that it can have the least impact on target accounts.

This said: if your audience experiences common problems and your business strategy is focused on winning a high number of smaller accounts, programmatic ABM could be the approach for you. I expect us to see more and more 1:many ABM campaigns, as marketing tech improves over the next decade.

What are the steps in the ABM process?

An ABM strategy typically involves six steps:

  1. Alignment
  2. Account selection
  3. Data and insight
  4. Technology
  5. Content/programme execution
  6. Review and scale

Step 1. Alignment

One huge benefit of ABM is that it brings sales, accounts and marketing together – something too many businesses struggle with. ABM enables sales and marketing teams to agree on an approach, share data and insights, and collaborate on campaign ideas and messaging.

In the ABM workshops I’ve facilitated, I’m always impressed by the brilliant ideas created when both departments collaborate and communicate properly. There’s no substitute for marketing that draws on the perspectives of salespeople ‘in the field’ listening to clients’ questions and objections, or sales teams using in-depth marketing research to build accounts.

The alignment phase requires sales, marketing, and senior management teams to buy into the ABM approach and start to share information and collaborate. Importantly, it also involves agreeing on the objectives for your ABM initiative. These objectives are commonly split into two areas:

  1. Protecting and growing your existing accounts
  2. Landing new accounts

Step 2. Account selection

This is the most important part of the ABM process. Get it wrong and all the subsequent steps will end in failure.

Selecting the right accounts isn’t easy, and you should challenge your first assumptions about who to target. At this stage, sales teams will be tempted to throw a number of accounts at marketing and say ‘let’s target these’, without in-depth thought as to whether they’re the right choice, or not.

Instead, target accounts should be chosen according to three criteria:

  1. Will it be worth it?
  2. Is it doable?
  3. Do the parties involved get along?

Let’s explore these in more detail.

Question 1: Will it be worth it?

ABM approach can be resource-intensive, so the desired results must be worth the effort.

If you’re looking to land an account with a low lifetime value (LTV), ABM is likely to be too heavy-handed. It might be successful, but the time, effort and money involved will outweigh your ROI.

Question 2: Is it doable?

If the likelihood of landing a target account is very small, reconsider. They might be in a long-term contract with their current supplier, or heavily invested in a competitor. They might be an existing client that you’re struggling to keep happy. In any case; if you believe your chances of landing and serving the account are low, then think twice.

Question 3. Do the parties involved get along?

This is an obvious point but shouldn’t be taken lightly. If the point of contact at your target business doesn’t get on with your account team, they may be worth reconsidering. ABM takes complete co-operation between sales and marketing, and will be hampered by poor cooperation.

Step 3. Data and insight

The detail and depth required to define your target and their needs are what makes ABM unique among other marketing approaches.

At this stage, marketing should conduct in-depth desk research on target accounts to fully ‘define’ them. You must impress sales with the insight you’ve gathered to get over the “I’ve worked on this account for 5 years, I know everything about them” issue.

You’ll need to define who’s included in the DMU; what roles they play; their marketplace challenges and priorities, and the personal and career ambitions of each individual.

The better your data and insight, the more personalised, relevant and effective your campaigns will be.

Step 4. Technology

This is especially important for 1:many ABM, as the tech you use must be sophisticated enough to deliver your ABM strategy. It must recognise intent triggers from your target accounts and distribute relevant content accordingly.

In our experience of 1:1 and 1:few ABM, this means making sure your CRM is fit for purpose and actually used – given how important it is for sales and marketing teams to share information and keep each other informed on progress and conversations with a client.

Step 5. Content execution

Now comes the fun stuff! After you’ve decided on your ABM objectives and approach, selected the right accounts, built a deep understanding of each and set up your tech stack, you can now formulate and execute your campaigns.

Chances are that some ideas have emerged during the data and insight stage. In this step, you’ll want to consider all the data you’ve gathered and use it to develop your marketing campaigns and key messages.

The campaigns are more likely to be effective if they’re highly personalised to your target accounts and based on an in-depth understanding of what makes them tick. In 1:1 ABM, campaigns will be tightly customised to the individuals in each decision-making unit. In 1:few ABM, campaigns will likely be targeted to a particular vertical and job role in the chosen accounts. 1:many campaigns will be tailored to providing solutions and showing your expertise in solving challenges common to your target accounts.

This may seem like the ‘fun marketing department job’, but it’s vital that sales are also bought into the chosen campaigns and agree to your marketing messages. Involving them in this way should be refreshing, and further align the sales and marketing department.

Step 6. Review and scale

As is best practice in all marketing, you must review the results of your campaigns, learn lessons and, if possible, scale your successes to target other accounts of verticals with similar traits.

Your first steps into ABM

ABM shouldn’t be taken lightly. Having proven brilliantly effective at generating ROI, it takes focus and effort to be successful. The more you put in, the more you get out – which means selecting the right objectives and accounts, gathering the right insight and formulating the right campaigns.

As with so many aspects of marketing, success starts at the top. If you’re thinking of adopting ABM in your business, be sure to get senior management buy-in first, then decide on your objectives for the initiative. This will help you overcome the costs and challenges associated with your new marketing approach.

This done, the stage is set: time to start planning what you could achieve with ABM. If you don’t, your competitors will…

Enjoyed this article? Download our free content marketing guide and sign up to our weekly newsletter below.