Rob Leavitt is a Boston-based marketing strategist, advisor, and educator with a primary emphasis on helping IT and professional services firms stand out from the crowd. He has 20-years of experience within account-based marketing, market and brand strategy thought leadership, engagement marketing, digital marketing, and business development.
He is the Senior Vice President at ITSMA, a global research and advisory community that brings together senior technology and professional services marketing leaders to advance the knowledge and practice of strategic B2B marketing.
D.D.: Many companies that want to get started with ABM have a single idea of what ABM is, and they may not think it’s appropriate for their business. Aren’t there different types of ABM? Do you have to pick just one type?
R.L: Ten or fifteen years ago, the companies that were beginning to develop ABM focused mostly on what we now call “One-to-One ABM.” They started with and focused closely on a small number of their top accounts and created individual marketing programs for each one of those key accounts. These were typically huge accounts, and an ABM marketer would work full-time on just one account, hand-in-hand with the account team.
More recently, as we developed more tools and data that enable us to personalize marketing at scale, we’ve seen marketing leaders begin ABM programs with a one-to-many approach. They identify 100 or 500 accounts that are good candidates for their solutions and fit an ideal customer profile. The ABM program focuses mostly on carefully targeted marketing with heavy personalization, and then using data and insights for nurturing leads and working closely with sales on the most promising opportunities.
In between, there's also a one-to-few model. For example, companies can develop clusters of 5-10 accounts that are “look-alike” in significant ways, such as being in the same industry segment (e.g., large commercial banks or retailers) or having the same business or technology issues (e.g., transforming their supply chain management programs). With this approach, we can create very tailored and customized campaigns that resonate with those companies, and then personalize the follow-ups and opportunity development with individual sales teams and buyers.
It’s usually best to begin ABM with just one of these approaches but as you build capabilities and learn what works in your company, you can then begin to develop a more blended approach with several kinds of ABM to achieve different objectives. The most mature ABM programs often use all three types in order to go deep with their most important accounts but also broad to get more scale and coverage across different industries and regions. It’s really similar to how Sales organizes: One team and approach for top accounts, another for the second tier, and then a third for broader coverage. Marketers haven’t typically thought or budgeted that way, but why not?
D.D.: Account-based marketing has often been seen as marketing's responsibility. In reality, marketing needs to work together with sales teams to drive significant results. From your experience, what are your tips for improving the relationship between sales and marketing?
R.L.: It has to begin with shared objectives. Marketing and sales leadership need to come together and agree on what are the shared objectives for the business that both teams are prioritizing and measuring together.
But there’s often a big cultural gap to overcome, too. Sales people often see marketing as purely support function, and don’t appreciate the value that marketers can bring to the business in building reputation, uncovering opportunities, and strengthening critical relationships with buyers and influencers.
At the same time, marketers often don’t fully understand sales reality. They get caught up in the creative, the content, and the data on things like impressions, downloads, and event attendance that can be useful but don’t necessarily translate into pipeline and deals. The best ABM-ers are often the people have strong sales experience themselves which helps them bridge the gap.
The reality is that improving the relationship takes time, and it’s greatly helped with initial successes that can be used to help educate both sides on the value of working more closely together. Internal success stories are a great way to build more trust and collaboration.
D.D.: Marketers are used to working at the top of the sale funnel: Generating leads and then handing them over to sales. Is ABM any different?
R.L: One of the things that I think it’s outdated is the idea that marketing opens opportunities and sales closes them. The more that buying and relationships go online, the more it becomes an integrated process. Buyers do a huge amount of research online with every substantial purchase, and you constantly have new people joining the buying committee who need to catch up and get educated on the potential solution even when you’re far down the funnel.
It’s a myth that thought leadership and content marketing, for example, are only useful in the early stages of the buying process. Buyers are always looking for new ideas and approaches throughout the sales cycle so there’s a role for marketing to play at every stage. In most of B2B, and especially with SaaS or any “as a service” business, the relationship is everything. The way we sell is 'land and expand.’ It’s not about big one-time transactions but rather about ongoing value and constant reviews of new ways to strengthen the customer’s business.
This is why companies invest in customer success products and teams. Marketing has a really important role to play in constantly strengthening and deepening relationships with existing customers. There’s more of an integration between marketing, sales, and customer success.
D.D.: Some marketers are nervous about starting ABM because they don’t think they have all the digital tools or skills to manage an effective program. They think they need to make big investments before they can get started.
R.L.: ABM is first and foremost about understanding what your top priority customers really need, working closely with sales, and creating personalized connections with those customers to talk about the solutions that can provide real value. You can do this with minimal technology and with the core marketing skills that go back decades.
Certainly, digital can help enormously but the best ABM-ers are business-oriented, sales-oriented, and strategic above all else. They understand customers, business value, and the buying process, and then adapt programs to support those.
The “hard” marketing skills around digital and data are great, but it’s ultimately the softer skills around business and collaboration that make the biggest difference. You can teach both types of skills and certainly hire for them, but it’s critical first to appreciate how important they are and give them at least equal weight.
D.D.: Many companies are attracted to ABM because of its power to drive substantial business results. This also leads many companies to expect high and meaningful impact quickly. Are there specific approaches or tools to help with scaling ABM?
R.L.: There are no magic bullets, unfortunately. ABM is a different way to do marketing and sales than most companies are used to, and it usually takes some time and experimentation to develop an effective approach for your specific company.
The good thing is that you can get some results fairly quickly if you get the basics right: selecting the accounts to target, working collaboratively with sales, taking a customer-centric, outside-in approach, and so on. But the longer-term potential is enormous and that takes time.
It’s worth having some patience and really testing and learning strategically, not just tactically. Marketers are really good at testing tactically like AB testing, but we should test strategically as well. What if we invested for six months or a year in a one-to-one effort in our top four accounts and really worked with those salespeople and those accounts. That’s a risk because it might not work, but you need to have the ability and the patience to test it out because it could be incredibly powerful.
D.D.: A finding from your studies is that B2B marketers are still challenged by data access and the inability to draw insights from their data. Why is that?
R.L.: Buying behavior and the buying process is very complex for most B2B organizations. There are large committees and numerous influencers and a slow process that gets sidetracked or derailed for any number of reasons unrelated to our solutions. And a lot of the tools we have are still kind of crude.
For example, we can get data that shows us that company A is doing a lot of searching on a certain topic. And that five people attended one of our webinars, another three people attended one of our competitor’s events, and two other people downloaded this piece of research. That’s powerful because we now know that company A is interested in a solution that we can sell and help them with.
But do we know how they buy? What is their decision process? Who is most important among those 10 people? That is much more subtle and sophisticated.
We can absolutely call them up and send them our next whitepaper and invite them to our next conference and perhaps they will be more likely to respond to us than company B that hasn’t shown any of those initiatives. That’s fabulous and we weren’t able to do that five years ago. But it’s still only a small part of that decision process. The way company A buys that solutions might be very different than how company B does. We’re still early at being able to automate responses in a way that really moves us forward in a complex buying process. We can do a lot of the early stage things.
D.D.: So that’s one of the main current challenges of ABM: that we are still very early in the data analysis process.
R.L.: Exactly. There’s so much qualitative data and insights that often come from salespeople and conversation that we haven’t even begun to figure out how to integrate and automate that and create action plans out of it.