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.
According to ITSMA, the development of account-based marketing over the last 10 years has led to the evolution of three different approaches: One-to-One ABM, One-to-Few ABM, and One-to-Many ABM.
Source: ITSMA and ABM Leadership Alliance, 2019 ABM
Blended strategies for scaling account-based marketing emphasize the development of a segmented approach that incorporates at least two or all three of the different types of ABM and using them to increasing overall impact by creating an optimal balance between depth and breadth of coverage for the full range of accounts that an organization regards as most important and profitable. This strategy enables marketers to meet customer demand, strengthen sales alignment, and align resources to the different levels of opportunity across prioritized accounts.
D.D.: You've worked closely with companies driving ABM strategies for many years now. What has changed about the general approach towards ABM in recent years?
R.L.: What we are seeing over the last few years especially is companies that have seen success with one type of ABM are beginning to move to a blended strategy.
Years ago, the companies that we worked with on ABM were only doing One-to-One. They started with and focused primarily on creating customized marketing programs a few of their most strategic existing accounts. Typically, these were accounts that delivered huge amounts of revenue and had dedicated account teams working on them fulltime. Marketers would embed fully into those account teams, and add individualized marketing programs to the existing account plans.
More recently, as we have developed more tools and data that enable us to personalize marketing at scale, a lot of businesses are starting ABM with a One-to-Many approach. They identify 100 or 500 or more accounts that are good candidates and fit a basic customer profile. They typically do a lot of targeted and personalized marketing to the full list, collaborate with sales to nurture the most promising candidates, and use engagement data to help accelerate the resulting opportunities.
In between those two types, we’ve also seen the rise of a One-to-Few model: Creating relatively small clusters of perhaps 5-25 “look-alike” accounts that have similar industry and issue characteristics, and creating very focused and personalized campaigns with sales to address those tightly defined issues.
Interestingly, the One-to-Few approach is commonly the second type that people try. If they’re doing One-to-One, they often want to scale account-based marketing programs to cover more accounts, but can’t dedicate enough additional resources to cover another 20 or 50 with a One-to-One approach. Or, they’re doing One-to-Many and they want to go deeper with some of the most promising accounts, so create much smaller clusters for which to create more narrowly focused and intensive campaigns.
Blended strategies can give you more flexibility with your ABM resources, and a great ability to align with Sales, since sales usually has a blended model already, with one team focusing on global or platinum accounts, another on second-tier accounts (e.g., enterprise) and yet another on smaller accounts. Marketing has not traditionally been organized with a similar tiering structure, but blended ABM can help move in that direction.
Of course, blended ABM strategies also raise difficult budget and resource questions. We used to just worry about having enough resources to do ABM at all. Now we need to think about allocating ABM budgets and resources to these different approaches.
For example, if you have 20 accounts that represent 50% of your corporate revenue, should you dedicate 50% of your marketing budget to those accounts? Probably not, because you still need to do brand, PR, and social, but you may want to dedicate 25% just to those accounts because they are so important. And perhaps all of that is with a One-to-One approach. But then how much can you dedicate to a One-to-Few or One-to-Many approach to cover the next 50 or 500 accounts? Even if you’re dedicating 30-40% of your total marketing budget to ABM, you have to figure out how to segment that spending in the most efficient way.
DD: It's clear to see that the blended strategy is providing great value. Even if businesses are starting to mature with ABM, the blended model is still at its early stages somehow, right?
R.L.: It’s absolutely at its early stages. When you invest significantly in ABM, it raises significant questions about how marketing should overall be organized and how the other parts of marketing relate to ABM.
DD: And now we get back to the structural transformation involved.
R.L.: Many companies, for example, have traditionally spent a lot of their marketing budgets on events: conferences, tradeshows, your own customer events, round tables, and hospitality events, and so on. Now with the pandemic, of course, face-to-face is extremely limited, and most of us are shifting in-person event money into virtual events and other types of programs.
But if you have a strong One-to-One ABM program, and you are putting a significant amount of your budget into your top 20 accounts, how do you work with the event marketing team which focuses on getting as many people as possible to those events, even if few of them are from your top 20 accounts?
It’s the same with content. Marketers in recent years have gotten very good at creating high-quality marketing content. But a lot of it is developed with a wide audience in mind, so it relies on broad generalizations about issues and potential solutions. ABM is trying to go much narrower and deeper. But if you have a team of 5 or 10 or 20 people creating content and separately you’re running a One-to-One ABM program focused on your top 20 accounts and then another ABM program focused on five industry clusters, how do they work with the content team and how does the content team prioritize its own resources?
These are large and complex questions with no easy answers and companies developing blended ABM strategies are mostly just beginning to wrestle with them.
Another big question that I think marketers and ABM-ers should be thinking about more is how blended ABM strategies can best support the overall corporate strategy. How is the company trying to grow and how can different types of ABM contribute the maximum amount? Too often, ABM programs only addressing a part of corporate strategy. Many young, high-growth companies, for example, are trying to land a lot of new customers to expand their share of the market – and they have ABM programs supporting that new customer acquisition effort. That is great but most of those companies are also testing new solutions with their best existing customers. Shouldn’t ABM also support that effort? How can you get more leverage out of those exciting top accounts you already have?
D.D.: Customizing and personalizing content for accounts is a huge challenge with ABM programs. What can ABM-ers do about scaling an ABM program without breaking the bank?
R.L.: To me, the most important thing is learning how to say no. Let’s say that a company sponsors this big event every year. What if we pulled out all that money and put it into content or executive briefing programs? What if instead of adding another 50 or 500 accounts to our One-to-Many ABM program, we put those same resources into a different type of ABM to go deeper with a small number of key accounts? Would we drive even more revenue and stronger strategic relationships?
'No' is a really hard word to say. Typically with marketing the question is what else can we do, what more can we do. We also have to think about what less can we do knowing that we’re going to give up something.
Perhaps the silver lining of the awful pandemic that we’re all living through now is that is has forced us to shift existing resources quickly, get very creative in trying new ways to reach our customers, and realize that the old ways are actually not necessary to continue. I’ve seen companies do some amazing things with ABM with almost no resources over the last six months as they pivoted to new ways of connecting with customers. Of course, we’d all like to have more resources for ABM, but you can always create new and better approaches if you take a step back to consider what’s really important to customers, what you can stop doing, and how best to leverage existing resources and relationships.