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.: We know that relevant and engaging content is crucial for customer experience. How does ABM help with this?
R.L.: Customers absolutely want more relevant content and communication. For years they have been tuning out most of our marketing if it wasn’t not extremely relevant, and that’s obviously magnified now with the global pandemic. The whole focus of ABM is to identify which accounts are most important to growth, study and understand their specific needs, and then create tailored and personalized content and communication to engage on the issues they care about most. Especially when we are trying to reach the executive level, which many of us are, time and attention are the scarcest commodities. If they are going to spend time with us, it needs to be really worthwhile, it needs to be really tuned to their specific needs. But unless we select and focus on specific accounts and do the research to understand their issues, it’s hard to create such relevant content and communication. So that’s really pushing us to invest in ABM and account-based strategies.
D.D.: Why is account-based marketing beneficial to strengthening relationships with potential and existing customers, and why is that so important?
R.L.: With B2B marketing, we’re usually looking to build and support long-term relationships, especially as so many companies are relying on service and subscription models. Lifetime customer value is one of the most important metrics, so just pushing for the initial sale is not nearly as effective as building longer-term trusted relationships. The challenge is that relationship-oriented marketing doesn’t scale as easily as broadcast approaches. We have to go deeper with specific customers and specific decision-makers and influencers within each account. Marketing used to leave that to Sales and others, but as the world goes digital – and of course the current crisis is making everything more digital – Marketing has both the opportunity and the need to play a stronger role in deepening engagement online and helping build those relationships.
There’s always a tradeoff between going broader and going deeper. If we need to go deeper with certain accounts because they’re strategic, they account for a large share of revenue, and so on, it’s hard to go broader. This pushes us again to focus in on the accounts that are most worth our investment of time, energy, and money.
And now, looking at our changed landscape with the pandemic, relationships are going to matter even more than before. We need to review and sharpen our ABM focus even more to prioritize our most important customers and strengthen trusted relationships with them to help us get through the crisis and succeed in the “next normal” whenever that arrives.
D.D.: Why should ABM not be just a marketing initiative? What advice would you give businesses to help break the silos between marketing and sales?
R.L.: The tension between marketing and sales is one of those historical issues with both sides complaining for years that the other side doesn’t fully appreciate their value and contributions to the business. But I think that business leadership and management are less and less tolerant of sales and marketing not working together, and that, too, will become even more the case in our new situation.
For Marketing, ABM is based on the simply reality that B2B sales is all about accounts, not individuals. Of course, we still sell to people, and individuals matter greatly but most B2B buying decisions are made in committee with a variety of perspectives and incentives across each account. We need to orient our efforts toward the accounts that sales people care about, not just the random individuals that might respond to some broadcast marketing campaign.
A lot of the old demand and lead generation programs that marketers used to do were always focused on individuals without understanding or even considering the larger account situation. Marketing would forward supposed leads to sales and then wonder why sales people never followed up. I myself still get endless marketing calls and emails “I saw you listened to our webinar, can I give you a demo of our product?”. And I am sitting there thinking: “Have you even spent five seconds on my website? You’d know I am not a relevant prospect for you. Why are you wasting your (and my) time!”
R.L.: There’s less tolerance for that kind of waste. Marketing needs to be closer to sales in understanding what are the customers that are worth spending time with and then coordinating with sales for collaborative outreach and engagement. The buying process in B2B is almost never a linear one, so the old idea of a handoff from marketing to sales doesn’t make much sense anymore. We need to stay engaged through a complex and often backwards-and-forwards purchase process, which means we need to work together throughout the sale cycle not just generate leads and then move on.
D.D. Are we maybe approaching a time where that silo doesn’t exist anymore? What are your thoughts here?
R.L.: Well, I think that silos will always exist to some extent because marketing and sales do perform different functions. Marketing typically has a longer view of the business and the markets. It’s typically important for marketing to be looking at brand and what is the reputation that we need to build about our company in the marketplace as well as near-term demand generation. What are the opportunities for growth maybe 2 or 3 years down the road?
There are a lot of things that Marketing needs to pay attention to that Sales needs to be less attention to. Sales sell, and especially in the B2B space when it comes to high-value deals, there’s an enormous amount of personal interaction that salespeople are best equipped to do. But, all of that said, we need to be working closer together throughout the lifecycle.
D.D.: There’s a lot of focus for organizations on improving customer lifetime value by serving customers better at all stages of the lifecycle. How can ABM help with that full lifecycle focus?
R.L.: The more than ABM focuses on the accounts that are going to help drive long-term growth, the more it makes sense to work with those customers throughout the lifecycle. The goal is not just to help with the initial sale but to serve our customers better over time: How can we provide more value to them next week, next month, next year, and hopefully for the longer term. So this suggests a much more integrated approach between sales, marketing, and customer success, too.
As I noted earlier in talking about relationships, though, this more intensive focus doesn’t scale as easily as a simpler, top of the funnel approach. So we also need to think about different levels of customers.
Sales is often organized this way: One sales team for your top accounts, another for second-tier accounts, and so on. Marketing has never been organized that way. Instead, we typically have functional groups that serve the full range of customers: Brand, Demandgen, Content, and so on. ABM becomes a way for Marketing not only to focus on accounts that are important, but to actually think about segments of accounts the same way Sales does. For example, how much energy are we putting into our top accounts or the second tier of accounts? That’s a really new thing for marketing.
D.D. What about revenue? That’s what Sales is most concerned with. How does ABM help accelerate revenue and growth?
R.L.: The primary reason that companies are investing more in ABM is absolutely because it is proven to help accelerate sales and revenue. The reason is that we’re targeting our marketing not only toward our best customers and prospects, who are more likely to buy from us, but also because we’re doing the research and personalizing our campaigns to the types of issues and solutions that those accounts are most concerned with right now.
This is going to be even more important now with the pandemic. Many of our customers, unfortunately, are likely to slow down spending and invest only in the most critical needs. With ABM, we’re able to zero in on those accounts and those specific needs much more effectively. We certainly can’t be over-selling right now, that would be awful in the current environment. But, looking ahead, I think we’ll see companies investing even more in ABM as a way to ensure the most effective use of their marketing budgets in a marketplace that is likely to be extremely challenging for quite a while.