This article is based on Jon's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast.
Navigating the intricate journey from traditional account-based marketing (ABM) to a more evolved account-based experience (ABX) is a challenge many marketers grapple with, especially when aligning sales and marketing strategies.
The nuances between the two, and the consequent shifts in approach, offer a treasure trove of insights for businesses keen on enhancing their marketing efficiency.
I’m Jon Miller, CMO of DemandBase and a seasoned expert in the ABM arena, and in this article, I'll dissect the transition, shedding light on the strategies, alignments, and optimizations needed.
From marketing tech to ABM: My journey
To say I'm passionate about marketing technology would be an understatement, as it has been an integral part of my professional journey for years.
My career in marketing technology kickstarted at a company named Epiphany. This experience primed me for one of the most transformative experiences of my professional life - co-founding Marketo in 2005.
I took on the role of the first CMO, and we set out to make Marketo a major player in the marketing automation space. Together, we innovated in areas such as lead nurturing and lead scoring. It was an exhilarating nine years, witnessing Marketo's growth all the way through its IPO, though I chose to part ways before the private equity sale to VISTA.
The entrepreneurial spirit never left me, and by 2015, I was itching to take on another venture, this time as CEO. Enter Engagio. My experiences at Marketo introduced me to the potential of ABM. While the tactics we employed were effective, I felt restricted by the technology available at the time. This challenge sparked the concept of Engagio, aiming to fill in the technological void that hindered ABM's full potential.
ABM, especially in its formative years, was a multifaceted concept. The version we carved out with Engagio was more mid-funnel, centered around understanding known accounts and fostering engagements and sales exchanges. But there existed another facet of ABM, focusing on the digital top of the funnel. This involved gauging intent, identifying accounts actively in the market, and utilizing advertising to draw them to your website. This is where DemandBase excelled.
As fate would have it, conversations with DemandBase's CEO revealed a synergy that was too good to overlook. Everything Engagio envisioned for its future was already within DemandBase's grasp, and vice versa. We both saw the potential in combining our strengths to create a super-platform, one that would be unrivaled in its category.
The COVID pandemic presented us with challenges but also the perfect opportunity to merge and integrate our platforms. By the end of that tumultuous year, we unveiled our integrated platform as the new DemandBase, and I proudly stepped into the role of CMO.
In this ever-evolving world of B2B marketing, we remain committed to helping companies accelerate their revenue using an account-based approach, and I'm thrilled to be part of this journey.
Understanding ABX: The evolution of ABM
When diving into the world of ABM, it's hard not to come across the term 'ABX' or account-based experience. The relationship between ABM and ABX might seem intricate, but let me break it down.
The Origins of ABM
Drawing from my experiences at Marketo, we championed the cause of demand generation and lead nurturing. A key principle was to only engage with leads when they showcased a genuine interest. If a lead exhibited signs of readiness, only then would they be approached by sales.
This approach had a dual benefit: salespeople weren't saddled with unresponsive leads, and potential buyers were spared from unsolicited sales calls. It was a win-win, built on respect for the buyer's experience.
Yet, as we delved deeper into ABM, we began to recognize its potential to engage accounts that were previously unresponsive to our campaigns. I often describe this shift using a fishing analogy. While demand generation is like casting a net, capturing whichever fish comes along without discernment, ABM is akin to spearfishing. You identify the prize catch and strategically go after it.
However, as time progressed, I noticed a glaring issue. Our ABM approach, with its laser focus, often reached out to accounts irrespective of their genuine interest or readiness. We had become spear throwers, albeit a tad indiscriminately.
ABX: Marrying strategy with respect
So, what's the fuss about ABX? Well, think of it as a correction course. ABX calls for a nuanced approach, reminding us of the respect for the buyer's journey that was integral to traditional demand gen. Just as it's unpleasant being targeted indiscriminately by a spear, aggressive sales outreach at inappropriate times can deter potential clients.
ABX isn't some groundbreaking next step in the evolutionary ladder of ABM. Instead, it's a return to the principles that made ABM appealing in the first place: strategic targeting combined with respect for the buyer's journey. The essence of ABX is simple: align your marketing and sales strategies to the current state and needs of the account. It's not just about who you're reaching out to, but when and how you're doing it.
Fixing ABM's shortcomings with ABX
To truly harness the power of account-based strategies, one must understand the foundational principles and nuances that set ABX apart.
ABX isn't a mere upgrade to ABM. Instead, it's a recalibration of its fundamental concepts. It seeks to dissolve the departmental silos created by ABM's name by stressing the importance of collaborative synergy between sales, marketing, and other essential departments. After all, an account-based strategy only thrives when there's alignment across the board.
Various terminologies like account-based revenue and account-based everything have surfaced in the past, aiming to encapsulate the essence of an all-inclusive strategy. But ABX, with its emphasis on holistic experiences, aptly defines what we should have been practicing from the get-go.
Core principles of ABX
The essence of ABX lies in a few key principles:
- Precision and targeting: Begin by smartly identifying the accounts you wish to target.
- Building account intelligence: Amass a wealth of insights about your targeted accounts. This enables a deeper understanding of where the account is in its journey, helping tailor strategies accordingly.
- Align strategies to account stages: Recognizing the varied stages of an account's journey, from 'qualified' to 'engaged' to 'marketing qualified', is crucial. Your marketing efforts should resonate with these stages. For instance, cold 'qualified' accounts may benefit from branding efforts, while those at the 'engaged' stage might be more receptive to thought leadership and best practices.
- Respecting the buying committee: As opportunities mature, the number of decision-makers often increases. Your approach should cater to this expanding buying committee, ensuring that consensus-building and decision-validation are central to the strategy.
Customizing the ABX journey
While ABX provides a framework, it's not rigid. The strategy must be molded based on factors like the account's size, its inherent value, and the company's unique business model. While broad stages like 'qualified', 'engaged', and 'marketing qualified account' (QA) can be universally recognized, the metrics defining these stages will vary.
For example, an engaged 25-person startup may have entirely different interaction levels than a mammoth 10,000-person enterprise. Such nuances play a significant role in refining and customizing the ABX strategy.
ABX isn't about overhauling the principles of ABM but about refining and perfecting them. It's a collaborative and adaptive strategy that respects the unique journey of each account, ensuring that marketing efforts are always precise, informed, and timely.
Delving deeper into account intelligence
Account intelligence stands as a cornerstone for successful ABX strategies. However, when we talk about account intelligence, we're not just focusing on simple mechanisms like lead scoring. Instead, it involves a multifaceted approach encompassing various data sources and analytical tools.
Beyond first-party data
One of the major challenges many companies face is efficiently utilizing their first-party data, which essentially refers to all the information they have gathered from their CRM, marketing automation systems, and website interactions. While this data is invaluable, the true potential is unlocked when it's combined with third-party data that offers different perspectives.
Power of intent data
Intent data plays a pivotal role. It provides insights into the content an account is engaging with on the open web. This not only reveals the topics of interest to a particular account but also suggests the vernacular and themes you might adopt in your communications. Tracking a surge in a specific topic or a recurring pattern could be a signal of their shift into a more advanced stage in the buying cycle.
Firmographics and Technographics
Understanding an account's firmographics – details like the industry they operate in – can offer invaluable clues regarding the challenges they might be facing or solutions they might be seeking.
However, a category that's been gaining traction, especially in the tech world, is technographics or install-based technologies. Knowing the technologies an account has already incorporated can shed light on their compatibility with your solution.
For instance, understanding that an account uses Snowflake or HubSpot can not only indicate their readiness for a specific product but also enables a more tailored outreach, speaking directly to how your solution integrates with their existing tools. Recognizing patterns in tech adoption can also provide foresight into an account's future needs.
A paradigm shift for SaaS companies
The concept of technographics offers a fresh perspective, particularly for SaaS companies. While it's common to consider platform integrations post-sale, integrating this knowledge earlier, during the intent stage, can dramatically enhance engagement strategies. For many tech companies, technographics often emerge as the most predictive factor in identifying potential clients.
When you merge first-party data with third-party insights, including intent data, technographics, and firmographics, you forge a robust foundation for account interactions. This intricate web of data doesn't just benefit your team; it also favors the accounts. It signifies that you're not just approaching them blind but have invested time and resources to comprehend their needs, answering many preliminary questions even before the first interaction.
In essence, account intelligence is more than just data compilation. It's about weaving a narrative from multiple data strands to understand, predict, and cater to accounts in the most effective manner.
Navigating the balance between brand and strategy
In today's hyper-saturated market, mere product placements or service pitches no longer suffice. The journey toward making a purchase is laden with skepticism, to the point where a lot of marketing just becomes noise to consumers.
That’s where ABX becomes transformative. By being data-driven and emphasizing relevant and timely interactions, ABX assures that the communication isn't just another marketing message; it's a trusted interaction.
Despite being a marketer, I resonate with many consumers' sentiments about avoiding marketing messages. Admittedly, I have my guard up against promotional content because, like many others, I value genuine, relevant, and timely interactions.
This isn't an aversion to information about potential solutions but rather an aversion to irrelevant noise. At the end of the day, a well-placed, valuable interaction that aligns with a potential need or interest is always welcome.
Brand and demand: An undervalued synergy
There's often an overlooked correlation between branding and demand generation in the B2B space. The notion of trust is pivotal, and a brand is essentially a promise of that trust. Historic adages, like the IBM one, aren't just about a product or service's efficiency. They’re about a guarantee, a safety net, a trusted name.
In an era where decision-makers are inundated with choices and often tread carefully to avoid mistakes, establishing trust through branding is invaluable. It's an antidote to the prevalent fear, uncertainty, and doubt in B2B.
Industry statistics often underscore a sobering reality: a minuscule percentage of potential clients are active buyers at any given moment. The lion's share remains unaware, indifferent, or even cold to a particular brand or offering. This is where brand awareness campaigns can catalyze a shift, nudging potential customers from indifference to curiosity, and eventually, to purchase intent.
ABX, for all its sophisticated data-driven strategies and precision targeting, stands on the foundation of brand perception. Without a robust brand identity, even the most meticulously crafted ABX strategy may falter.
Conversely, a strong brand can amplify even modest marketing efforts, making them seem exceptionally effective. A good brand doesn’t just pave the way for successful ABX; it can often be the difference between a potential customer's indifference and interest.
While the intricacies of ABX play a pivotal role in refining and optimizing B2B interactions, the overarching brand narrative is what creates an indelible imprint, guiding potential customers through their journey.
Unraveling ABX: From strategy to implementation
ABX isn't a one-size-fits-all model. The implementation and approach depend heavily on the potential deal size. If a deal doesn’t possess significant value, delving deep into a personalized ABX may not be cost-effective.
Conversely, for a mammoth contract, every detail counts. The level of personalization – whether it's a bespoke video message on an iPad or a digital eBook – must mirror the potential deal's magnitude.
Sales and marketing synergy
The foremost prerequisite for a successful ABX initiative is a seamless alignment between sales and marketing. It's no longer about passing leads from one department to the other, but a collaborative effort where both teams work synchronously to nurture and engage accounts.
In the traditional demand gen sphere, the transition of leads resembled a relay race. In contrast, ABX necessitates a soccer team-like approach: fluid, adaptive, and cohesive.
While tech is a game-changer, it's not the be-all and end-all. Organizations can start an ABX program without heavily investing in new technology. The initial approach might lean more on manual operations, which while effective, might not scale well.
The true value of technology kicks in when companies wish to upscale their ABX efforts or gain deeper account insights. The objective is to make processes more efficient and tap into intelligence that isn't readily available.
Account intelligence platforms
When delving into account intelligence, vendors like DemandBase take the lead. Their offering encompasses an intelligence layer, which organizations can activate across various functions: ABX programs, advertising, or direct sales insights.
Competitors like ZoomInfo offer elements of account intelligence, but historically, their strength hasn't been in activation. However, the rapid acquisitions signal their intent to bridge this gap. Platforms like Terminus have also entered the arena, bringing their unique offerings to the table.
In a nutshell, venturing into ABX requires a harmonized effort between sales and marketing, powered by the right tech tools. But more than tools and tactics, it's the strategic mindset that sets the tone for success. Embracing ABX isn't merely about adapting to a new method; it's about redefining the collaborative essence of sales and marketing in the B2B space.
The art of alignment: Transitioning from ABM to ABX
The essence of ABX isn't radically different from ABM, but rather a refined approach. Hence, if a company is already following the ABM strategy, transitioning to ABX would be more of a natural progression than a jarring shift.
Convincing sales to exercise patience and rely on the insights provided by marketing to engage high-value accounts is critical. However, it's imperative that marketing delivers promising QAs (Qualified Accounts) that warrant sales attention. If not, sales should rightfully be proactive but employ account intelligence for relevance.
For businesses deeply rooted in traditional lead generation models, transitioning can be a challenge. While ABM programs provide long-term benefits like larger deals, better retention, and higher conversion rates, they can take longer to reflect results. Therefore, it's essential to introduce ABM initiatives gradually, building upon existing strategies rather than replacing them.
For instance, funds previously allocated for trade shows can be diverted towards account-based advertising programs. Demonstrating the effectiveness of this strategy paves the way for larger-scale implementation.
The optimal marketing approach depends on the potential deal size. Businesses might need to employ both traditional demand generation and ABM strategies, especially if they cater to a wide range of deal sizes. This doesn't necessarily require a binary switch from one approach to another but rather an efficient redistribution of resources.
Some organizations might even need to monitor two funnels: a lead-based funnel for traditional campaigns and an account-based funnel for ABM initiatives.
Moreover, introducing a new strategy doesn't mean abandoning what has worked in the past. Instead, it's about augmenting and evolving the existing systems to capitalize on more significant opportunities.
Sales teams generally appreciate an account-first approach from marketing. Collaboratively identifying and focusing on the top accounts fosters a stronger sales-marketing alliance. For a truly effective ABX strategy, the process should be marketing-driven but ultimately owned by sales. The process begins with clear documentation outlining how various tiers of accounts will be approached and the resources allocated for each.
For instance, detailing how a top-tier account will be targeted, from sending personalized devices to allocating advertising budgets, helps in setting clear expectations. Furthermore, providing sales teams with comprehensive account intelligence and then allowing them to select their primary accounts ensures the process is data-informed, yet sales-centric.
Shifting from ABM to ABX isn't about choosing one over the other but understanding the nuances of each strategy and tailoring approaches to fit the business's unique needs. When marketing and sales align, understanding each other's roles and leveraging data-driven insights, the result is a harmonized approach that maximizes potential deal values. The process might require iteration and refinement, but with collaboration at its core, businesses are better poised to succeed.
For additional resources into ABX, you can look at my book, The Clear and Complete Guide to Account-Based Experience, it's 260 pages, and you can get it for free on the DemandBase website.
I wrote it to teach everything I know about how to do this stuff. If you're more of a visual person, there’s a bunch of videos on DemandBase TV on our website. But, beyond that, the best resources come from the vendors.
Are you rethinking your approach to ABM? Got questions and advice to share with others? Head to the CMO Alliance Community Slack Channel!