Accounts-based marketing (ABM) can be one of the most cost-effective forms of B2B. But it's likely you're looking at the potential costs of the tech you've been told you need and thinking it's a big investment for the future.

Furthermore, diving too much into tech straight away could lead you to forget something very important: behind all the accounts intelligence and firmographic data are actual human beings.

Joel Capperella, VP of Marketing at Workiva, joins us to share his insights on why taking a human-first approach with both how you build your ABM frameworks and how you think about your accounts will not just make your approach more cost-efficient, but also more effective in the long term.

Prefer to listen? Check out Joel's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Introducing Joel Capparella

Hi, Joel, welcome! How are you doing today?

I'm doing great. Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

It’s going to be an interesting one! We've talked about ABM a few times before, but it will be great to focus on the human side of ABM because that's going to be very important in these trying economic times. A lot of companies are exploring their ABM options and seeing how they can improve them right now, so it’s the perfect time to be talking about this.

Before we get into that very meaty subject, maybe you can introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a bit about why you wanted to talk about this subject today.

Sure. I agree – with the macroeconomic headwinds we're all facing right now, everybody’s looking for efficiency, and ABM is a great place to seek it. I'm glad we have this opportunity to chat about it.

I've been in SaaS for many years – probably since SaaS first became a term. Before that, I worked with on-prem solutions. I've been marketing in the tech space for pretty much my entire career, and I spent four years consulting on how to optimize your marketing efforts with your existing technology or internal processes.

Right now, I'm in a company called Workiva. Our platform offers financial reporting, environmental sustainability, and governance and compliance. We talk to a lot of risk professionals, a lot of accountants, and a lot of sustainability pros, and we're applying ABM strategies every day.

The great thing about ABM is that no matter what market you’re in and no matter what your sales cycle looks like, you can apply these tactics and strategies.

What account-based marketing looks like in 2023

Let's start with a fairly foundational topic – the state of ABM at the moment. What’s the landscape looking like for most industries?

You know, it's interesting. It reminds me of the early days of inbound marketing because the term is so loosely applied. If you talk to five to 10 different folks in our line of work about what ABM is, you'll probably get five to 10 different definitions.

It's really the intersection of a couple of things. The first element is an account-focused strategy where the sales team has responsibility for nurturing named accounts and ultimately converting them into customers. The second element is the technology component, which has grown pretty rapidly over the last five or so years. The third element is all about adjusting your marketing strategy and tactics to facilitate your account focus and maximize what you get out of your tech.

ABM is certainly evolving and, from what I've seen, it’s differently applied depending on your contract values, your retention rates, whether you’re looking to expand, and the length of your sales cycles. Just like everything we deal with marketing professionals, there are a lot of “what ifs”. That makes it challenging, but I think the payoff is significant if you commit to maturing it and making it perform better and better over time.

The potential rewards of a strong account-based strategy

Let's talk about what you can achieve with ABM. It sounds like an approach that focuses on a handful of very specific customers and allows you to tailor your marketing towards them, which seems like a high-risk, high-reward way to go. Would you agree?

There are a lot of ways to look at it. What you just defined sounds like a one-to-one-focused strategy. In those instances, what comes at the end – a closed-won deal – has a very high value. You're going to invest a significant amount of effort because there’s a huge reward if you land that very large account.

ABM isn’t always one-to-one though; you can focus a little more broadly on segmentation for a one-to-few approach. And then there's the one-to-many approach, which is more categorical about the types of accounts that you identify and group based on similarities.

As for the question about whether ABM is a high-risk, high-reward strategy, it all depends on how confident you are that you’re going to close deals with the accounts you’re targeting. Let's say you’re looking at 100 accounts and you think you can close 15 of them; if those deals are significantly priced and you're confident you can win them, it's really not much risk at all.

However, many marketing pros and even sales pros don't break it down that way. They just apply account focus very, very broadly, figuring that the whole named account list is their target. It requires more segmentation and a greater understanding of what you're trying to achieve as it aligns to your revenue numbers and marketing strategy. There’s a lot to think about, so it can be a complicated topic.

How to make smarter decisions about your ABM tech

It can be a complicated topic, but if we have to distill it down to what you need for success, it's got to be account intelligence, which will help you understand the accounts and their needs, surely?

A lot of people seem to be going for a tech-driven process to get that account intelligence, which might work in normal circumstances, but with things changing so rapidly in both the economy and your target accounts’ statuses, tech might not be the best route at the moment. What do you think?

I could not possibly agree more. We as marketers sometimes over-index on tech. What I've seen in my experience with investment technology is that you usually end up not maximizing or optimizing that technology. People tend to overlook all the different applications of the tech in their existing stacks.

Where account strategies are concerned, I agree that running off to invest a good deal of your budget in an ABM platform probably isn't the best way to start. Instead, you want to start by analyzing the performance of your marketing.

We at Workiva break it into three phases: care, consider, and choose. We didn’t invent that – a member of my team who used to work for IBM brought it in. What I like about this framework is it simplifies the way you look at your marketing. You can think of it as the top, middle, and bottom of the funnel, to a degree.

Before you go and invest in technology, think about the performance at the top part of your process – are you gathering the attention you need? The next thing to consider is the quality of the leads that you’re handing over to the sales team – how many of them are converting?

Now, we all measure those things, but are you really taking a discreet look at how those leads are performing and the quality that you’re bringing, especially around the most important accounts? That is where the immediate focus needs to be: in your marketing as it stands today, what is the quality around the accounts you care about the most?

And then it becomes a question of not just the immediate contact, but the overall penetration within that account. How much activity are you getting? What are the titles of the folks that are coming in? How broadly dispersed are they? If it's a large multinational, where are they geographically?

If you can zero in on all that for a good six months before you go and invest in any tech, you're going to know the right questions to ask, you're going to be able to evaluate the tech better, and then when you get it in house, you'll be able to apply it more swiftly.

Who needs to be involved in this process?

Sales absolutely needs to be involved.

So accounts-based "marketing: is not just marketing's job – other departments need to be involved?

Yeah, we don't even call it account-based marketing here. We call it account-based strategy or ABX (X stands for strategy in some way shape or form – it's an American thing). It's a top-to-bottom account strategy and a long-term vision. We believe that If we invest and mature properly, that long-term vision will make us way more efficient with our dollars and eliminate the noise so we can focus on where we know the best bets are.

For that to happen, the first thing we need is for sales teams to be organized by account. It sounds silly, but I've seen marketing organizations where they have a territory strategy, they’re trying to apply an account strategy over top of that, and those two things don't necessarily align. That's the first thing: you need to understand how your sales team is building out the function and running reconnaissance on their accounts.

Now, one thing I do want to be clear about is that our deal cycle at Workiva is a little longer in nature – anywhere from 60 to 120 days. If you have a more transactional sales motion, you’ll obviously take a different approach. I would suggest that a hardcore account-based strategy isn't necessarily best suited to a transactional sales cycle.

Forget ABM, you should be thinking about ABX
The ABM approach has transformed how many B2B brands operate. But are you potentially missing the mark as a CMO if you’re thinking about your accounts-based approach purely as marketing’s responsibility?

How to plan ahead in turbulent times

Planning ahead for longer sales cycles has got to be really difficult to do in times like this – with the economy in trouble budgets and being slashed. How do you account for those longer sales cycles when it comes to pitching for budget and planning for the future?

That’s a very fair question. I wish I could remember who posted it, but there was a good breakdown of SaaS marketing metrics on my LinkedIn feed the other day. The gist of it was that you need to be measuring the basics – things like your conversion rates, MQLs, and all everything we take for granted – to drive lead quality.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of how confident you are as a marketing pro that you can contribute to the pipeline. It's an imprecise science, especially where more esoteric solutions are concerned. In a long sales cycle, I have to have a certain degree of confidence that my actions and investments are going to net a certain amount of pipeline. That’s critical.

You’ll also need to think about your pipeline multiple, which has to do with what your win rate looks like. Again, this is data we have at the ready but sometimes take for granted. If we look at the win rate, we understand our pipeline multiple, we have a fair amount of control over the actions and investments we're making, and then we activate something or run a campaign, what percentage of that is going to end up in the pipeline?

I’m not necessarily talking about direct pipeline – I think that's another mistake that marketers often make. Sure, there is a degree of measurable impact from specific marketing tactics on individuals in the pipeline, and you should pay attention to it, but it's the cumulative body of marketing work you're doing that gets attention and drives conversations.

As far as long-term planning goes, we're having this conversation towards the end of the year, as we're all planning for the year ahead. If you haven't yet had a pretty hardcore conversation about how you’re performing, where that performance needs to improve, how confident you are, and how you're contributing to the pipeline, well, that's where you need to start, in my opinion.

And how regularly should you be performing this exercise? It can't be just a one-and-done thing, especially with longer sales cycles. What timeframe would you advise for assessing these processes?

At a very broad level, you have to be looking at these things at least quarterly. Let's say your marketing budget is $2 million over the year – how are you performing on a quarter-over-quarter basis? You should, for instance, look at quarter one of this fiscal year versus quarter one of last because that eliminates any seasonality. You want to compare apples to apples.

If you have a marketing health dashboard (we have one here at Workiva, and if you don't have one, you might want to start building it now) you want to check that on the daily – maybe not every day but certainly in a regular fashion.

A lot of times, marketing pros will trade tactics for strategy, or vice versa. You really need to focus on a combination of the two. What are you setting out to achieve with your account strategy? There's a finite mix of accounts you can target. You need to know the percentage you can win deals with, whether you’re aiming for expansion or a new opportunity, and what leads to conversions and pipeline. If you know all that, you can evaluate the health of what you’re doing.

Let's just talk about branding. Ultimately, the way that we look at brand is as a way to earn the right to hold your attention. That's the first thing that has to happen. Why is that? Because it makes our marketing dollars more powerful. If you've consumed or read something from us or you’ve gained value from our free offering, when you check out our paid solution you're gonna match those two things up and it will inherently increase the lift of what your spend does.

Again, we use care, consider, and choose. I care: the only thing we're doing is trying to deliver value for the sake of you, the audience member. We're not looking to convert you. We don't even necessarily need you to visit us, but we want to give you that value.

We have to measure that, so what does that measurement look like? We look at the volume of visitors, their time on the page, bounce rates, and click-through rate – not individually, but as an amalgamation, which gives us an index. We'll look at that index and how it's performing over time. That's how you would measure something very high level like your brand.

On a tactical level, which offers perform the best and return the most? It's as simple as that. Where it gets tricky, especially when you're talking about account focus, is that it's a lot and you have to pick the two or three most important things. Even before you decide the frequency, what are the three big things you’re going to measure to make sure you understand how you’re contributing to those good conversations that end up in the pipeline?

This way of looking at your processes before tech has got to be very powerful. It means you understand what is going on and how it all fits together in a much more detailed way, and that means you can properly identify the types of tech that you need in the future.

100%. If I have that settled, when I go and add to my tech platform, I can start to leverage and optimize the tech for its strengths. Many platforms can tell you when accounts are moving into intent, but there’s a lot that has to happen for you to understand that, including marketing 101: do I really know what the intent to explore our solution looks like? If my understanding of the intent to buy isn't great, I'm not going to get a lot out of that technology.

ABM and Customer Marketing: a one-two punch for the recession economy
With the economy cooling down, the customer base is the ultimate shock absorber, allowing companies to keep growing even when new buyers are harder to come by and sales cycles elongate. It is no wonder that NRR and NDR are considered leading indicators of value for SaaS companies.

How to build a human-focused ABM strategy

That leads us nicely into our next question, which is the importance of having a human-focused ABM strategy within an organization. Let's talk about how you actually build that human connection and understanding with your audience. How the heck do you know what they want right now, with all the chaos that’s going on?

I think the temptation is to over-index on the macroeconomic headwinds. Of course, they certainly could have a significant impact. Here in the US, we’re experiencing massive inflation. Now is inflation a big factor in the way that your target audience is buying? If it is, then you have to consider those factors. If it’s not, you have to fight the temptation to over-index on addressing those macroeconomic conditions.

Ultimately, it becomes a matter of how well you understand the cares and concerns of your audience. It almost sounds glib to suggest because it's marketing 101 stuff, but do you truly know how well your customer is navigating the current environment and what benefit they get from your product? That's where it has to begin. That’s the human element.

Years ago, I worked with a consultant who told me, “Your opinion as a marketer, while interesting, is irrelevant.” His point was it doesn't matter what you think; it matters what the audience thinks and what they care about.

As marketers, we tend to default to the pain-solution value. That's a good game to play for sure, but is the audience actually thinking about this really discrete issue that my software solves today? Probably not. More likely there's a higher level of concerns in the audience’s heads on the day-to-day. This little piece of technology just happens to help.

Let me give you an example. We recently bought a conversational chatbot, and the vendor did an awesome job of connecting with us here at Workiva. They talked about a specific area of our marketing funnel that we were really concerned about at the time. Although the chatbot solution didn't directly address that area, their content was super relevant and engaging, giving us valuable insights to help us make informed decisions.

The sales cycle was also different from what we were used to. The chatbot's solution was only tangentially related to the area that caught our attention, but they didn't try to sell us on that. Instead, they emphasized the unique value their solution offered.

The point is, you need to understand what really matters to your buyers, especially in the current market conditions. Once you get that, you can put your sales team in a more consultative position, offering customized solutions rather than a generic pitch. That’s going to help you establish a stronger connection with your buyers and improve your sales process.

It's almost classic content marketing, isn't it? You’re looking at the bigger picture around your potential audience.

How do you know what that bigger picture is? Do you just go out and ask people, or are there certain data sources you look for?

How you do it depends on the size of your organization, but it has to be a priority for marketing leadership across the board and really the whole company. To do it on a regular basis, you have to invest in as many conversations over as long a duration of time as possible.

Here's another temptation for marketers, especially in SaaS: we’ll exchange high-level conversations for conversations about customers’ immediate technological needs. Those conversations are important, and I don't want to mitigate that, but to get this right you have to talk not just about the solution, but about what's going on in their day-to-day, what’s impactful, what they’re measured on, and what the reality of the current conditions means to them.

One thing we do at Workiva is track the number of conversations that we’re having. We look at our events, not just as opportunities to drive leads but as opportunities for conversations that will allow us to gather more information. We organize our events into three categories: executive-level events, user group events, and practitioner-level events. We conduct interviews at all of them, which we then distill into a single database.

From there, we identify the top two or three values that our audience wants to talk about. We also look at the obstacles that are preventing them from achieving these values, and ultimately, we come up with a solution that delivers positive business outcomes. It's not an easy process, and it requires a significant investment of time and effort.

If you're a small team in a company that doesn’t run events, you can still learn a lot by tagging along on sales calls, so make it a common practice to record every single one. If you use Salesloft or Outreach, it's as simple as clicking a button to record the call. By doing this, you can gather a huge amount of information that can help you improve your business.

The pitfalls to avoid when building your ABM strategy

This sounds great in practice, but what are the pitfalls that we need to look out for when it comes to building a human-focused ABM strategy?

Let's say you haven't done some of the things we discussed and you go right ahead and get the technology – the immediate impact could just be noise to the sales team. That’s why they need to be involved from the get-go.

Another common problem is that organizations mistake ABM technology for their inbound marketing tools and chatbots, but they have different purposes. Chatbots provide immediate value to the sales team. If you visit our site, we know what page you're on, and how you've responded to the chatbot, and we can have a seller jump in and get involved. That's completely different from your account strategy, which is a much longer and more deliberate play.

So what happens if you don't set your ABM strategy up in the right way? Well, you’ll lose credibility with your sales team. If you've said, “You should go look at these five accounts because they're showing intent,” there might be a couple of problems with that, especially if your data isn't clean. If you’ve said that the intent is great when it’s elusive at best, you're going to put yourself in a hole with your sales peers, and it's a tough one to dig yourself out of.

That's why everything we discussed at the beginning of this conversation is absolutely critical. Even with the best sales teams in the world, if you get sold on some account-focused marketing tech before you have all the other pieces of your strategy in place, it can be very damaging. I’ve seen it happen way too often.

Not only damaging but a huge waste of money, which we need to be careful about right now with marketing budgets being slashed. You literally can't afford to be throwing cash away like that. It’s not 2015 – we don't have bottomless budgets for martech anymore, so you’ve got to be very careful with your considerations.

CMOs are getting ABM wrong by making it all about ABM tech
Many have forgotten the principles of ABM and how it needs to be hyper-personal to the account, the individual buying committees, and to the human buyers themselves.

How to secure a budget for ABM tech

Let's say you’ve taken the steps you need to take and you’re pitching for funds for some kind of ABM tech – how can you prove you actually need it? If things seem to be going well with the human-focused approach you’re taking, how can you communicate that it’s time to invest in technology?

Well, one thing we talked about was the quality of your conversions and how to get more out of the top part of your sales process by reaching a bigger audience. Remember those metrics we talked about? You want to use them to show how this technology will boost performance and contribute to the pipeline by allowing you to zero in on certain accounts. Use data to show that if you do X you can achieve Y – for example, increasing your annual contract values.

Here at Workiva, we look at engagement levels and how they correlate with closed-won deals and deal size. While correlation versus causation can be dicey to figure out, the data we have certainly suggests that the greater the engagement, the higher the contract value.

So, if you have all that information, you can share your target segments, focus on specific accounts, assign sales teams, show the contract value you would anticipate from those deals, define the win rates you would target, and then show the total increase in contract value you could secure. That's how you make the case for investing in the technology. The great thing about that is it also holds everyone accountable for the agreed-upon goal.

It's almost like an OKR model, with objectives and key results that all these different departments can understand and shoot for. That’s a really effective way of aligning all these different moving parts of the business.

It is, and that's another area that can be challenging. Things are always easier when we have direct control over everything, but in something like this, you have a lot of influence in many areas, but not full control.

If you're a small organization, it’s obviously a little bit different, but we're a mid-size publicly traded company, so there are a lot of moving parts. We're in AsiaPac, EMEA, North America, and South America, so it’s pretty challenging to make sure that all the right people are involved.

It's not for the faint of heart. You have to make sure that you have the right relationships internally and that people understand what you're doing because you as a marketer will have control over just a fraction of all of that.

Once again, it’s about the human element. It's about building relationships with other internal stakeholders, other parts of the C-suite, and other departments. That comes up time and again as one of the most challenging things you can do as a CMO. It’s a huge challenge, but one that most CMOs seem to be up for.

Broadly speaking, it seems that we're moving in the right direction in terms of marketing aligning more closely with sales and the business as a whole. Would you agree, Joel?

From what I’ve seen over the course of my career, I can tell you that marketing has never been more aligned with other teams than it is today. In this day and age – especially in tech – it's just a necessity to make sure that all the departments are tight.

Let's say you're reading this and you aspire to climb the hierarchy in your organization or become CMO someday – those softer skills of understanding sales, building internal relationships, and making sure that you can influence without control are vital. Forget about the tech and all the marketing 101 stuff – for the CMO today, those soft skills are without a doubt the most important.

Joel, we often like to tie everything together with a golden rule at the end of these interviews, but you've hit the nail on the head right there – unless there is something else that you'd want to add about what CMOs should be focusing on when it comes to ABM.

I think that covers it. I just would underscore again that softer skills are critical, as are those remedial things we talked about at the front end of this conversation. If you're looking to head into a hardcore ABM strategy and you apply some of the things we’ve talked about, they will have a massive impact.

They certainly will. Thank you very much for joining us today, Joel.

Thanks! I was happy to be here.

Got questions or advice to share on how best to approach ABM as a CMO? Join the conversation with a global network of marketing leaders at the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.