Rethinking Account-Based Sales and Marketing for the Next Opportunity in 2021


As pipelines shrank due to COVID-19, many organizations shifted from inbound to an account-based sales and marketing outreach approach.

In fact, a study by Terminus showed that in 2019, 23% of respondents had no active ABM program. This year, that number dropped to just 5.8%. An overwhelming majority, 94.2% of respondents, currently say they have an ABM program.

But more than 40% of early-stage ABMers are looking to account-based marketing as a lead gen strategy versus a business strategy that creates alignment across the organization and drives revenue growth with new and existing accounts. Also, 66% of all organizations engaging in ABM do not have a blended strategy. They are only engaging in one-to-many ABM and one-to-few ABM, and they are missing opportunities to drive sales cycles with target organizations that are stuck in status quo.

Can this be why a recent ITSMA study shows that only 31% of ABM organizations are most effective in achieving significant improvement in business results? This article dives into the current state of ABM and how we need to rethink it to drive business forward in 2021.

We’re going to cover the following sections. Feel free to jump ahead:

What is account-based sales and marketing?

The M in ABM may stand for marketing. But ABM is an integrated business strategy where marketing, sales, and account management/customer success teams work together to win, protect and expand key accounts that can provide your organization with the greatest revenue growth potential. Selling into mid-market and enterprise accounts and consistently winning requires collaboration, shared goals, and joint execution.

However, many ABM organizations are not setting up their ABM programs in a way where collaboration is required. Marketing is responsible for campaigns that are focused on up to 500 industry accounts and on account clusters where prospects display similar intent signals, have similar characteristics, and are in the similar buying stage. Sales is responsible for getting engaged campaign prospects to the close and for the one-to-one communications with target accounts. But they are left to their own devices. Sales and marketing are separately speaking at accounts in hopes of driving leads, appointments, and engagement.

Account-based sales and marketing is about aligning resources, websites, profiles, content, messaging, and social/email/live selling conversations and all interactions to impact sales cycle time, win rates, deal sizes, buying behavior, churn rates, and lifetime value. It’s about how we can reverse no and later positions with key enterprise accounts.

It’s the one-to-one where marketing is needed more than ever as you reserve the one-to-one communications for your top tier accounts. This is where marketing can increase their influence over revenue and see exactly how their content and messaging impacts specific conversations.

Notice that we didn’t mention MQLs, appointments created and number of demos given. Thanks to marketing automation and sales and marketing’s desire for leads, ABM has become a tactical, account-based awareness or account-based advertising program. It has become about campaigns where we push out content, messaging, emails, LinkedIn ads, and retargeted ads to specific accounts just because they showed some intention.

It has become about sales teams going to Sales Navigator, researching profiles of key individuals within the accounts they want, and reaching out with a blanket, templated message, and an irrelevant profile.

There is very little focus on the interaction and engagement that sales, marketing, and account teams are having with key accounts and the human buyers within those accounts. There is very little focus on how those interactions will lead to stronger revenue growth. Remember, ABM should be about driving revenue growth with new accounts – and creating even stronger revenue growth with existing accounts.

Challenges with a lead-based ABM program

In No Forms, No Spam, No Cold Calling, Latane Conant (CMO of 6Sense) mentioned that MQLs are not worth a dime.

If leads get stuck or they fall out of the pipeline, what good are they? Yet organizations are so focused on leads vs. the end goal, which is revenue. As a result, there’s a focus on how many touchpoints are sales and marketing hitting. How much are we expanding our LinkedIn networks with target accounts? How many emails and Inmails are we sending? How many phone calls are we making? How many demos are we giving with target accounts?

Do you see how ABM has become so tactical just to get the lead that we get all excited about because there was some sort of engagement? We take any type of engagement as an indication that we have a prospect that’s at least somewhat likely to result in a sale. Then the prospect is put through an arbitrary lead scoring system, and once they get enough points, they are thrown over to sales.

The truth is that the designation of MQL tells you nothing about the prospects’ motivations and intentions and where they are in the buying process. The process is not insight-driven, and as a result, so many MQLs end up on the stuck leads dashboard as sales and marketing teams are having the wrong social, email, and live conversations.

Focusing on lead volume also causes misaligned goals with sales (leads vs. revenue) and causes marketing teams to optimize for cost-per-lead rather than cost-per-close and true business growth. So marketing continues to test guess and throw messaging and content out to the masses hoping that it sticks and increases click-through-rates and lead conversions. But what good are those leads if they get stuck at the top because buyers are unable to get the value-added relationships they are looking for?

For clients, each named account and each individual are treated as a unique campaign. This way, we are getting one-to-one conversational visibility and metrics to see what is working within specific companies, divisions, and ranks that work with specific customer bases. So we’re optimizing conversations for a close, and then after receiving revenue proof, insights are provided to marketing to increase conversions for their one-to-few and one-to-many conversations.

Following a lead-based system, marketing does not get the visibility or input at the individual conversational level because there is a hand-off. But it’s at the level that marketing can have the greatest impact on revenue as content and messaging can be built for each needed conversation to achieve specific objectives.

Issues with one-to-many and one-to-few ABS and marketing programs

While we have reversed no positions for 3PLs, supply chain consulting, and SaaS tech firms, in most cases, you have one chance to win, protect and expand accounts you want. One communication misfire and one wrong interaction will result in unresponsiveness and inaction.

Yet sales, marketing, account management, and customer success teams traditionally speak at industries and volumes of accounts with little to zero relevance, and there is no differentiation between acquisition and expansion conversations. When firms engage in account-based approaches they often speak at accounts with the same messaging and do not consider that value is different for each account and each person within those accounts.

After you gain interest and awareness, you need to challenge the status quo and then convince prospects to commit. This requires a real connection beyond the brand as trust matters not only on a company level but also on a personal relationship level. This personal connection is beyond understanding the target roles.

It goes beyond delivering content and messaging that is tailored for what buyers are searching for. If you want to engage and convert even more prospects that matter the most to your B2B pipeline, then you’ll likely need to go beyond a personalized, Intent-driven experience and make it a more personal approach.

What is personal account-based sales and marketing?

To build a personal experience, sales and marketing must move beyond campaigns based on generalized persona assumptions and pain points that are foundational at the very top of the funnel. Organizations get stuck or leave the funnel because their value proposition didn’t identify with the specific needs of their prospects, or there was a lack of competitive differentiation in how it was presented. This identifies a clear need for B2B marketers to speak to accounts and individual buyers vs. simply speaking at accounts.

This can be achieved by:

  • Going beyond general pain points and speaking to unconsidered gaps that lead to personal impact.
  • Thinking about what should be keeping the prospect up at night and why it should keep them up.
  • Challenging your prospects’ specific assumptions and speaking to their domain in ways they haven’t thought of or appreciated.
  • Understanding their specific use cases and suggesting new ways they can solve their specific problems.
  • Delivering commercial insights that help improve competitive advantage and help them reframe how they think about their specific business, and how they operate.
  • Unifying the potential of your sales and marketing tactics by taking a ‘personal approach’ in content marketing and sales outreach throughout the buying process. Profiles, content and messaging is created for specific selling conversations with specific individuals.

So how do you improve from personalized experiences to more personal interactions? You need to dig beyond intent data and to uncover:

  • What’s behind the prospect’s Intent, and specifically what is their million-dollar headache, on both an account and personal level?
  • What’s going on within the organization and the different divisions that can impact operational excellence, customers, and P&L?
  • What are the account-specific or competitor-focused gaps that are not being considered and the personal impacts which may be under-estimated?

By using a more personal account-based approach, you can reverse “no” positions with Fortune 500 companies like UPS. You can drive six, seven, and eight-figure wins with accounts that were previously unresponsive. You can protect at-risk clients as one of our clients ensured that the competition does not steal accounts like P&G. You can expand your market share within territories, accounts, and divisions.

Startup tech firms can have conversations to replace legacy systems like Oracle and SAP. This can happen because with a focus on the individual interaction where you create a personal connection with the human buyers to shift their hearts, minds, and wallets.

Why do we need multiple ABM journeys?

While we talk about the need to get personal, scaling this approach can be a challenge. It requires a great investment in time and resources so it should be considered a key strategy for:

  • Top-tier accounts that stop engaging with your sales and marketing campaigns
  • Accounts that match your most ideal customer profile
  • Accounts that can provide the greatest revenue growth potential

It’s vital that sales and marketing engage in audience segmentation – as all prospects and existing accounts should not be treated the same. Different audiences and different goals also require a different ABM journey. Notice, we use the term journey vs. funnel as it’s very rare that prospects will go straight to revenue.

As Lisa Shepherd from Mezzanine Growth mentioned during a Stop the Sales Drop Reboot Friday panel, the journey is often like a pinball machine with twists and turns, stoppers, and gutters.

In the meantime, start thinking about the interaction you want to have with prospects and customers. It’s time we get more personal with the accounts that we need to win, protect, and expand so we can grow hundreds of percent this year.

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