The MQL (or Marketing Qualified Lead) is eating marketing. Marketing’s obsession with lead sourcing has led many of us to lose sight of the more important objective: growing the business. Sales teams don’t need a torrent of minimally qualified leads; they need air cover. They need help building pipeline and closing deals.

Sales teams don’t need a torrent of minimally qualified leads; they need air cover.

If you are a sales leader that’s struggling to get marketing to think differently about its role in the organization, listen up. In a recent board meeting, I had to make the case for Account-based Marketing, or ABM in Twitter-friendly shorthand. You may want to march this argument over to your marketing counterpart. After all, if it was persuasive to a Board, then it should be influential for a CMO.

The thesis went something like this: For companies selling to a finite group of accounts, like, say, the Fortune 500, ABM is a no-brainer. These high-value, low-volume, long-cycle deals require heavy sales and marketing attention. Conversely, for those selling to what Atlassian President Jay Simons amusingly dubs “The Fortune 500,000,” the scale of inbound is the obvious move. The challenge lies with those of us in the middle.

Why Inbound Alone Isn’t Enough

Ultimately, inbound marketing is a waiting game — you publish content, then wait for prospects to find it in search or on social. As you narrow your target account definition, you constrain the number of companies that could possibly convert on your content, thereby delaying the time-to-value for inbound. Some companies attempt to accelerate results by running outbound marketing — unsolicited, blanket emails and calls — in parallel to inbound. But even as stopgap measure, the damage of outbound can exceed the rewards.

I explained that the annuity of our inbound will increase over time, but between then and now, we needed “something else,” something that delivered more immediate results than inbound, but without the compromises required of outbound. Enter: ABM.

An ABM strategy allows us to bridge the divide between the polar extremes of inbound and outbound by targeting campaigns specifically to the accounts that sales is working, and “right sizing” the investment depending on potential deal value and likelihood to close. It can even augment customer marketing efforts.

The Shift from Leads to Accounts

Up to 17 people are involved in enterprise buying decisions. In B2B environments, products are bought by committees. A lead-based approach ignores this inconvenient reality by focusing on the individual over the collective.

Sales leaders running a named-account strategy know that it’s not just another way to categorize a lead. Ben Theriault, Director of MidMarket Sales at InsightSquared, says it’s a systematic shift that fundamentally improves the way in which a prospective account engages with a company’s value proposition. As Ben puts it, “an efficient and effective sales process positions the right benefits to the right roles and empowers stakeholders across organizations to share information with one another throughout the engagement.”

The problem is that today’s marketing strategies and departments are built around the lead. If marketing wants to have the most impact, they need to follow suit. The fact that so many B2B companies have hit a wall with their demand generation efforts isn’t a mystery–marketing can’t be marketing to leads if sales is running an account-based playbook. If marketing wants to support selling into the large accounts that are going to help their company grow, then the messaging and tactics need to address each of the stakeholders involved in the buying decision. The success of both teams and the overall company relies on this alignment.

Likely Objections

Before you make your internal case for ABM, be ready for likely objections. Here are a few to expect:

  1. ABM doesn’t scale: There’s a natural tension between ABM and scale. After all, ABM is intended to achieve a “persona of one,” that is, every interaction should be — or at least convincingly resemble — a one-to-one exchange. This certainly puts pressure on marketing to develop more varieties of content and distribute them in a “narrowcast” manner. But with slight shifts in marketing philosophy, ABM can scale as much as it needs to.
  2. I’m measured by leads sourced: This is a tough one, because your CMO is probably correct. I’m prone to say, “Show me how I’m measured, and I’ll show you how I behave.” Sourcing KPIs undermine ABM. Suggest sales and marketing partner on a named account pilot and attach to the effort a different set of goals, like close rate or pipeline velocity. As the change-management book “Switch” would advise, create “bright spots” together.
  3. Our deal size doesn’t justify ABM: Today’s technology-enabled ABM strategies allow for elastic investments. For high volume, transactional deals, the ABM approach could be as simple as combining targeted ads with smart website personalization.
  4. The technology just isn’t there yet: I’d contend that there are already too many ABM technologies. The emerging industry is already ripe for a roll-up. There are specialized tools for ABM campaign management, website personalization, ad targeting, account sourcing, direct mail management, and so on. And if you run a marketing automation system, like Eloqua, Marketo, Pardot or HubSpot, odds are these tools natively integrate with your infrastructure.
  5. Nobody else is doing it: Lots of people are talking about it, but is anyone actually operationalizing it into their marketing strategies? Yes. There are, in fact, many prominent marketers at very successful companies running ABM play books. There’s a whole conference–FlipMyFunnel–dedicated to the topic. The agenda can give you a sense of who is adopting the strategy and why. I’ll also be sharing InsightSquared’s experience with making the transition at Marketo’s Marketing Nation Summit in May. 

Closing Arguments

True sales and marketing demands more than the VPs of each department getting along — or even being bonused on the same KPI. It also requires that individual contributors work together in lock-step. Because ABM is centered on warming accounts that are being worked by reps, and providing individualized support for hot opportunities, the benefits of alignment permeate the entire go-to-market function (including customer success) and marshal resources on a single, all-important objective: closing more deals, more efficiently.

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