Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Making ABM work in a digital world – is marketing close enough to sales today?

By Orla Murphy, director and founder of Seeblue Marketing.

I’m a big proponent of Account Based Marketing because it works no matter the size of the company. There are numerous ingredients to making it work but the guiding principle is to research every inch of your prospect before you start building a relationship.  

However, Covid has presented new challenges and while targeted campaigns can be delivered online not everything works in a digital environment. You only need to look at the impact the lack of in-person events is having. No longer can you meet prospects in person and build a rapport, now you have to hunt them out on LinkedIn.

It’s evident not everyone is comfortable with the shift. Some sales teams are very traditional in their makeup and haven’t had the training required to adapt their approach. As a result, I hear constant pleas for salespeople to stop the rapid fire ‘connect and sell’ approach that many people have been subjected to.

This disgruntlement should act as a wake-up call and be used as an opportunity to differentiate – if your competitors are doing a poor job then there’s a chance for you to stand out with a different tactic.

The first thing to do as marketers then is to acknowledge that the move to digital selling is a challenge for some relationship-led salespeople, even though it’s a trend they need to embrace. Gartner says that by 2025 80% of the sales process will be conducted digitally. (Personally, I think it will happen sooner than that looking at the way the tech industry has embrace online ABM programmes.)

Marketers should therefore support and run digital enablement programmes with and for their sales colleagues and find alternatives to the ‘let’s connect and pitch’ approaches that are mostly well intentioned, but poorly executed.

Easier said than done, and it drives home the point that marketeers need to think like salespeople, and sales teams need to think like marketeers to move ahead. That will only come by spending time in each others’ shoes. So for example, by attending the sales meetings that have been secured, marketing can use the knowledge they glean to produce marketing materials that help the process along.

That said, it can’t all be about producing collateral. There is also a culture shift that’s required, by which I mean that marketing needs to show sales teams how to engage and build a rapport online at a very personal level. A part of this will be to provide guidance on how to interact online, respond to posts, share useful content, and write a connection request that doesn’t put people off. In doing so, there’s more scope to add real value and build a relationship that lasts and moves into a sales pipeline.

So where to start?

Let’s start with marketing and the need to understand sales using research and insight. We all know understanding the prospect is a critical success factor for ABM. That hasn’t gone away. But getting your hands on it as a marketer can be hard especially if you work on a 1:1 basis – you rarely get access to a customer to gather thoughts directly.

But when everything moved to video calls last spring, the opportunity to listen in to conversations between prospects and the sales team presented itself. It’s the perfect way to get faster and more meaningful insight into what pain points a company has and what they are looking for in a partner and solution.

Not only does this help marketers get close to the customer psyche, but they also get closer to the sales team, which is really important for a successful ABM strategy. ABM works on demonstrating the precise value you can add to an individual, their team and company. If you have been able to get under the skin of the company and its strategy you are a lot closer to closing a deal.

As business will continue to happen online for the foreseeable future, digital has to be top of the list for campaigns. In the past, ABM campaigns that were high cost but also high performing would have included direct mail to someone’s desk and possibly outdoor display ads on commuter routes and near offices.

Since Covid hit, the only option has been full digital execution of campaigns and even now, as some people are going back to the office part-time, it would be foolish to switch back and recommend sending mailers to an empty desk or paying for an ad in a location that has very little footfall.

But I’d bet competitors are having the same thoughts. So, while the good news is that digital execution helps to keep the costs down, it also means you have to work even harder to stand out.

That’s why we are strong advocates of the ‘Challenger’ approach. It uses disruptive and creative thinking to cut through the noise and develop a narrative to alter your prospect’s understanding of the status quo. Perhaps their view of tech investments is driven by cost and productivity benefits. But what if that investment also reduces the time an engineer spends on the road and the CO2 emissions generated? Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) is a board level priority for many, so you can see how it would capture attention.

When you’ve identified the right message, you can then work out the best delivery method – so for instance outdoor display campaigns will be replaced by highly targeted social campaigns. This ensures the people you want to speak to are seeing your message loud and clear.

So far so good. But only if you have the notion of building lasting relationships at the heart of it all. It’s clear that where sales is working hand in glove with marketing deals are being done. And from my experience, the deals are big and have longevity.

We’ve been in danger of forgetting that people buy people this last year, and I can already see that the companies that really understand what clients want, the challenges they face and the solutions they need, and can bring it all to life, are winning. Is it time you were among them?


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