ABM and Content Marketing Thrive in the Age of the Customer

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From the point of view of many companies, the state of marketing begins and ends with marketing technology. We hear daily about the 5,500-plus technologies, the creation of a new job category called marketing technologist, how the technology decisions have begun shifting to the chief marketing officer, and how spending on MarTech went up year after year until 2017, when it dipped, according to Gartner, due to CMOs’ concerns about managing that budget.

We’ve also heard (from people like me) about the needed accountability of marketers for revenue and the consequent desire (still very important) for marketing and sales to align their objectives, definitions, and work to provide the most frictionless possible road to meeting revenue goals.

If you are focused on engagement and marketing, then the customer journey has been your paramount way of identifying, understanding, and reaching customers.

But while all of the above definitely remains on the marketing agenda, marketing itself—meaning how we market, what we provide, how we even look at the discipline—has been changing, and the changes are advanced enough that we can see which approaches are most effective as 21st-century customers get more demanding and try to engage more actively with companies.

Marketing has traditionally served as the first line of engagement, providing signals that appeal to individual customers, separating the company from the noise. Pushing sharp and demographically targeted messages via campaigns and then understanding the results and tweaking the campaigns were the primary duties of the marketer.

But things changed dramatically when customers were able to demand more, leverage their control of the conversations, research vendors online, learn about the real-world experience others had with companies, and get information that in the past was available only to the company.

Twenty-first-century marketers must understand customers from the time they begin their journeys to when they become engaged, fully engaged, or even disengaged. It means that, in effect, the marketer’s job is to provide personalized attention to each of the potentially millions of customers in the commonwealth of self-interest that makes up the 21st-century customer’s “institution of record and engagement.”

What does this mean for marketing itself?

I’m suggesting two forms of marketing that are more than panaceas or fads, that are practical ways of addressing the real-time needs of digital customers. They are by no means a total marketing strategy—and there are other promising approaches—but they both can be considered paradigms for fostering engagement.

ACCOUNT-BASED MARKETING

Account-based marketing (ABM) is the product of an age of individualization and personalization. Its rapid adoption is arguably the most significant recent trend in marketing. My great friend Laura Kratchnova, CEO of ScratchMM, found recently that 37 percent of companies adopted ABM already and another 33 percent were either launching or considering it. In a 2016 report SiriusDecisions found that marketing departments were allotting 11 percent to 30 percent of their budgets to ABM.

ABM’s appeal lies in its effectiveness in B2B efforts. Rather than mass marketing, it relies on focusing time, effort, and insight in designing approaches and campaigns personalized to named accounts.

To be fair, it’s not a shiny new concept. Don Peppers and Martha Rogers pioneered a complete customer-centered one-to-one marketing worldview and methodology in 1993 in their seminal work The One-to-One Future. Similar approaches have been proposed since, including targeted account marketing. But customers in decades past weren’t as brand-savvy or content-consuming as contemporary customers, nor did they have the same information access or social leverage. ABM adoption grew from customer pressure, not sales pressure.

ABM typically works this way:

1. Identify the accounts via the data you have and the markets in which you compete.

2. Align sales and marketing teams around common definitions, objectives, rules of engagement, process flow, and accountability.

3. Map the accounts. Who are the decision makers? Who are the influencers? What challenges do the named accounts have?

4. Create specific personalized content for each account. Make it relevant and note that the content could potentially be delivered in real time.

5. Identify the channels you will use to communicate with the named accounts.

6. Launch marketing campaigns in concert with sales.

7. Evaluate the results, often using analytics. Learn from successes and failures.

8. Rinse and repeat.

As straightforward is it sounds, ABM has significant challenges, and the biggest is probably obvious: How do you deliver a personalized engagement for each of your named accounts?

That said, mastering ABM can yield stellar results. The ScratchMM study presented an anonymous case study—a B2B software company that sells virtual desktop management software to midmarket and enterprise firms. The results were impressive: The average deal size went from $18,000 to more than $50,000; the average sales development rep generated 200 percent more pipeline—from $300,000 to $900,000—per month; and opportunity conversion went from 18 percent to 22 percent.

And according to ITSMA, the organization that claims to have pioneered ABM in 2004, 85 percent of marketers feel that ABM delivers the greatest return of any marketing discipline.

CONTENT MARKETING

Here’s the definition of content marketing provided by the Content Marketing Institute (yes, it has its own institute): “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Content marketing is based on providing, not necessarily pushing (e.g. self-service), the appropriate content to a specific audience, in the way the audience wants to receive it. It can be exceptionally valuable to active opportunities when focused on providing content relevant to the stage of the process where customers are. In the “B2B Buyers Landscape Report” from DemandGen, two things stand out: The provision of relevant content was one of the most prevalent reasons B2B buyers chose a winning vendor; and more than two-thirds of respondents said relevant content was the single most important thing a buyer-to-be looks for on a vendor website.

Content marketers have to be able to handle the individual—and often real-time—needs of customers seeking relevant content. New technologies, such as Pitney Bowes’ EngageOne personalized video solution, can deliver highly personalized content. The corollary issue is that if marketers can provide the documents, video, podcasts, etc., that customers need, what kind of return can be projected for the vendor?

Clearly, content marketing overlaps to some extent with ABM—both are concerned with providing relevant, timely content to customers. But when you need to do it at scale, it can be daunting: You might be dealing with millions of customers simultaneously, each demanding something slightly different.

American Express is always dealing at scale. Over the past several years, in my analyst guise, I’ve met with its representatives. AmEx is a master at providing personalized content. In 2015, I met with an AmEx representative who oversaw optimizing the customer experience on the company’s consumer card websites. She explained that AmEx was constantly using Adobe A/B testing tools to optimize the content provided to each customer that visited its websites. Based on the customer’s journey, which the company monitored and continuously tested, the content that appeared would constantly change.

The demands on marketers are white-hot now and only going to increase, since they are required to operate in near real time to meet customers’ greedy needs. Luckily, the marketing technology exists to handle scale and speed. But even more importantly, the recognition exists that things have to change—and change quickly to meet market needs head on.


Paul Greenberg is managing principal of The 56 Group, a customer strategy company. He is the author of CRM at the Speed of Light, which is in nine languages and is currently in its fourth edition. He is also the author of the upcoming The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Customer Engagement, Business Benefit (Harvard Business Press, 2018).

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