The Evolution of Account-Based Marketing

In my consulting days at Microsoft, I was fortunate to get a peek behind the curtain at the tactics that have been used by both the US and Worldwide sales teams for two decades. Those days it was called “Account Planning” (what we now call account-based marketing), and it was vital to nurturing and closing enterprise software deals. The process and tools were custom-built and expensive. The time involved was enormous. However, the average deal size justified the investment many times over.

One anecdote I recall was a contract for a large US government entity. It was an account plan to upgrade the entire organization to the next version of Windows – literally millions of licenses. It also included upgrades to back office software like SQL Server and Exchange. In order to facilitate this deal worth ten figures to Microsoft (and high seven figures for the sales rep), a massive amount of data was gathered about the group of people involved in making it happen. For the business owners on the customer side, the account plan included details like their favorite food, political leanings, what they liked to drink, and details about their families – right down to how many kids they had, what their names/ages were, and what sports they were involved in.

Why is such detail necessary? It comes down to building a relationship and trust, and personalizing the message, whether the distribution channel for that message is a phone call, email, or any other form of communication. When the customer feels like you know them, listen attentively, and tailor messages that are clearly just for them, they are far more likely to see the relationship as a partnership. Forming a partnership that creates value for both sides made these deals possible and is the lifeblood of enterprise software companies like Microsoft.

This type of account planning and hands-on management is known today as “account-based sales.” It’s the sales team that is connecting with the account.

Technology has enabled account-based marketing

Marketing automation has become ubiquitous in the mid-market and SMB space, in particular for B2B software-as-a-service companies, mid-sized consumer-facing retailers, and digital agencies who manage multiple marketing efforts simultaneously. Platforms like Act-On have unlocked capabilities at scale that are essential for driving demand, managing prospects, and shortening sales cycles. Connected services have also pushed sales and marketing teams to collaborate more than they have in the past.

It’s only natural that some of the same principles that drive account planning at the enterprise level are being adopted by smaller companies. Marketing automation platforms have rich ecosystems of plug and play apps that accelerate this evolution. They strengthen the platform at a rate of innovation that would not be possible for individual companies to imagine and on their own. Even a behemoth like Salesforce has nearly 3,000 apps built by third parties in their app exchange.

Consider too that the buyer has changed, becoming more proactive in research and sometimes becoming as much as 75% of the way toward a decision before consenting to talk with sales. This means that for the greater portion of the sales cycle, the buyer is in the care of the marketing team. This, in turn, means that in order to nurture accounts more effectively for the duration, the marketing team should adopt those same account planning principles used by enterprise sales teams. Given today’s convergence of technology and opportunity, the marketing team now can do just that.

A use case to illustrate the point

Account-based marketing isn’t a new concept – it has a long history of driving incredible ROI for the enterprise. How do the same principles that drive the account planning process at the enterprise level apply to the SMB and mid-market with automated account-based marketing tactics? Let’s explore a simple example:

You’re a typical B2B company utilizing current best practices for creating demand and nurturing prospects. One program you have in place is a gated piece of content – a case study that requires a form fill to download. About two months ago someone, let’s call her Susan Smith, downloaded the case study and filled out the following details:

  • Name: Susan Smith
  • Title: Social Media Marketer
  • Company: Gigastruct, Inc.

For the last 60 days you’ve included her in your standard nurture flow. You’ve updated her on a new case study, informed her when new product releases ship, and sent her the monthly newsletter.

Using Act-On to track activity, you’ve seen her engage a few more times and she’s even downloaded another case study. While this interaction is valuable, you have a problem: your typical decision-making buyer is usually a Director or VP of marketing – and you have a product that covers much more than just social media marketing. While Susan may see enough value to remain engaged, you know that your biggest success comes from creating relationships with digital marketers who are more generalists and a little higher up the food chain.

Without automation, your options are pretty limited. You’d be forced to manually try to determine who Susan reports to, how big is the marketing team at Gigastruct, Inc., and other details to help accelerate the marketing/sales cycle by getting your message to the right person (whoever that person may be).

Now imagine your world with automation enabled by Act-On and leveraging third party plugins like Siftrock. Your latest nurture email to Susan was sent while she was on vacation. As is typical in this situation, Susan set an auto responder on her email account which was sent back to the alias you used to send the nurture email. The content of her auto reply:


I’m currently on vacation through June 30th. While I’m out please direct any immediate questions regarding social programs to our content analyst Bob Jones ([email protected]). For general demand or other marketing questions please contact Jennifer Hutchinson, director of demand gen at [email protected]



Siftrock automatically creates two new contacts associated with Gigastruct, Inc., in your Act-On account. Over time, as you nurture these new contacts appropriately, a complete picture starts to form about your prospect company. Gigastruct, Inc., is no longer an individual contact to you, but an entire team. This gives you the ability to tailor messaging based on differing roles and impact.

Account-based marketing, as illustrated in this flow diagram, is about building a relationship with all the applicable stakeholders within a targeted company. It is a process that takes time, planning, and strategic resources.

Selling a product or service is about finding a pain point and articulating a solution that removes that pain. The probability that you’ll find a great product/market fit with a target company goes up dramatically when you focus your efforts on removing pain from the team rather than one individual. Any one person may not find nearly as much value in your offering as a colleague, superior, or even subordinate in many cases.

Automation is the key to applying these tactics at scale for SMB, mid-market, and agency marketing teams. Tools like Siftrock, combined with the power of automation, open the door for simple, automated, and cost-effective account-based marketing tactics for businesses of all sizes. Leads are no longer just an email address or single contact at a target company. A focused effort across an entire team or department yields better results as marketing teams establish relationships with multiple decision-makers.

Find your advocate, find your buyer, find that one person on the team who doesn’t believe in your value. Fine-tune your message and convert the whole team into believers while removing a roadblock to closing a key customer.

We are at the beginning of an evolution that will change how we think about leads, personas, and nurturing. Marketing teams who adapt quickly will not only survive, but thrive as they embrace the change.

Account-based marketing has captured the attention of the marketing industry for good reason. According to ITSMA, 84% of B2B marketers say that ABM delivers a higher ROI than any other approach. Download, How to Profit from Account-Based Marketing, to learn the five key principles of ABM and you’ll be able to deploy a successful ABM strategy that produces real and repeatable success – with technology you probably already have.