ABM hype cycle

Summary: What causes good marketers to execute bad ABM and fall victim to the hype cycle (plus, how to avoid disappointment.)

I think we’ve hit peak hype with ABM.

These days, you can’t trip over a B2B marketer without hearing them talk about Account Based Marketing (ABM). Adoption is on the rise, and more vendors than ever have attached themselves to the term to take advantage of the fervor. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways this is great, and exactly the type of excitement we predicted and hoped for when founding Engagio. To-date we have brought hundreds of organizations onto our platform to experience the benefits of ABM.

But, excitement comes with a consequence.

Hype inevitably creates backlash. Recently, a post featuring the “ABM Hype Cycle” has made the rounds, illustrating the sharp and quick rise in excitement, and a fall into a “trough of disillusionment” when expectations aren’t met:

(Source: #FlipMyFunnel)

Gartner began using the Hype Cycle in the 90s, and it can be applied to any new technology that earns a groundswell of activity and growth. In the post, Steve Watt argues that the Hype Cycle doesn’t just work for technological adoption, it can also be applied to new business strategies such as ABM — and as I’ve often argued, ABM is NOT a technology category, it is a business strategy.

As a founder situated firmly in the midst of the ABM hype, I want to address this perceived letdown, and offer some strategies for avoiding the hype cycle entirely.

First thing’s first:

ABM only works if it’s done right.

ABM is not a fad, it’s a fundamentally better way of doing business for high-value B2B sales and marketing. We know it works from the incredible success of Engagio customers, and from empirical studies proving ABM drives higher ROI than any other tactic for the vast majority of marketers.

But, ABM only works when it’s done right. The term may be everywhere right now, but few companies are really doing it optimally. Hype is causing some well-intentioned marketers to take shortcuts simply to “check the box” on ABM.

The danger is, ABM shortcuts are the fastest way to the “trough of disillusionment,” not to mention a huge waste of time, resources, and budget.

I get it — ABM done right is hard, and marketers are busy. Most CEOs don’t approach their CMO saying “do you want more budget and people to do this ABM thing?” So, it’s not surprising marketers take the easy path. But, it takes some real effort to work — and that’s the point. That’s what earns you the right to win business with high-value accounts.

Don’t forget, ABM is about identifying your highest-value target accounts, then finding creative ways to cut through the noise to engage with the right people. It’s about standing out. These executives aren’t raising their hands, as they do with inbound marketing. They haven’t expressed interest in you, as they do with lead-based demand generation.

To engage these buyers, you must delight, educate, and/or add value.

Or, as Watt recommends in his post, blow their minds!

B2B industries are more competitive today than ever before. They’re crowded, commoditized, noisy, and everybody is trying to knock on the same doors. Buyers are overwhelmed by this noise, and will immediately throw away anything uninteresting, hit “SPAM” on emails that smell like sales, and ignore your ads (no matter how targeted they may be).

We need to break through all that noise to be successful with ABM. The best way to do that is with customization.

Customization is not optional in ABM

We know from The Challenger Sale that the best B2B salespeople are able to teach their buyers, and tailor that teaching for each unique business. In addition, ITSMA studies show 75% of executives will read unsolicited marketing materials if relevant to their business, and 92% will pay attention to these materials even from providers they’ve not done business with before. But the key here is that it must be relevant — which means tailored to their business.

ABM requires high-value, customized, valuable touchpoints.

If you don’t find a way to stand out from all the noise, your ABM efforts won’t deliver on the promise and you’ll end up in the trough of disillusionment.

ABM is about focus — different styles of ABM

However, you can’t be super-customized for every account. You can’t blow the minds of every decision maker. Nobody has the resources for that. You need to make decisions as to where your energy goes, and where it doesn’t go. The whole point of ABM is that it’s an opportunity to focus more resources on the accounts that are the most valuable and the most meaningful.

That’s why target account selection is a critical step in ABM. But it’s not enough just to pick the accounts, since it’s unlikely that each target account is worth exactly the same value; you also need to put them into tiers.

ABM experts have long agreed that there are different styles ofABM. They’ve laid out three distinct ways that teams currently approach ABM. Here’s how we think about them at Engagio:

  • Strategic ABM – these are seven figure plus accounts that require and deserve true one to one engagement: deep research, personalized content, bespoke campaigns, and organizational-wide focus. Even the largest organizations will only have a handful of these whale accounts, and each ABM marketer will typically handle only four or five of them. When the ITSMA talks about ABM as treating each account as a “market of one”, this is what they’re talking about. (Note: Strategic ABM is most often used on existing customers. According to the ITSMA and ABM Leadership Alliance, 84% of strategic accounts are current customers.)
  • Scale ABM – in Scale ABM, each account gets personalized outreach but at a lighter level. For example, you might have a “lite” version of the Account Plan, and you might use the same basic campaign template but then customize it for each account’s unique business needs. By definition, scale ABM is more scalable than strategic ABM and can handle dozens of accounts (usually less than 100 total), but there’s still hard work and lots of human touch involved — and as a result this style is usually most appropriate for deals worth six figures.
  • Programmatic ABM done right – programmatic ABM evolved to deliver some of the benefits of the other styles of ABM but at a much greater scale for deals worth less than $100K. Done well, it can still deliver value to customers by delighting and/or educating them with industry- and role-specific content; personal, human emails; interesting direct mail; and other scaleable ABM tactics.

Each style of ABM should come with “entitlements”. Entitlements answer the question “what is the right amount of time, money and resources dedicated to each account in each style/tier of ABM?” The entitlements document the balance of investment in time and resources to target accounts, and serve as the service-level agreement (SLA) between marketing and sales as to who does what and when for each kind of account.

Once you’ve built alignment around your entitlements for each style, you’ll be able to determine how many accounts you can realistically support in each tier — which will inform your account selection process. Learn more about entitlements for account-based marketing here.

Programmatic ABM done wrong

Programmatic ABM done wrong occurs when marketers use the same tactics as they would in lead-based demand generation, but just happen to send them to target accounts. This is just targeted demand generation in disguise. (Hint: if you’re still tracking leads and MQLs and not marketing qualified accounts / MQAs, you’re probably at risk of this. By definition, ABM requires account-centric metrics.)

It’s here that many fall into the trough of disillusionment with ABM.

So often when marketers say “I’m doing ABM,” what they’re really doing is running some ads and maybe sending some direct mail packages to target accounts. Too often, these packages don’t amount to much more than sending some generic SWAG, and the only follow-up is a generic lead nurture track. These generic tactics aren’t going to break through the noise and connect with executive decision makers at named accounts.

I think, in an attempt to scale ABM, too many marketers have placed unrealistic expectations on programmatic tactics.

ABM is about saying no

As mentioned before, you can’t be customized for everybody, you don’t have the resources. That’s why programmatic tactics are so appealing, on the surface. It feels “scalable.” It appears to reach the largest possible audience. It casts a wide net. But, by relying on generic tactics we’re falling victim to the mindset of lead-based marketing. ABM is about fishing with spears, not nets.

To drive real account-based engagement, to stand out from all the noise, there are no shortcuts. It requires hard work, elbow grease, and the involvement of real, live, human beings. If you successfully close large deals, you know this to be true. Customization is not optional.

Advertising is not sufficient for Account Based Marketing

Let’s get real about ads.

As Michael Brenner said, “If content marketing is the hero of the modern marketing story, then banner ads are most certainly the villain.” Display ads carry an average CTR of 0.1%. In fact, you’re more likely to survive a plane crash, get into Harvard, or win the lottery, than have someone click on your banner ad.

I’m an executive. Personally, I can’t recall the last time I clicked on an ad.

Not to mention, display ads suffer serious issues including viewability, click fraud, bots, ad blockers, and viewer fatigue – not to mention the brand risk of having your ad show up on a site whose content you don’t agree with.

The account-based advertising platforms available today don’t allow for real customization or personalization beyond funnel stage and maybe industry. (Sticking the company name in the ad doesn’t count; that’s no better than saying “Dear [[FNAME]]” in an email.) By their very nature, ad networks force marketers into larger segments to have enough impressions – the opposite of the smaller, more targeted segments that ABM is all about.

In my opinion, ads are often the cause of the ABM trough of disillusionment.

ABM has become over-identified with advertising, and that’s a real disservice to the category.

When Ads Do Play a Role

Now, I’m NOT saying ads don’t work at all, and I’m NOT saying they don’t fit into an overall ABM strategy. They CAN work as part of an orchestrated campaign, especially if your goal is to increase awareness with a much broader set of people at a target account. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t rely on ads and feel confident that you’re “doing ABM” well. That requires a deeper ABM foundation and broader orchestration strategy.

The Data

Of course, don’t just take my word for it. We did some experiments at Engagio with integrated ABM plays in a campaign that included sending packages (two test versions) with valuable content and customized, handwritten notes for multiple target personas at key target accounts. For half the accounts, we also purchased advertising to see what incremental impact it had.

The results? Ads did provide a significant lift in web traffic from target accounts, but there was absolutely NO LIFT in our ability to get meetings with the right folks or to create opportunities at the accounts that had ads versus those that didn’t:

  • Package 1 only: 34% meeting rate
  • Ads and Package 2: 21% rate
  • Ads and Package 1: 20% rate
  • Package 2 only: 18% rate

Ads provide awareness, but most marketers aren’t just trying to drive awareness with ABM. They’re trying to drive meaningful engagement, meetings, and sales opportunities.

Remember, ABM works when you do it right. But, so many companies fail with ad-only ABM strategies, and that trough gets bigger and bigger.

So, what tactics do work for ABM?

The ITSMA asked ABM practitioners of each style of ABM what specific tactics were most effective. The conclusion: no matter which style of ABM, the most effective tactics involve custom, human interactions.

Source: ITSMA, Account Based Marketing Benchmarking Survey, March 2016

Even in programmatic ABM, the tactics that work best are the ones that deliver customized value.

The conclusion is simple: you simply cannot remove human beings from the ABM equation if you want to deliver customized value.

3 tips for the road ahead – getting the most value out of ABM

I hope by now you agree that avoiding the trough of disillusionment means executing ABM correctly, and that means there’s no “easy button”. But while it can be tough, it’s certainly not impossible. Here are my recommended steps forward to start – or maybe recover – your ABM initiative:

  1. Start with an account-based foundation.

ABM is not a year-long, painful, massive project that will derail your marketing organization. It certainly takes more time than ads do, but the rewards are worth it.

The most straightforward path to success starts by building your account foundation. Match leads to accounts (if you want to think with an account-centric lens, you need a single view of accounts), and begin to adopt concepts like MQAs, not MQLs. (Read the difference.)

  1. Partner with Sales.

Customization requires collaboration. As Watt’s hype cycle article says:

“New ways of going to market will require new ways of thinking, acting, and collaborating…. not enough that they sign off on it or otherwise passively agree. You need full, active co-ownership. Nothing less will create the conditions for real success.”

Book a recurring standup between someone on the Marketing team and Account Executives (and SDRs) to review target accounts and discuss ways to jointly go after them. Give Sales the insights they need into what’s happening with their accounts. (I don’t mean simple news alerts – I’m talking insight into cross-channel engagement.) Sales needs to know what marketing is doing, and what their accounts are doing.

  1. Orchestrate meaningful interactions.

Finally, put the tactics to work that are meant to work in ABM. Set up one-to-one meetings, create custom thought leadership, craft personalized emails, and drive executive engagement. Have a sales person, marketer, or member of your executive team take action at the right time, ensuring follow-up. Ads can play a role here, but they are not sufficient for meaningful engagement.

The bottom line – ABM is about setting expectations

The Hype Cycle article made some great points.

One, in particular, was about setting the right expectations. If you go into ABM without realigning the organization’s expectations – you’re walking into a buzzsaw. Traditional, lead-based metrics focus on quantity. ABM focuses on quality.

Set the right expectations, and stop relying on programmatic tactics to deliver the value that truly customized ABM delivers. You’ll set your ABM initiative up for success – and avoid that dreaded trough entirely.