Account-Based Marketing: it's not what you think it is


Account-Based Marketing: it's not what you think it is

Michelle Thomas & Charles Baker

7 Things To Look For in a B2B ABM RFP

Consider this

  • 70% of B2B companies plan to increase their ABM investment (DemandBase, 2019)
  • On average, ABM budgets are more than a third (36%) of digital marketing/advertising spend, and are growing 9% annually (LinkedIn, A B2B Marketing Jumpstart to Account-Based Marketing, 2019)
  • 47% of B2B marketers use ABM to improve the efficiency of their marketing and boost return on investment (ROI) (LinkedIn, A B2B Marketing Jumpstart to Account-Based Marketing, 2019)
  • 40% of B2B marketers still find it challenging to develop the right content for their target audience (LinkedIn, A B2B Marketing Jumpstart to Account-Based Marketing, 2019)

ABM is not well understood 

There's a lot of hype around Account-Based Marketing (ABM) with reports and statistics showing how important and impactful it is for B2B companies. Still many companies are struggling to define what it means in the context of their business. It's often been described as a sales tactic, but the implications and responsibilities of ABM actually reach way beyond sales. In fact, ABM is not really a sales function at all - it really is about strategic customer management and the creation of a connected brand experience. Historically, brand marketing has been responsible for top-of-funnel awareness and sales responsible for bottom-of-funnel conversion; with ABM, there is an always-on customer-centric approach, requiring constant optimization and attention, that scales well beyond lead generation or sale conversion. Any capability within an organization who is responsible for building relationships with business customers, is part of ABM. 

According to Boston Consulting Group, there are three key types of ABM: 

  • Strategic (10s of Accounts) - creating and executing highly customized marketing plans for individual accounts through online and offline tactics
  • Scaled (100s of Accounts) - creating and executing lightly customized programs for segmented accounts with similar issues and needs, mostly through online tactics
  • Traditional (1000s of Accounts) - using technology to tailor programmatic marketing campaigns to the remaining addressable market by refining targeting, analytics, and personalization within online tactics

The bulk of the RFPs that we have seen recently focus primarily on Traditional ABM, with very focused questions around media and lead generation. Agencies that excel at ABM have strong capabilities around connections planning — the integration of media and messaging to deliver strong audience experiences, which drive business ROI. In order to maximize your understanding of how well your prospective agency can serve your ABM needs, leverage the questions below to help guide your way. 

1. How does your agency use intent data and look-alike modeling to develop a holistic media strategy and connections plan, that serves audience needs based on their journey stage? Intent data from vendors like Bombora can give you insight into which products and services a list of B2B accounts is interested in. It helps you see which companies are in-market and which are not. When we run a B2B account list through intent filtering, we often see there are cold companies that are not currently in-market, and warm/hot companies that are actively researching the desired list of products and services. When responding to an ABM RFP, a strong agency will develop a connections strategy that has a unique media and connections plan for cold accounts vs warm/hot accounts. Cold accounts will benefit from an upper funnel approach that talks about high level business benefits, to help nudge prospects in-market. For warm/hot accounts that are already in-market, the media strategy should focus on channels and tactics that are best suited for delivering product advertising, thought leadership and case studies to boost understanding and confidence among prospects. In addition to 3rd party intent data, there is a treasure trove of learnings that you can gain from your existing accounts.   

Analytics and business intelligence will uncover ways in which teams can activate insights to drive high value behaviors. Inquire about how agencies approach look-alike modeling to find accounts that mirror the behaviors and needs of existing accounts or predictive modeling to find accounts that have the best chance of converting (upsell or new).

2. What’s the role of channels across programmatic display, OLV, social and others? Based on the criteria above, the agency should deliver a clear channel strategy framework that outlines the role of each channel based on the audience segmentation and journey stage approach they recommend. Each channel should have clear messaging implications, reach and frequency forecasts, channel specific KPIs based on the role of the channel, and a POV on how the channel supports the broader marketing and ROI goals.

3. How could our ABM efforts influence direct mail and email marketing programs? Direct mail and email marketing are often neglected in ABM effort — recipients are often from the same account lists that are used for digital account-based marketing, but digital efforts are not well orchestrated with email marketing or direct mail efforts. To drive stronger cross-channel integration and boost ROI, your agency partner could leverage intent data filtering to help focus high cost direct mail on Warm/Hot accounts.

As your broader ABM efforts convert more cold accounts into warm/hot accounts, the direct mail delivery list will grow. This approach can help boost direct mail response rates by 2x or more, while saving you money. The same approach can be applied to email, and there may be opportunities to further integrate channel and message sequencing across direct mail and email together.

4. How should we think about audience roles and personas? Depending on the nature of the products and services you sell, there are various stakeholders within the target companies you want to market and sell to. As you RFP your agency partner, ask them for a POV on which stakeholders your account-based marketing efforts should focus on and how that would impact creative messaging and media. When evaluating the response, look for a solution that is thoughtful but not overly complex — standing up advanced account-based marketing programs often requires a multi-phases approach. In our experience, doing advanced message tailoring by role can often be a phase 2 or phase 3 effort. Be wary of any agency that promises the sky from day one.

At a minimum, it’s standard for any agency to look at audiences and personas through the lens of business decision maker roles versus I.T. decision makers, so look for that on the onset to make sure they have a POV on that foundational approach. Depending on your spend level and audience size, a uniform approach for phase 1 can be viable — but after evaluating the agency’s initial recommendations, consider asking for a multi-persona pilot test on LinkedIn or programmatic display during phase 1 or 2, that can help infuse future phases with directional learnings on what content and messaging can resonate with those nuanced audiences.

5. How should we think about industry verticals? To drive success in B2B, it’s important for a customer to have confidence that you understand their business and can therefore help them in ways a less knowledgeable party wouldn’t be able to — that’s part of what can help you stand out as a partner, versus just another vendor. Designing ABM programs to speak to industry vertical needs can be highly effective.

But the question becomes, how and where do we talk about industry verticals in marketing if at all? There are lots of good answers here and it really depends on your business. One good approach we’ve seen success with is to take a multi-industry approach for Cold audiences, where your messaging shows impact across a broad range of industries. And then when an account becomes Warm/Hot, you can put them into a specific industry audience pool for Warm/Hot accounts, where 70% of the messaging is around their product intent and other confidence boosters, and 30% of messaging is around case studies and other content related to their industry. Again, here there are many strong ways to structure a program, so look for a thoughtful response and the agency's ability to articulate a few good options they can partner with you on to refine.

6. What’s your creative strategy, and how often should we produce new content and ads for ABM? Throughout all of this, it’s really important to see that the agency is able to be agile and thoughtful on how to roll out messaging across their proposed media framework. And it’s important to see that they won’t be taking a set-it-and-forget it approach. Many mid-market and enterprise accounts can take months or years to become customers depending on your sales cycles and industry dynamics. That means that some accounts could spend months on your ABM media targeting pool(s). Standard creative wear-out analysis can be done, but often it will tell you that new ads aren’t needed that frequently. However, you need to really think like an executive producer for a TV network or an editor for a top online publisher — your audience will pay more attention and come to look forward to your content line-up if you have something interesting and fresh to say on an ongoing basis.

The agency you select should have an agile approach to content development and refreshes for ABM audiences. Ideally, you’ll have an ongoing process where every two weeks you’re updating one or two elements of your comms mix. It could be rotating a few new social ads with customer quotes or putting a new OLV into programmatic distribution. What’s important to see is that they have an agile, always-on approach to content development that will ensure your ABM audiences are being cared for.

7. What technology is required to execute ABM? Technology is only effective in ABM when it activates the strategy from the media and connections plan. Be cautious of the agency who over emphasizes technology (or a single platform) as the silver bullet that will solve all ABM challenges and generate immediate leads and revenue. It helps to think of technology holistically in the form of a "blueprint" that spans data, intelligence, experiences, measurement. 

      • Data = Heart, the lifeblood of all systems that fuels other systems (e.g., 1st party data, 3rd party data), establishing the foundation for ABM activation
      • Intelligence = Brain, the systems that turn data (e.g., journey stage, behavioral signals) into useful insights to help orchestrate and activate ABM across channels
      • Experiences = Hands, the systems that execute channel strategies (e.g., email, events, social selling) to drive ABM engagement across online and offline touchpoints
      • Measurement = Nervous System, the feedback mechanism for the effectiveness of ABM (e.g., attribution, ROI, business intelligence)
    • A good agency will recommend conducting an audit to ensure that the strategies that are put in place can actually be executed - the last thing you want is for an agency to sell you on something that is unrealistic in execution.  


As you embark on extending ABM responsibilities to an agency partner, these questions will help you see just how well the agency understands ABM. Beyond the key capabilities, look for cues on how well they tie together organizational needs, from sales to marketing to finance to operations, to drive strategic change and maturity. At the end of the day, ABM is a reflection of good relationship management practices that help drive investment decisions. Future growth will come down to how well you can activate your customer base, both prospective and existing, to drive behavioral change. 

Michelle Thomas & Charles Baker

VP, Connections Strategy

Michelle Thomas and Charles Baker are both VPs in Connections Strategy at Digitas. 


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