What account-based marketing means for thought leadership

Rob Mitchell

Last week, I was chatting to a friend who works at a large technology business. He was frustrated: he could see the need for his company to invest in a new cloud-based accounting system, but he was struggling to get buy-in from the numerous colleagues involved in the decision. Although some agreed with him, others had opposing views, and the whole issue was becoming mired in internal politics.

Anyone who has worked in a large organisation knows that this is not an unusual situation. Yet traditional approaches to B2B marketing are not geared towards addressing the issue. In recent years, I’ve often heard it said that “B2B buyers are consumers too – not just decision-makers”. The accepted wisdom here is that we need to think of these buyers as individuals, who approach buying a product such as an accounting system in the same way as they would buying a car.

But the situation experienced by my friend calls this into question. We don’t need to consult with 10 people when we buy a car, but it’s almost mandatory when a large organisation invests in anything over a certain value. So, how do you adapt your marketing to target those 10 people, who might have very different roles, backgrounds and perspectives?

What is account-based marketing?

A growing number of companies think that account-based marketing (ABM) is the answer. This approach has been around since the 1990s and is rapidly gaining traction after years of being something of a niche pursuit. A recent survey from SiriusDecisions found that 92% of companies recognise the value of ABM, and 60% say they plan to invest in the approach so that they can more closely align their sales and marketing activities.

ABM is all about defining a relatively small number of targeted, high-potential accounts, mapping out the key decision-makers within each account, then targeting them with tailored content and campaigns. This is very different from traditional marketing strategies, which have typically taken a broader approach based on targeting individual buyers (or buyer personas) within certain verticals or categories.

So what are the implications for B2B thought leadership of a shift towards ABM?

A new level of targeting

We’ve been saying for some time that companies need to focus their content on a more defined target audience. ABM takes this further, by urging companies to produce content that is tailored to an account level.

Generating content that truly speaks to the needs of individuals may sound like an expensive approach, but if it leads to returns from key accounts, then the investment will be worth it.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t require you to create entirely different thought leadership for each account. Follow the 80/20 rule, where 80% of the content is common to all accounts, and 20% is tailored.

A wider range of decision-makers

Going back to the example of my friend and his technology firm, B2B marketers need to engage all potential decision-makers within the target account – not just one of them.

Creating CIO-focused content, for example, is not enough if the CFO, COO and CEO are also involved in the buying decision. Again, your content can be adapted for these roles – we’re not suggesting you create entirely different assets for each role and function.

An inverted content funnel

Traditional thought leadership encourages us to think about the buyer journey, starting out with broad, brand-building content to raise awareness, and continuing on to consideration and action.

ABM takes the opposite approach. There’s no initial ‘awareness-raising’ stage, because the entire emphasis is on accounts that have already been identified and are likely to convert. This has big implications for thought leadership: brands can focus more on targeted content and less on trying to reel in and engage audiences.

A focus on different metrics

If ABM requires marketers to flip the content funnel, then it stands to reason that they’ll have to track a different set of KPIs. Most thought leadership producers spend a lot of time tracking engagement: visits to the website; downloads; dwell time. But, in the ABM world, where your targets are a far more focused list of accounts, these metrics matter much less. What really matters here is how quickly you can convert these accounts into customers and brand advocates, so design your content specifically with these goals in mind.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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