An ever more digital experience: The past, present and future of ABM
Account-Based Marketing has enjoyed an enormously impressive few years
Despite a recent surge, ABM has actually been around since before the turn of the millennium. From humble beginnings as a handy sales tool to a fully-fledged deal-closer in its own right, it has been gaining momentum for two decades. By early 2020, well-drilled ABM practitioners such as ourselves were able to create huge opportunities for our clients by following a precise, well-studied formula.
Then everything changed, and that formula went out of the window.
Thanks to Covid-19, today’s ABM landscape is vastly different from how it looked a year ago. Gone are the days when personalisation was a set of drag-and-drop details. To speak to the hearts and minds of today’s buyer, with the pandemic having rubbed out crucial programme elements such as direct mails and events, marketers have to create unique, immersive experiences for them. It’s happening more and more, and it’s taking ABM into an exciting, more experience-led future. Now the changes are in motion, that’s not going to stop.
And so, by taking you through ABM’s past, and the state of play we’ve reached today, we hope to gain a better understanding of how it might look in the future, with unique customer experiences playing a fundamental role. We’ll even throw in a few of our favourite recent case studies for good measure.
Don Peppers and Martha Rogers’ book The One to One Future was the first to forecast the move from mass marketing to a more 1:1 approach all the way back in 1993, but it took the best part of a decade for that forecast to take shape. By 2002, pioneering brands like Accenture and Unisys were using client-centric marketing methods, and in 2004 the IT Service Marketing Association (ITSMA) first coined the term Account-Based Marketing. This, coupled with the ongoing digital revolution, began ABM’s rise.
Over the next 10 - 15 years, a clear framework – or rather, 3 clear frameworks – have taken shape.
– One-to-many ABM, which serves tailored content to carefully selected clusters of target accounts
– One-to-few ABM, which does so with a handful of targets
– One-to-one ABM, which tailors the content to each individual target, offering them a unique route to purchase
Each of the three ABM methods – the latter in particular – made use of personal touches to convert. From face to face sales meetings to events, to highly-personalised direct mailers and gifts, it was the sense of exclusivity that made them such potent marketing weapons and that – up until the beginning of 2020 – was posting such remarkable results. 87% of marketers saw their other marketing methods outperformed by ABM, and just 6% of B2B respondents said they didn’t use ABM in some form.
Then along came Covid, and the tactile, unique elements that made ABM great were no longer available. For ABM to survive, it needed to adapt, and over the last year or so that’s exactly what it’s done.
Inspired by the past, built for the future: Centred around a bespoke, personalised DM that went out to 10 key targets, our award-winning one-to-one ABM campaign for Karhoo is a great example of what pre-Covid ABM was able to achieve. But with highly tailored messaging and unique creative touches, it hints to a brighter future...
When lockdown hit and budgets came down, the initial fear was that it would lead to hesitation from brands. Should they scale back their ABM offering? Or if not, should they at least focus on a less personalised, more demand-gen-like approach that could follow a more scattergun account selection policy?
In fact, the opposite has been true. At an extraordinary time, where people are missing that personal touch, the most successful ABM campaigns have leaned into the one-to-one approach, using innovative thinking to replace those traditional physical personalised touches.
What it’s led to, and what permeates the best ABM programmes today, is a truly personalised online experience for every target account. One that begins in the research phase, identifying not only those industries and businesses that are most likely to convert, but also the job personas and individual data to identify the personality type of those being targeted. Tools like Crystal Knows then allow the marketer to use that personality type to tailor language, comms and campaign messaging towards them, while intent tools like Cyance and Bombora help them be reactive and agile around industry changes, deciding which touch-points the target should engage with.
When it comes to those personal touches that have always made one-to-one special, the landscape has been reinvented. Without the landmark of industry events, webinars and online events have been pushed to new limits, incorporating truly immersive, interactive elements. While the comforting, tactile elements of a creative DM have been missed, interactive landing pages have come a long way, allowing for more bespoke personalisation and limitless possibilities. And, to keep the sales teams in their targets’ minds while they can’t physically meet, personalised sales videos sent through platforms like LinkedIn retain that unique one-to-one touch.
So what’s next for ABM? What happens when things return to normal – whatever that might look like? Will it slip back into the comfortable, pre-lockdown norm? No chance. While crucial elements such as events and DMs will return, these innovative, digital experiences are here to stay. What’s more, the future will bring a whole host of new possibilities, building one-to-one experiences that ABM’s early trailblazers could barely have imagined.
Detailed, technographic data: It may be one from the past, but our one-to-one ABM campaign for Applaud was highly forward-thinking in terms of the granular data we were able to extract during the research phase. In the future, more and more of this data will be available.
Imagine better, more predictive AI informing your account research, identifying and categorising targets in ever-more granular and interpretive ways, before combining that with a sophisticated understanding of the individual buyer within the account. Using AI, we will be able to interpret not only their personality type, but their unique individual behaviours, the way they interact, and the way they like to be interacted with.
Imagine greeting your targets at a sales event not with an ordinary sales desk but with an interactive VR booth, one that they need only scan their event lanyard into to access a unique experience, tailored for them. Using your deeper account understanding, you can inform your creative executions, categorising them not – as we do now – but by something altogether more persuasive. Perhaps the video-game-lovers are served with an interactive VR game, while the avid travellers are taken through relevant – and persuasive – industry-based content. Whatever they’re served, it is tailored to their exact business challenge, without ever having to ask them for the information. The possibilities are enormous.
Then, imagine taking these executions and serving them within ever-more innovative digital frameworks, with an interactive set of touch-points that learns and modifies itself throughout the process based on the target’s response.
With not even a year since the global pandemic hit, ABM has come a long way. How far it has yet to go is anyone’s guess.