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In 2017, the hype-that-wouldn’t-go-away finally appears to be giving way to sobriety, as B2B businesses of all sizes and industries come to grips with account-based marketing.

But as the chatter dissipates, and the industry starts focusing on tangible ways to implement ABM, one awkward question is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid: Was the very notion of “account-based marketing” always a misnomer to begin with?

ABM: Problem Solved? Not Quite…

Account-based marketing emerged as a solution to a very basic problem for B2B marketers.

As illustrated in a recent survey by the Marketing Technology Industry Council, B2B marketers’ primary concern is helping to drive sales objectives. The survey of senior marketers revealed that their biggest business goal was driving traffic and leads (34%), followed by acquiring and retaining customers (29%). “Traditional” marketing activities ranked far lower, with “brand awareness” coming in as a distant 3rd at 15%.

But this objective is becoming increasingly difficult. Despite having access to more data on potential leads than ever before — or more accurately, precisely because of that limitless access — fishing for the right leads feels more and more like looking for a needle in a haystack. And only slightly more productive.

ABM, we are told, helps marketers get around that problem by focusing their efforts on target accounts (i.e. companies) instead of grasping blindly for leads.

But there’s just one problem: ultimately, you don’t market to “a company.” You market to people. Whether you are mounting an “account-based” approach or not, your audience is made up of precisely the same individual people.

So while there are certainly many merits to starting with accounts as your focus, it still boils down to individual people/leads at the end of the day. Your starting point with ABM might be accounts rather than leads, but once you’ve found the right account you still need the right data and intelligence on both company itself and, more to the point, on the right people within those accounts, to generate qualified leads, to actually engage with the account!

Related: How to Target “Named Accounts” for Account-Based Marketing

So the big data problem remains: how do you find that information amid an endless sea of big data that’s only getting larger all the time?

What’s more, in many ways ABM actually compounds the data and intelligence challenges plaguing B2B marketers. Effective ABM requires additional intelligence requirements such as lead-to-account matching and site-level matching — as if you didn’t have enough work to do already. That in turn requires additional technologies (and there are no shortage of ABM technologies out there) to further tie your marketing stack in a knot.

Big data: It wasn’t supposed to be this way!

ABM is hardly the first B2B marketing innovation to generate so much hype. Not that long ago, marketers were doing the same thing with “big data.”

The explosion of big data was supposed to make everything easier, by giving marketers all the information they could ever need to find the right people and target them properly — and then some.

But that “and then some” quickly became a serious problem: there’s just too much data out there to humanly process.

Compounding this problem is the unfortunate fact that the B2B marketing technology industry simply did not evolve to marketers’ needs in this area in the way their B2C counterparts did. As a result, B2B lead generation today consists largely of very talented, hard-working markers and salespeople fiddling with a hodgepodge of poorly-integrated, partially-effective technologies, in a vain attempt to make sense of their data and pinpoint their ideal customers.

Related — Infographic: The Key Challenges and Benefits of B2B Martech Today

And that method isn’t working out too well, as the Marketing Technology Industry Council survey further revealed. For example, 50% of marketing executives say they are juggling “too many” marketing technologies, while 49% cite difficulties integrating so many disparate systems as one of their major headaches.

Worse still, even with all that investment, just 12% said they saw significant value creation from their marketing technologies.

To get ABM right, you need to know your audiences

Of course, none of this takes away from the many very real, very tangible benefits of account-based marketing. There’s a good reason why “more than 70 percent of B2B companies have staff that are fully or partially dedicated to driving ABM-specific programs,” according to a SiriusDecisions’ 2016 State of ABM Study.

So in answer to the question at the start of this article: no, ABM is not a “misnomer” per sa.

But the terminology can be misleading to the point of skewing our understanding (or unrealistically inflating our expectations) of what ABM can do, or is meant for in the first place.

With account-based marketing, as with any other method of marketing, you still need to know your audiences — who they are, what channels to reach them on, and which messages will resonate with them and encourage engagement — in order to market effectively.

Pursuing ABM before you understand the actual people your efforts should be targeting are is like trying to run before you can walk. Just as there is no point in using even the most advanced marketing technology if your data is bad, ABM without the right data and intelligence on your audiences really is just “hype.”

Once you have that information, however — and the ability to execute on it — account-based marketing can certainly be a highly effective approach to demand generation.

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