Steve Patti is a former B2B CMO, agency CEO, and CxO advisor with 30 years of international experience helping brands grow revenues. Earlier this year, he launched The B2B Content Agency to provide clients with buyer research, message strategy and insight-lead sales narratives. I talked to Steve recently about the rise of Account-Based Marketing (ABM), ABM content, and how and where branding and messaging play a role in ABM success.
(HS) Where do most B2B companies trip up when it comes to executing on ABM?
(SP) The same mistake that marketers were making 10 years ago with marketing automation (provisioning the MA platform and then realizing they lacked the content to launch drip campaigns) is being repeated with ABM. That is, marketing teams that embark on ABM initiatives end up provisioning dynamic web content and ad delivery tools and then realizing they lack the account-level messaging to create all the dynamic pages and ads required to run the campaigns.
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History repeats itself all over again – only this time it’s a steeper hill to climb. That’s because a decade ago, marketers were merely learning how to deliver automated nurture tracks to buyers at the segment level. However, with ABM, the message granularity just increased exponentially and brands simply aren’t prepared to handle it. With ABM, it’s no longer good enough to deliver segment-based messaging (for example, healthcare) – marketers need to be able to deliver messaging that is relevant and timely for individual accounts (e.g. McKesson versus United Healthcare). To do this, marketers must establish a process for curating news, events, and business insights for each target account so that they can create relevant content on a weekly or monthly basis that speaks to the business challenges of each target account.
(HS) At a recent martech conference, I heard the view expressed that branding may be making a comeback in B2B circles in part because of ABM, and the notion of measuring success not just on clicks and conversions, but by account-level “engagement” and even awareness. Do you agree? Does branding have a significant role to play in ABM?
(SP) I believe branding is making a comeback because marketers are finally realizing that deploying martech tools to automate the delivery of undifferentiated messages isn’t enough to engage and convert prospects. The power to convert leads lies in the message – not the software.
The tidal wave of investor cash in martech companies over the past 10 years has created a hype cycle whereby the answer to every marketing challenge is to provision another tool. This creates more disparate data silos, stress on IT departments, and robs more time from already over-worked marketing staff. We need to step back for a moment and ask ourselves: what is ABM in the first place? It’s the idea that vendors develop a deep understanding of the business goals and challenges of individual target accounts and then tailor value propositions and ongoing communications that specifically demonstrate how the vendor can deliver the business outcomes the prospect is seeking.
ABM “done right” requires three core skills: (i) account-level insight curation, (ii) account-level tailored messaging, and (iii) automated message delivery. Because the martech community continues to promote tools such as IP-targeted website content and digital ad delivery platforms, nobody is focused on the real heavy lifting: message tailoring.
What brands inevitably come to realize after they embark on ABM programs is that they need to go back to basics. There are three core message elements that they need to align before they can expect to engage individual accounts: brand strategy, value propositions, and sales talking points. Unless these three are aligned and tailored for buyer relevance, the ABM initiative will falter. Harvard Business School professor Frank Cespedes says “any strategy lives or dies on the basis of its customer value proposition” and I couldn’t agree more. In the absence of value, sales organizations default to pricing as their primary mechanism for closing deals.
(HS) How critical is it for companies to have their brand statement, “story” and key messages on solid ground before embarking on ABM?
(SP) It’s critically important. Brand strategy has been misunderstood for years as it’s often confused with brand identity – the visual expression of the brand. Let’s face it, the color of a brand logo has little impact on sales results, but a brand’s positioning is critical. Remember, brands create preference and help people makes choices. The purpose of branding is to ensure your product or service is the preferred choice in the minds of buyers. What could be more fundamental to sales results?
The advice I give brands considering an ABM initiative is to first document the answers to three key questions: who are you targeting, what business problem(s) do you solve for the target(s), and how do you do it in a unique way? These are foundational brand strategy questions that are key to build credible, relevant ABM messaging. The brand positioning serves as the foundation from which brands can begin developing value propositions for each of the target segments it defined, and then further tailor value propositions for specific accounts within that target segment, and then ultimately tailor value propositions for each buyer persona.
SiriusDecisions and IDC note that “brands unable to articulate business value experience 24% longer sales cycles and 20% deeper price discounting.” Brand positioning is a lot of work, but it produces an incredibly powerful Message Map to guide all marketing narratives: website copy, email copy, digital ads, social posts, blogs, etc.
(HS) Thanks Steve!