Lately, I’m hearing a lot of anxiety around the concept of competitive differentiation, both in articulating the characteristics of a firm that key competitors aren’t talking about and having a strategy to promote these characteristics that will entice customers to buy.
Account-based marketing (ABM) is a strategy that organizations, including my own, have increasingly adopted to differentiate from the competition. This approach resists serving everyone and instead focuses on select customers. It requires using an understanding of customers to find what distinctive value you can bring to each of them.
Eight years ago, when I founded one of the first account-based marketing consultancies, ABM was a little-known term. But with as much as 70% of business to business (B2B) organizations now either adopting or planning to adopt an account-based approach to communicate the differentiators that customers care about, can it still be used to distinguish your firm from similar competitors?
The answer, like most things, lies in how well you’re doing it. I’ve found that organizations outrunning their competitors with account-based marketing have three things in common:
1. They always start with the customer and align with the account strategy.
Don’t push a proposition down a customer’s throat or surround them with stalker-level tendencies. Instead, take the time to understand what’s important to your customer and base your plan on where you’re taking them.
Before our consultancy gets going on research, we unite teams behind a common intention for each customer. This way, everyone can focus on the North Star and build momentum.
It’s worth taking the time to really understand what’s important to your customer and link insights to your objectives. If you need to shift the perception of a client’s brand, for example, find out what consumers think of them today or what they think of competitors in a domain the client would like to move into. Or, if you need to start conversations with new digital teams on the client side, your research should focus on stakeholder maps to understand who is who and what they’re focused on.
2. They remain laser-focused and with a bias toward action.
Say what you’re going to do and follow through. Instead of going through rounds of internal consensus, your approach should focus on doing what’s right for your business and that of your customers. Those successful in ABM are agile in the way they operate, testing and learning through iterations instead of planning for three months and then doing a big bang.
A simple way we achieve this is through applying agile project methodologies to collaborate across sales and marketing teams. For example, we use regular stand-ups to stay in step, instead of an annual or quarterly planning meeting.
Another practical approach that’s worked for us is through the identification of patterns across accounts and shrink-wrapping tactics that can be applied on repeat, at speed. For example, we’ve learned that decision makers new to a role are more likely to make a decision in their first 90 days, so we have a workflow to respond to that.
3. They adopt ABM for the right reasons and stay true to their purpose.
ABM is not a vanity project or a shiny toy. It should be used to grow your business and fundamentally shift your go-to-market efforts by putting the customer at the center.
With so many generic campaigns and disconnected account teams, ABM should be adopted as a better way for sales and marketing teams to work together for the good of the organization and your most valuable customers.
Optimize your program to win more often.
Evaluate your program and go back to the research on your customers and prospects. What are they focused on, what challenges are they looking to address, and what’s holding them back today? This will provide a wealth of useful information and can make a big difference in the quality of your account-based marketing program.
Then, review your messaging. Tell yourself that the differentiators in question are not relevant to the customer. Then try to talk yourself into it, articulating exactly why and how it matters to each customer or prospect. If you struggle to make the case, then that messaging probably isn’t strong enough and you’re just adding to the noise.
Assess the channels and formats you’re using for your ABM program. Many me-too programs go down the route of easy-to-execute channels like paid media or email campaigns. Sales are your single-most effective channel into the account. How can you work with sales to make the most of their existing interactions with the customer? Test new ways to reach the account, innovate and iterate.
Buyers are faced with an overwhelming array of choices in the marketplace, with lots of suppliers appearing to offer the same services, making similar claims and even taking the same approach in the way they go to market. When done well, an account-based marketing strategy can be used to great effect to differentiate within your most important customers and prospects.