This post was written with contributions from Tony Yang. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or growthmentor.com.
Wednesday, 15th September 2021

The Practical Guide To Account-Based Marketing

Remember the good old days of doing marketing? The tried-and-tested method of blasting your entire market with the same generic message over email, ads and gated content and hoping (praying?) that some might turn into leads?

Things have changed, thankfully.

B2B marketing is no longer a number’s game. Account-Based Marketing is all about quality over quantity, and targeting accounts and individuals most likely to benefit from your offer with personalised content.

The benefit? Less effort, a better conversion rate, and ultimately more closed deals.

So how does this work?

Here’s a highly practical, step-by-step guide of how I run Account-Based Marketing campaigns, from defining your target audience to measuring results.

Here are the five steps to follow:

1. Target: define your ideal customer profile (ICP)

2. Prospect: build your target account list

3. Engage: prospect outreach

4. Nurture: stay top of mind

5: Measure: conversion attribution

#1 Target: Define Your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP)

The very first step of any ABM strategy is to define who your product or service is for.

You simply can’t appeal to everyone. No product in the world does (except water, maybe).

Therefore, you need to focus your efforts towards the audience most likely to be receptive to your offering.

Should you target a specific niche or industry? A certain type of employees or companies? Here are a few ways to find out.

Quantitative Data

CRM

First, if you already have some historical data, start digging into your CRM. Look at sales over the past 12 months and try to identify patterns in your buyers’ data. You are looking for criteria that strongly impact your results. For example, if 80% or more of your sales come from a specific industry, you should focus your attention on this particular segment of the market, as they are more receptive to your message and offering.

If there are no “clear-cut” differences for a given criterion, chances are it might not be relevant for your segmentation. Not every criterion is.

A few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Where are your biggest deals coming from?
  • What industry/company size/country of origin generate your most sales?
  • What lead source generates your biggest deals?

In the above example, narrowing deals per industry highlights the fact that the Defense & Space industry is by far the biggest contributor to the company’s bottom line.

Note however that also looking at unique deals, and not just total revenue per industry, shows here that a few Defense & Space contracts have been disproportionate in size, skewing our results and conclusions. In short, a small number of Defense & Space contracts constitute the vast majority of our revenue.

For businesses with limited previous sales to work with, be careful to limit your analysis only on leads. They are a poor indicator of who your true ICP is.

In fact, cross-analysing leads with actual sales can help you identify segments that yield a high conversion rate from lead to sales, and therefore are valuable to your business.

Leadfeeder

Leadfeeder is a tool to help you identify what companies are browsing your website, what are they looking at, and assess whether your marketing efforts attract the right type of prospects.

Create a feed including leads (visited a thank you page) or visitors who took action on your website (read an important piece of content, such as a manual or datasheet for example) and extract the data as a CSV.

Then analyse your leads with the following criteria:

  • Industry
  • Company Size
  • Country
  • Lead Source & Campaign

What are common criteria among those leads? Do you start seeing trends emerging?

LinkedIn

How much do you know about people following and engaging with your content on LinkedIn?

These people are most likely to convert into sales (they are already showing interest in your brand), and yet are often ignored by marketers.

LinkedIn gives you insights into your followers, so you can better understand what type of person (industry, job title etc) your brand attracts best.

Does this correlate with what you see in your CRM, are there discrepancies?

Qualitative Data

Quantitative data analysis might give you a good idea of who your ideal customers are, but not why. This is where qualitative data analysis comes into play.

To better understand what motivates your ICP, here are a few approaches to consider.

By Proxy

Asking proxies (your sales and support team) who regularly interact with prospects and clients is a great place to get started. What is their general feel of the market? What do they hear from customers time and time again?

Make sure to interview each of them separately to avoid your colleague influencing each other’s answers. The added benefit is that they will also more easily open up than if they were in a group, especially if they disagree with the overall company strategy.

Alternatively, some CRMs can integrate directly with your email system (Salesforce among others), allowing you to also dig through email logs of conversations between your team and prospects.

Again, try to find common patterns among the different conversations to understand what makes your prospects “tick”.

Surveys

Possibly the best time to ask questions to your prospects is immediately after they’ve submitted an enquiry. For example, your confirmation page can include a short 2-question survey asking key questions that help you paint a better picture of your audience.

I typically ask the following questions:

  • How did you hear from us? This question aims at either confirming the lead source that we already know (that you catch via UTM included in a hidden field on the form), or find out what offline channel effectively led them to your website, such as a podcast, a referral, word-of-mouth, etc
  • What do you like to read to keep up with your industry? Here, you’re trying to find where your audience hangs out online. This is great to generate a list of publications where you should either contribute to or simply advertise.

You can also send an automated follow-up email after each enquiry with the same questions.

The benefit of this approach is that you’re actually starting a conversation with your prospect, and can go beyond just a few questions.

I also found that this is a good way to find out if sales are following up on leads in a timely manner. Prospects usually don’t hesitate to share that they are still expecting a call back from sales if they haven’t been attended to.

Another good way to get an overview of what your existing clients think of you is to run a yearly or biyearly survey.

The key here is to keep questions simple (refrain from using too many text fields) and incentivize people with gift cards or other means to ensure that a maximum of surveys get completed.

A good approach that I’ve seen in the past is to let people select a charity at the end of the form which you will give money on their behalf ($1 or $2 per answer typically). It’s hard to refuse for a recipient.

Sales Call

Short of talking directly to a customer, the best thing you can do to get insights is to sit with your sales representatives during sales pitches, or listen to their conversations with tools like gong.io.

Listening first hand to how prospects react to your value propositions, ask questions and exact words they use can be invaluable.

Many salespeople will be protective of their interactions with prospects, so you will need buy-in from them, and show them how the whole exercise can benefit them in the long run.

Customer Interviews

Interviews with customers is the ultimate goal you should be aiming for. Nothing beats sitting down with someone and understanding their thought process and asking questions on the fly.

Here are a few questions you should consider asking:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve? You want to understand what moved them from being a passive observer to an active prospect with a problem to solve. What were all the steps involved that brought them to you?
  2. What other solution did you consider? You want to find out who you are regularly in competition with, and how your offering compares with others.
  3. What did you find appealing with our solution? Which of your USPs resonate with your prospects? Double-down on it.
  4. What are you still unsure about? You want to uncover information still missing in your pitch that can help your prospects move over the line. This is great content to insert in an FAQ for example.
  5. Where do you typically get information on this topic to make an educated decision? You want to discover where your audience hangs out and get information even before considering your solution.

Bringing it all together

How do you combine your quantitative and qualitative data?

First off, your quantitative data should help you segment the market that you should chase after. Simply eliminate low-revenue, low product-market fit segments that would require too much effort to win.

Second, dig deeper into those high-value markets using your qualitative data by getting a better understanding about individuals that make up that segment, their pain points and where you can reach them.

By now, you should have a clear idea of who your ideal customers are, and what motivates them in relation to the service or product you’re offering.

#2 Prospect: Build Your Target Account List

Now that we’ve identified our ideal customer, it’s time to build an actual list of prospects that we can target later on.

An account list is a list of your most important prospects - prospects who fit your ICP profile and you’d dream to have.

Start with a shortlist of no more than 100 accounts (or companies) and 2,000 contacts at a time to keep things manageable.

Apollo

Apollo is a tool that lets you do two things: find contact information (email and LinkedIn) of prospects at any company, and run automated cold email campaigns.

In Apollo, go to People and start filtering the database based on your ICP criteria. You can then add the selected contacts to a list or an email sequence (more on this later).

LinkedIn Sales Navigator

The process is similar in LinkedIn Sales Navigator: use the filters on the right hand side to create a relevant list of contacts.

If you use the Apollo Chrome extension, you can then select and add those contacts to an Apollo or email sequence right from LinkedIn Sales Navigator.

LinkedIn also let’s you refine your search further, based on specific LinkedIn behaviour such as prospects’ relationships with your own network, recently posted on LinkedIn etc. This can be useful to target prospects who you can be introduced to, or who are simply active on the platform and can turn into brand ambassadors further down the track.

Leadfeeder

Leadfeeder is a great tool to help your sales team have meaningful conversations with accounts and individuals who already visited your website, and therefore have already shown interest in your products or services.

First, narrow down the accounts (or individual visitors, if you have the Mailchimp integration running) that you’d like to chat with, based on your ICP criteria.

In the example above, we are considering a particular subset of users who visited the URL of a newly launched product.

We then analyse the pages visited by the different employees of a given company and make an educated guess at the profile of our audience.

Here, we can reasonably say that our visitors have some engineering background because they looked at a technical data sheet.

Next, we head to LinkedIn and search for the company (Leonardo) and only consider engineering employees who live in the city of Palermo (where the web visit originated from).

We can now add those results to our outreach list.

LinkedIn

Another method is to simply engage with people already showing interest in your company or your field on social media.

For the former, head to your company page > Analytics > See all followers.  

Take a look at your list of followers and engage with relevant contacts for your business. They are more likely to accept your invitation.

Note: you can also automate this step with Phantombuster, extracting in a CSV all the followers of your company page.

Additionally, you can also simply type any relevant keyword in LinkedIn’s search bar, filtering results by Posts.

Then look up people’s profile and add them to your list if they fit your ICP criteria.

Often, you’ll find primarily competitors talking about their products. In this case, you’ll need to go one step further: find competitors' posts with good engagement and look up people who engage with their content.

#3 Engage: Prospect Outreach

LinkedIn Ads

The B2B channel by excellence to reach your ICP.

LinkedIn has two strong benefits over any other social media:

  • Targeting: it is very easy to find the exact company or contact you are after, thanks to a very exhaustive list of criteria you can choose from.
  • Mindset: users on LinkedIn are here for work and welcome work-related interactions.

Don’t expect to generate leads on LinkedIn (so forget about using LinkedIn’s lead generation form), but instead focus on influencing your audience and shape their mindset over time. LinkedIn simply guarantees impressions of your content to your targeted audience.

For example, prefer long-copy or tutorial videos over landing page ads to keep users on the platform to consume your content. It’s always better to ensure that a maximum of viewers is actually reading your content, than a small subset visits your page to consume the same content.

To ensure your content is shown only to specific accounts, add your list of accounts or contacts to LinkedIn as Matched Audiences (go to Campaign Manager > Account Assets > Matched Audiences) for all your campaign activities. With accounts, you will still need to add your ICP criteria within each campaign to narrow down your audience further.

LinkedIn Invitations

Sending a LinkedIn invitation is easy and effective to get in front of your ICP. However, two caveats:

  • Busy people can receive a lot of invitations to connect every day. Don’t expect to cut through the noise every time.
  • As of May 2021, LinkedIn now limits users to a maximum of 100 invitations per week in an effort to crackdown on abuse.

Here’s what you can do instead:

  • Target junior roles who receive far less invitations than their senior counterparts.
  • Use the Salesloop and Leadfeeder integration to automatically send connection invitations to people who recently visited your website and fit your ICP based on job title or keyword criteria. These people are the most likely to accept an invitation from a business they recently heard of (note: as of writing, Salesloop is still very buggy, so it’s not as effective as it should be, despite the promises).

Tools such as Expandi or Salesloop can help you automate this process. Simply import a list of prospects found on LinkedIn Sales Navigator and add them to a LinkedIn Invitation sequence, drop-feeding them throughout the day.

Do not go into selling mode, but instead, try to deliver value early. Have you identified a specific challenge that your prospect is likely to face? Share your insights, case studies and other valuable content without expecting anything in return.

The real value of connecting with prospects on LinkedIn is that they are automatically added as followers to your account, meaning that your organic content will start popping up in their feed. Too many salespeople (and marketers) simply miss out on this big opportunity to distribute content to their audience.

Email Outreach

Not everyone is on LinkedIn. But everyone has a work email address.

Just like with a LinkedIn invitation, a cold email is the opportunity to introduce yourself, your brand and your offering to your target audience, and hopefully score an intro or meeting.

Much has been written about crafting great cold email sequences, so I will not cover this topic extensively, but only share what has been working for me.

The key is to keep it simple, casual and natural.

Subject Line

You only have a split second to make a good impression and pique your recipient’s curiosity.

What do people want to hear about? Themselves.

Mentioning their company name in the subject line has worked well for me. You can try any of the variations below:

  • {{Company}} <> {{Your Company}}
  • {{Company}} Intro?
  • {{Company}} Opportunity

Your Message

Your message should be as short as possible, with as few links as possible. A typical email flow that I use goes as follow:

  1. Introduce who you are, and how you relate to them. Did someone refer you to them? Do you know someone in common? Do you work in the same industry? This is the place to name drop.
  2. In a short sentence or two, what is your “ask?” What do you need from them? There’s no shame in asking bluntly. At least, you’re not wasting anyone’s time.
  3. You need to back up your profile and highlight why they should trust you. If you already work with big names in the industry, you can mention them here.
  4. Give them an opportunity to contribute and be helpful, even if that’s not for them. For example, can they refer you to another colleague?
  5. A postscript (PS) will always get read, so this is your last chance to make a good impression. I like to give them the opportunity to check my LinkedIn profile and do their own research.

Put together, here’s a real-life example below.

Cadence

I would recommend not to send more than two emails to a cold prospect. You don’t want to burn bridges too soon by being too pushy.

I typically wait 4 days until sending a short follow-up email within the same thread, reiterating what I want from the recipient and staying casual about it.

I also started to include Calendly links for convenience.

Finally, limit your emails on weekdays during business hours of the recipient to remain professional.

Here’s another real-life example below.

Note: If you are trying to reach out to a prospect using both LinkedIn and emails, it can be wise to keep track of engagements on each platform. How awkward is it to send a cold email to a prospect with whom you are already connected on LinkedIn?

My solution has been to use Apollo as the source of truth for all ABM campaigns. I then created a custom field (go to Settings > ContactsCustom Fields) and create a LinkedIn Connections field to keep track of who is connected to any given prospect (use a pick list with a list of your your own sales representatives to allow for multiple connections).

Then, using Apollo's chrome extension and LinkedIn's Sales Navigator, browse all your first degree connections and update their custom Field information using the link to their Apollo profile.

The caveat of course is this cannot be automated for now, so you will need to do it from time to time to keep your Apollo database up to speed.

Direct Mail

How many emails do you receive per week? Hundreds.

How many direct mails do you receive per week? Not many.

This is your opportunity to stand out.

When everybody is sending emails, a simple handwritten letter, a corporate magazine or even a gift sent to the right person can open doors for your business.

Services such as Sendoso and Reachdesk take this concept to another level and let you send anything, in a personalised format (handwritten note, really!) to anyone in the world.

For large accounts that you want to “woah”, this is a great tool to get noticed.

Third-Party

If you can’t reach out to a prospect directly, perhaps you can partner with someone to do it for you.

Your prospects are likely to engage with websites, magazines and other publications where they get their weekly dose of industry content. Partnering with these third-parties in the form of ads, sponsored content or co-campaign is a great way to get in front of your prospects.

Of course, your campaign will not be as targeted. But do your research: do your prospects read a particular magazine or browse an industry website?


#4 Nurture: Stay Top Of Mind

ABM campaigns are not limited to targeted outreach. Inbound tactics can be just as effective to get in front of your ICP. It’s just a little bit trickier.

SEO & Content

B2B buyers spend a lot of time researching solutions to their problems on the web.

Niche content, even with just a handful of visits per month, can be highly valuable if it helps you reach your audience and further persuade them of the benefits of your offering.  

In the example below, Advanced Navigation’s unique differentiator is the use of AI to shape its algorithm to calculate positioning and heading. However, few prospects are aware of how it works, how it helps improve accuracy, or even how it compares to the competition.

Therefore, while this article receives less than 100 organic visits a month, it helps tremendously in shaping prospects’ thoughts, and convince them of the superiority of our AI-driven approach.

Newsletter

Build an audience. This is the only way you will be able to sell your products time and time again, while lowering your acquisition costs and increasing your margins.

The trick for a successful newsletter is to consistently provide value to your readers without selling anything. Too many B2B newsletters are sporadic, bland or salesy, rapidly turning people off.

So how do newsletters work in the context of ABM?

The main benefit of a newsletter is that you know exactly who you are emailing, and they’ve subscribed to hear from you.

Therefore, you can easily tailor your content and segment your audience to deliver the right message to the right person. Your job is, through regular email content sent to a prospect, to gradually persuade them about the many benefits of your offering, and convince them to do business with you when they are ready.

If you know their pain-points, their aspirations and understand their current buying cycle, a newsletter is the perfect solution to lead them where you want them to be.

Videos

Videos remain a vastly underleveraged channel for B2B businesses. Few invest the time and money in professional content worth watching.

In the context of ABM, videos are yet another channel to reach and persuade your ICP through niche content relevant to them. Just like prospects will go on Google to find a solution to their problem, they will also search on Youtube for tutorials or demos to further educate themselves on the topic.

Video is also another source of content to share with your prospect. Need to educate them about a specific product? Share a demo video, instead of a boring sales pitch.

Just like with newsletters, what matters is to provide value to your audience.

Podcasts

Savvy marketers have taken advantage of this new format to increase their exposure.

While podcasts are both severely limited in terms of targeting and hard to report on, it is however a tremendous tool of branding and persuasion for those who can leverage this channel.

Chris Walker founded Refine Labs, a demand generation agency, entirely on the back of their successful podcast “State of Demand Gen”. Targeting marketing and business leaders, this podcast creates a powerful divide between “traditional v. new marketing”, encouraging listeners to jump ship and embrace the new way to do B2B marketing (which his agency conveniently offers to do as a service).

Few B2B companies would take such risk - Chris posts an average of 2 to 3 hour-long podcasts a week - but it paid off tremendously for them.

While it might be difficult to justify creating a podcast from scratch for an ABM campaign, I would argue that this channel is (for now) less crowded and simply more effective than others to reach a niche audience, and can be well worth the efforts, even if it is near impossible to measure results accurately.

Google Ads

Google Ads is a great way to get in front of prospects looking exactly for what you are selling.

While you can not segment visitors per account, you can target keywords specific enough that they should closely match search queries from your ICP.

Prospects are either searching to get educated on a topic (i.e. “what is an INS?”) and to make a purchase (i.e. “INS supplier australia”). Most marketers tend to focus on the latter because the prospect is showing a strong buying intent and is most likely to convert.

However, this is a mistake for two reasons.

First, at this stage of the buying cycle, the prospect already knows what he wants to buy, and it is harder to convince him otherwise.

Second, all your competitors are fighting for the same buyer. Ads are therefore more expensive, and it’s harder for you to cut through the noise. Worse, you’re only focusing on the 1% of the market with prospects who have no loyalty.

With such long buying cycles, you should focus instead on educating your prospects about your solutions, so when they are ready to buy, they’ve already developed a strong preference and loyalty towards your products.

There is a good case study on Snowflake’s successful PPC strategy well worth reading if you wish to dig further on the topic.

#5 Measure: Conversion Attribution

Lead attribution for ABM is difficult. There are simply too many factors that can contribute to a prospect converting to a lead. Prospects simply take time to do their research, browsing specialized websites or talking to colleagues to evaluate your solution before making an enquiry.

In fact, direct response almost never works. Most of your lead sources will appear as direct or organic in your analytics.

However, there are still ways to evaluate some of the ROI of your efforts.

Account Engagement

A tool like Leadfeeder can give you a rough estimate of web traffic per account, down to personal visits if prospects are known to the system.

To do so, add your account list to Leadfeeder, creating a dedicated feed by uploading your account list (business name and domain URL), using the “imported company list” filter.

Then select the period of time during which you’ve reached out to those accounts and export the data, making sure to select “visits”. You can now roughly assess how much traffic your campaign has generated, comparing the results to the previous period.

Have you generated traffic from a company that never visited your website before? Are you increasing the amount of users for a given account? All these can constitute positive indicators.

You can also compare “account engagement” by specifically looking at how many people per account interacted with your website, plotting your results over time.

Finally, you can also look at an individual level and see if the people you’ve been targeting have been visiting your website, the depth (how many pages) of their visits, and whether they hit some “high-value” pages that denote a high level of intent (i.e. pricing page).

This method is of course not bulletproof but should give you a good idea of whether you’re heading in the right direction.

Email & LinkedIn Replies

Apollo lets you visualize your campaign results in a clear report, so you can assess what is working or not.

You can also of course review who replied to your emails or LinkedIn invitation. Valuable leads should then be logged into your CRM for further reporting.

Leads

This should be your main KPI. Every new lead added to your CRM should be cross-checked with your list of prospects (a simple search in your Apollo prospect lists should do the trick) to assess whether your efforts have contributed to its conversion.

If a lead is also on your prospect list, and you’ve recently engaged with that person, chances are your campaign may have contributed, even just a little.

This is also why it is important to keep track of prospects you engage with.