Getting started with ABM: a true story from a real startup

This article is co-authored by Ross McFadden and Lindsey Christensen

Last year we challenged ourselves, a lean, scrappy, and intellectually curious marketing team at an early-stage, high growth B2B startup, to launch our own Account Based Marketing (ABM) initiative. Along the way, we learned a ton — from strategy and goal-setting, to team-building and delegation, through to execution, process, systems, and reporting.

Definition [Account Based Marketing]: an alternative B2B strategy that concentrates sales and marketing resources on a clearly defined set of target accounts within a market and employs personalized campaigns designed to resonate with each account. With ABM, your marketing message is based on the specific attributes and needs of the account you’re targeting.

The initiative came about after deliberation over why certain marketing and sales tactics were falling short. Our hypothesis was that for a target market like the one we were after, a market that is both limited in size and highly skeptical (of new vendors, of marketing campaigns, you name it…), we needed to ditch casting a wide net, slip on the white gloves, and have the entire Go To Market team get hyper-focused and personalized.

TIP 1: Do you pass the ABM sniff test? If you have a small target market, with an ASP (average selling price) > $100k and a longer, hands-on sales process, you are a good candidate for ABM.

In enterprise B2B marketing it’s no secret that the topic du jour is ABM. It’s incessantly discussed in all corners of the marketing hive mind — from blogs and casual meetups to exclusive CMO dinners. How many companies are you targeting? What platforms are you using? What metrics are you tracking? Does your CEO get it? How do you know if it’s working?

What everyone basically wants to know is, well, how are YOU guys doing it? While there is a lot of content to be found online, it’s mostly coming from marketing software companies themselves, and we felt a void when it came to practical “how to get started” material. Our blog series will cover how we did it, the challenges we faced, the best practices we learned along the way, and even our best hacks.

Getting started

After a series of unsuccessful ABM-flavored experimentation conducted in one-off silos (a targeted ad campaign here, a targeted gift card sales outreach there), we really rounded the wagons as a full Go To Market (G2M) team to focus all efforts on an integrated marketing, sales, and BDR Account Based strategy.

TIP 2: Successful ABM is reliant on having the head of marketing and the head of sales 100% bought-in and working lock-step.

Once we had agreed that in order to achieve our customer acquisition and revenue goals, the best use of resources was to commit to testing Account Based Marketing, we started working on our high-level goals with sales, prioritizing the accounts to be targeted, and hashing out some frameworks for what execution or ABM sprints would look like within quarter. We wasted no time burning through a pack of whiteboard markers.

Definition [ABM Sprint]: a designated time period (likely 1, 2, or 3 weeks) during which coordinated ABM planning, execution, and tracking takes place.

Goal setting

We already had a revenue goal for the quarter and the sales team had further distilled that into the number and size of deals to hit in order to achieve that revenue goal. Now the question was how could ABM drive those sales opportunities and could we figure out how to do it in a repeatable and scalable way?

With that context we set 3 overarching ABM objectives for the first quarter:

1) Determine 1 ABM play that creates net new sales opportunities

2) Determine 1 ABM play that escalates existing sales opportunities

3) Determine Account Based metrics to track

TIP 3: When starting a new experiment, set realistic and achievable marketing goals that will answer the question — is this something worth continuing?
If after the experiment is completed, the answer is “yes”, the next set of goals can increase in scope, ambition, and ROI. In other words, set a foundation from which to scale.

Planning the first ABM sprint

Another early goal for us was speed. We wanted to spend 1 week planning for our first 2-week sprint, and in turn, acquire initial learnings less than 3 weeks into the effort. We would then assess, optimize, and run the next sprint.

That first week of planning involved:

  • Establishing our Master ABM Orchestrator (Ross) and kicking off with the sales team
  • Assigning roles and making responsibilities clear
  • Building a prioritized account list, per ABM best practices… and then deciding it wasn’t good enough! Yes, in the earliest sessions with our Sales VP we quickly concluded it was best to work from a prioritized opportunity list instead of account. More on this in a minute.
  • Figuring out reporting needs and getting some baseline account metrics. We assessed Domo and a few other BI tools to build dashboards for: Coverage, Engagement, and Influence (which we’ll discuss in the next blog).
  • Building out initial sprint activity options and schedule. We structured sales & marketing activities via an “opt-in menu” using a Google sheet to start. Later we would test other ways to optimize activity opt-in and tracking like doing it directly in Salesforce or just verbally opting in during 1:1s.
  • Building out custom campaign materials for the activities that were opted into — both digital and physical
  • Setting recurring weekly G2M ABM (acronyms FTW!) team meeting / retro to go over Progress, Planned, & Improvements
  • Setting up recurring 1:1s between Orchestrator and others on the G2M team
TIP 4: Use Google sheets and free, simple tools until they break. There’s no use investing time and money in new systems for experiments and processes you haven’t yet validated.

Prioritizing Account Opportunities instead of Accounts

When we sat down to prioritize which accounts to focus on, we quickly realized it wasn’t focused enough. For context, one of our accounts was a $215B enterprise with, give or take, 100,000 employees globally. But once we targeted specific sales opportunities within that mega account, then we were getting somewhere.

The sales opportunity could be

A) an existing opportunity: it’s in Salesforce and a meaningful discussion took place that indicated interest in our solutions or

B) a new opportunity: nothing has been marked in Salesforce but we have reason to believe there is pain to be solved within a specific group and the timing could be right. In other words, we have our sights on a specific team and it is worth pursuing.

If you revisit the goals we set (above), you can understand the distinction between progressing existing opps and creating new ones.

Going from planning to execution

And there you have it — our first week of super-human, intensive ABM planning and organization was complete. In the process, we were able to rally the company to get excited (or at least very curious) about our new project and assured them we’d have some early results shortly.

In the next post in this series, we’ll cover

  • What are Campaigns, Activities, Plays and how did we pick them
  • How we coordinated execution and built processes around it