For those of us in business-to-business marketing, 2016 was the year of account-based marketing (ABM) and the din has only grown louder in 2017. It’s the hottest trend in B2B marketing today and it’s impossible to avoid the onslaught of ABM experts, events, tools and techniques.

Amid the hype of “six easy steps,” however, one can lose sight of the fundamental importance of customer centricity to ABM success. And for those more familiar with customer-centric marketing in the consumer space, it’s also critical to understand how this works in the B2B environment.

First, let’s clarify our terms. ITSMA, which pioneered ABM back in the early 2000s, defines it as “treating individual accounts as markets in their own right.” Like markets, business customers (especially large ones) are made up of diverse organizations, priorities, partners, (internal) customers and competitors.

Given the complexity of business customers, ABM is designed to address the varying concerns, approaches and incentives across multiple decision makers within each account.

Further, many B2B marketers work with the 80/20 rule: 80% (or more) of the company’s revenue comes from 20% (or less) of the company’s largest accounts. Especially for those top accounts, it makes sense to bring the longer term and creative approach and skills of marketers together with the near term, “close the deal” approach on the sales side.

Similar to the consumer marketing push toward data-driven personalization, ABM moves B2B marketing from a traditional “spray and pray” with generic, promotional campaigns to a customized focus on specific accounts that should be the best-fit customers for the solutions you provide.

Done right, ABM can generate dramatic results. Recent research from ITSMA showed that 84% of B2B marketers agree that ABM has the highest ROI of any type of marketing strategy or program. Adobe, for example, a $6 billion business and consumer software firm, achieved a stunning 1,400% revenue increase over three years with accounts in its ABM program

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The growing prominence of ABM in recent years, however, especially with the great success of the early adopters, has led to confusion and often a watering down of the initial concept.

Most important, many ABM programs have given relatively short shrift to the importance of starting with deep customer insight for each account. Instead, they jump into campaigns targeting hundreds of accounts with a thin veneer of personalization (“Dear Rob, here’s my generic pitch”) or segmentation (“Dear Rob, here’s my standard pitch for health care or for chief marketing officers”).

High level personalization and segmentation are useful but barely scratch the surface of what customer-centric ABM can accomplish. The real power of ABM comes when marketers focus on understanding and solving the customer’s key business challenges rather than simply promoting off-the-shelf products and services.

Five specific questions provide the starting point for truly customer-centric ABM:

  • How is the customer’s industry changing? What are the most important business, technology, social and other trends affecting the future of the business?
  • How is the customer responding to those changes? What are the major business, operational and other initiatives inside the account?
  • Who are the key stakeholders inside the account that own these initiatives and how do they fit in the organization?
  • What are the decision-making criteria for purchasing products, services and solutions that might support these initiatives?
  • Who are the perceived gatekeepers for these initiatives and how can we work with or around them?

Great sales people will have answers to some of these questions but strategic marketers can often take a broader and deeper view and pull together an integrated view that supports new customized offerings, programs and campaigns.

Indeed, when marketers truly dig deep on these questions, they invariably identify a host of new business opportunities that go far beyond the short-term sales plan. As such, ABM works at least as well in growing existing accounts as it does with landing new ones. Another ITSMA survey found that the most important benefits of ABM for sales people included:

  • Uncovering more new opportunities within existing accounts;
  • Increased account penetration: wallet share, revenue, and margin; and
  • Ability to have richer conversations with customers.

Last, and certainly not least, customers themselves benefit from the ABM approach. According to the same ITSMA survey, customer benefits include:

  • Customers view us more as a trusted partner/advisor than as a vendor
  • Customers have a broader understanding of our offerings and strategy
  • Customers are more satisfied with our relationship because of a more tailored approach
  • Customers feel better understood due to our in-depth analysis


 This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Rob Leavitt

Rob Leavitt, senior vice president at ITSMA, has spent most of the last 20 years providing thought leadership, brand positioning and strategic marketing guidance to help B2B technology and professional service firms develop and extend market leadership. He has a BA in History from University of Pennsylvania and MS in Political Science from MIT.

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