ABM Tips: How to target accounts, nurture, and close them using Account-Based Marketing

Demandbase has been the leader in account-based marketing for the past 6 years. In fact, they practically invented the term, and their platform enables B2B businesses to deploy ABM strategies using an AI engine and proprietary IP recognition technology.

Jessica Fewless is Vice President, ABM Strategy & Field Marketing for Demandbase. I got the chance to do an in-depth interview with her about all things ABM in order to help marketers learn how to build a target account list, nurture those relationships, and use data to inform closing opportunities. We also spoke about the upcoming ABM Innovation Summit and the brand-new book she wrote with Demandbase CEO Chris Golec and CMO Peter Isaacson titled “Account-Based Marketing: How to Target and Engage the Companies That Will Grow Your Revenue,” which releases March 19th.

Jessica shares a lot of great info all marketers should find valuable, whether they are veterans in account-based marketing or are just getting started. Buckle up for a mini-master class on how to implement an ABM strategy in your company!

(The following has been edited for clarity and length.)

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is about choosing who to target. Most marketers have this huge list of prospects, numbering in the thousands or even tens of thousands. How do you narrow this list down to choose your targeted accounts, say 50 or so?

It kind of depends on an organization’s goals and objectives with their ABM program. Starting at the highest level, it comes down to business objectives, headcount and budget.

The first thing you need to do is identify what the ideal customer profile looks like, the customers that would be successful customers with your company. That’s going to disqualify quite a few companies out there. Having a real well-defined customer profile that’s agreed upon at the highest levels of the organization — and sales, marketing, finance, customer success — is the first step to getting your targeted account list.

That list is still going to be too large for an organization to focus on, so there’s three tiers of ABM that we like to talk about.

There’s the one-to-one ABM. Which will be more of that 50 number you were talking about. That would be one marketer assigned to one account. Those are going to be the most strategic accounts to the organization. It can be a mix of existing customers as well as prospects. It’s the top accounts the company is going to rally around and place the highest resources behind to make them customers, and once they are, to increase share of wallet.

For most companies though, that’s only going to satisfy about 30 percent of their revenue goal. You still have the other 70 percent. This is where the other two tiers come in: the one-to-few and one-to-many.

We at Demandbase really talk about the one-to-many, and that’s just really putting finer points in your overall strategy. Instead of casting a wide net, it’s helping those companies which fit your ICP [Ideal Customer Profile] see your advertisements and get those emails. It’s saying “We want to bring these 1000 companies in as customers, so we are going to focus our efforts to those 1000 accounts.” Whether that be through focused advertising, emails, website personalization — everything can be focused.

The way that manifests is, for example, our field marketing team does not spend a single dollar on an account that’s not on our target account list. The old rule of thumb for field marketing was like, “Hey we are going to get this room for 200 for a workshop and we will fill that room with whoever we can get in the door.” Some of those people are going to be valuable, but you will also get a lot of tire kickers who will never buy from us but come to these kind of events for the free refreshments. (laughs)

In the ABM world, instead of renting a room for 200, we rent a room for 40 and we only invite our target account list. So now everybody in the room is a hot prospect. Our sales team can have meaningful conversations with the people they care about, not just the tire kickers.

That goes through all your marketing activities. Everything you have ever done, now having that new lens on it is going to help you focus your efforts. And its a far more efficient use of your budget and resources.

That’s a lot of great information, I wanted to put this into the real world as opposed to theory and that’s a great example. Now, when do you throw in the towel? I mean, I think it’s a challenge for everyone that once you get a lead, you want to hold on to that for a long time because “one day it’s gonna close…maybe” and you don’t want to give up on these people. What do you recommend, because at some point you have to filter these people out, to stop beating a dead horse?

That initial rigor around your target account list is going to be really important.

However, the folks that are serious, typically you know where you stand with them. And your target account list is not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. Accounts will flow on and off that list throughout the year.

Most organizations want to take a look at their target account list on a quarterly basis to make sure they are still going after the right accounts. To your point, if you have been marketing to somebody for six months or nine months, and not a single individual from that account has engaged with any of your marketing programs, at that point you’re beating a dead horse. That’s not to say they won’t get any of your marketing messaging, but they will go into that nurture state.

Sure you will invite them to your webinars, but you are not going to do the high-touch, high-budget, high resource-intensive type of marketing program. Yet you want to keep your company in front of them just in case something changes with their situation.

Like, if your sales rep talked to them last week and discovered they just signed a three-year contract with a competitor, there’s no point in spending a ton of time and resources on that account if they are not going to be able to buy from you for another 2 years and 11 months. But, having that intel is important, because maybe at the two-year mark you want to put them back on your target account list. Sooner rather than later they are going to start re-evaluating, at that renewal period, and maybe that’s your opportunity to get into that account.

That makes sense. It’s not so much that you are cutting an account from the list and ignoring them, you are just reallocating your efforts and your budget to those which you can consider hotter prospects.

If you’re taking some off, you want to put some new ones on. That is where accounts that aren’t on your target account list but are engaging with your marketing programs, or they are starting to show intent signals online [come in]. Maybe they are not coming to YOUR website, but they are showing lots of searches on keywords that you care about. Or maybe, even, they are going to your competitor’s website — all very important information to know. Its like, okay this account that wasn’t on our target account list is showing all these signals that they are in a buying cycle. So, it’s probably time for us to double down on that account to make sure that we are in that consideration as they are evaluating vendors.

And Demandbase’s software provides that information?

It does, yay! (laughs)

Okay so now that we’ve narrowed down our list, what are some of the best ways to nurture the relationship with these accounts once we decide to pursue them, and what are the signals that show its time to pull the trigger and close.

You have a target account list, great, but now you actually have to do something meaningful with that list. So let’s say you have an account that you haven’t really ever entered a sales cycle with. Maybe you focus your messaging at the industry level, like “we have the perfect solution for financial services companies,” or healthcare organizations, or business services. You’re keeping it higher level but still personalizing at a base level to kind of grab their attention.

Like “Oh, Demandbase has a product I can actually use,” and it gets them to keep reading, gets them to click on an ad, so on and so forth.

But then as you start to actually engage and warm up these accounts, and maybe get into a sales cycle with your sales rep, now you start to know more things about their account, [like] what products your sales reps are talking to them about. Then you can put them into a segment and start to transition from entry-level messaging down to that specific product-level messaging, because you know what they are interested in.

As they start to move through the sales cycle maybe they get to the proposal stage. Then, you probably don’t want to be talking to them about the features and functions of your product any more. They’ve bought into that. Right now you need to start talking about our “Why” of the purchase of our solution, the cost of not taking action, those sorts of things. That’s most likely the message your sales rep is giving to the customer at that time, but marketing should be reinforcing it.

To get to your question about when do you pull the trigger to close, that’s largely in the hands of sales team. From a marketing perspective, I don’t know that we can dictate “now is the time to close.” We can help the sale team prioritize their efforts, but I don’t know if from a marketing perspective we have enough intel to really say they are ready to close.

So there’s not a menu of triggers that you would say: “Hey they’ve clicked on this, they’ve read this, they’ve had a conversation with Joe, its time to bring in a team and pay them a visit.” You would leave that up to sales and their expertise.

Maybe I am misunderstanding your definition of close. When I think of “tell sales its time to close” that’s like…they have done demos, they’ve done discovery, they’ve given a proposal, then the next phase is to close. To me that’s in the hands of sales. Sales reps should know its time to say, “Okay you’ve got the proposal. You’ve got 10 days or the price jumps,” or whatever. To me that’s closing, but maybe your definition’s slightly different.

Yeah, to me it’s basically, there’s that little shift that you see in interest — the buyer’s shift. That’s when you go, “Give me the money, give me the order” and I am interested in how data supports that, as opposed to just a salesperson’s intuition. But hey, if we are not fully there yet, I think that the tools Demandbase provides, and those signals, I think anyone could figure out “hey this is time to ask a closing question.”

Like we were talking about earlier, the intent data and those sorts of things are really going to help them prioritize. If a sales rep has 100 accounts and all of a sudden they see that 20 are trending on key search terms, or even coming to your website, that’s probably the time to put them on the top of your list of who you are going to talk to, who you are going to be proactively reaching out to as a salesperson, right? There’s something going on, either there’s a mandate from up above, or suddenly budget has become available, or they previously had a competitor’s product and its time to renew or churn. Those are the types of things you will see in the intent data and spikes in interest and searches.

Our SDR [Sales Development Rep] team uses that on a weekly basis to prioritize their outreach for the week. Each SDR has two outside sales reps they work with, and they start their week by looking at the intent trending of those 200 accounts, roughly, to figure out which 20 they are going to focus on for the week. That lead is not going to be a cold call any more because they know they are searching for these things. When they pick up the phone they can say, based on what they know from the data, that they are looking at product A and they have looked these two competitors. They can tailor their talk track to really pack a punch and deliver a relevant message that’s going to get them that meeting.

Really the answer to my question, as far as how Demandbase fits in, is looking at that intent data. If you see that ramping up, that would probably be… I guess I am old school and I say “If there’s interest, you go for the close at that point.” So looking at that intent data, if you see the activity in searches, visits to your site, that’s probably when its time to make a phone call and say “Hey, I’ve noticed…” well I guess you wouldn’t say “I’ve noticed you browsing my website” (laughing) that’s a little creepy but…

I think it’s that intent data which a platform like Demandbase can deliver, and all that kind of third-party intent data that you couldn’t collect yourself without an AI engine. But there is also first-party intent data, which is all those knowable things from your other systems. Are they engaging with your email sends, are they registering for webinars, downloading ebooks, are they coming to your field marketing events? That’s all the first-party data that you have at your disposal. So that, combined with your third-party data, really helps you prioritize very quickly your target accounts.

What would you say are the top 3 indicators from third-party data? Like, what do you guys use for your 20 accounts that you are going to be focusing on for the week?

Our SDRs put together a presentation on this which I love, and they talk about how they start their week.

One: over the course of the last week or two, which accounts have engaged with our marketing campaigns? Because that could give us something relevant to talk about. Like, “Hey, I saw you watched our webinar,” and that’s not creepy because people know that we have their names!

That, combined with trending intent — both on our sites and off of our sites. Are they out there actively searching about things that signal they are interested in our solution? Are they searching for “account based marketing,” “ABM,” “intent,” and those sorts of things? I think searching on those terms says, alright, they are either trying to implement an ABM strategy or maybe they already have one but now its time for technology. So those are things that will trigger them as well.

And then the third thing that they do is based on upcoming programs. If somebody is engaging with our marketing program and they’re showing intent on our site or with other search terms and, let’s say, they are in the New York City area — and two weeks from now we are hosting a VIP dinner, right? Like, the stars align that they should focus on that account to get them to come to that VIP dinner, for instance.

Okay I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. I want to get to the new book and the ABM Innovation Summit in a sec, but first I have one more question–more for curiosity’s sake. How do you know what searches these guys are performing? How do you know Company A is looking for these specific search terms and visiting other companies’ websites?

So, that’s kind of the Demandbase magic. (laughs) It is!

It’s the AI engine that, based on search terms and such that a company will give us that they care about, we crawl the entire internet looking for those search terms. So we know that you care about these 1000 accounts — we look across the internet and see where those IP addresses are searching on those search terms that you have identified for us that are important to you. And then it pulls what the AI engine has been able to gather.

That’s how we get that data, and then the Demandbase technology has always been able to do the IP recognition when an account you care about comes to your website. So that’s the easy approach: push up a tag on your site, we recognize IP addresses and then we can report on that and take action by personalizing the website, so on and so forth. That’s always been the core, but the new part is really the AI engine that allows us to understand what’s going on off of the website.

Pretty incredible. Its amazing that you guys can do that. Okay so, you have a book coming out, and its going to be released at Summit. Tell me all about the book.

I’ve been at Demandbase now for six years, and when I first started we were having conversations about “What is ABM?” We would be at a trade show and would say “The leaders in Account-Based Marketing,” and people would walk by and go “Can you tell me what account-based marketing is?” It was not a household term back then, and so we were doing a lot of educating. When we defined it at a cursory level people would go “Oh, that really makes sense” and then the next question was “How do I do it?”

I run the field marketing team at Demandbase, and we were looking for more ways to engage our customers out in the field. Because we were hearing this “How?” question all the time, we decided instead of just running VIP dinners, getting suites at baseball games, those sorts of things, that we would start doing educational workshops to really help people understand the What and the How of account-based marketing.

So we started one hour sessions with fundamental topics like sales and marketing alignment, building your target account list, and we had a series of five of them. Four years ago, our CRO at the time walked over to my desk and was like “Hey, so why don’t we do certification at next year’s summit?” And I was like “You’re crazy! Who are we to write a certification program?” But then we sat back and looked and we thought “We have all this content, we should probably just put it into a certification.”

We did our foundation certification, and at the same time Peter [Isaacson] said, “Maybe we should write a book.” And I was like, “Peter, you’re crazy, we can’t write a book” (laughing). But we launched our ABM certification and inside the first year we had over 600 certified ABM strategists. So there’s a “there” there. People want this information and need this information.

Over the course of the next two years, we rolled out advanced certification, and last year we rolled out an expert level certification to really help people progress through their ABM maturity. Then at the end of all of that, Wiley came to us and said, “You seem to be the ones leading the charge in ABM education, why don’t you write a book?” So after Peter bringing it up three subsequent years and then finally a publisher reaching out to us, we were like, “You know what, now’s the time. We should probably write this book.”

So we did.

Who are the authors? Is it you, Peter and Chris?

Yep, all three of us, and what makes it different is we are not just thought leaders saying, “Here are all the best practices.”

In fact, the content of the book is really built on A) us building our own ABM strategy from the ground up, because six years ago when I started at Demandbase we weren’t actually practicing account-based marketing. So about 5 years ago we initiated our own ABM strategy, learning by doing. And then B) over the course of the last five years we have met with well over 1,000 prospects and customers to talk about ABM and help them with their strategies.

Myself alone, I do between 75-100 marketer-to-marketer meetings every year. Peter does dozens, so does Chris, and so every time you get those sessions and do those workshops: yes you educate them, but we are also learning. We are learning nuances, we are learning how ABM differs when you have business model A versus business model B.

If you are a mid-market account versus an enterprise-level company, if you are a sales driven organization or if you are an engineering-driven organization or a marketing-driven organization — no two ABM strategies work the same, so you have to learn how to adapt.

All that being said, through having all these conversations we’ve definitely developed some best practices that are largely applicable to anyone’s ABM strategy, and we put all that into the book.

Sounds good, I am excited to get a copy at some point. When is it going to be available?

It’s on Amazon now for pre-order and I believe it will be widely available on the [19th] of March. But for anyone coming to the ABM Innovation Summit they will get a free copy!

Speaking of the ABM Innovation Summit, what’s new this year? What can we expect?

This year I think we are set to pass 1,000 attendees, and I believe you came to the second one which was around 300 people, and our first one was about 150 people. So to hit that 1,000 person mark is pretty exciting.

One of the things that is new this year, and we have done this gradually over time, is that we have slowly but surely moved away from the thought leaders and consultants, people talking about “Here are the best practices about ABM,” and we are just putting marketers up on stage. Last year we did this to a larger extent, but this year we are doubling down on that.

It’s mostly people who are out in there in the trenches doing account-based marketing talking about their successes, talking about their failures, talking about the pitfalls they fell into. People that are embarking on or looking to scale their ABM strategies can learn from that and not make the same mistakes.

That is honestly the main focus of the conference. Yes, Chris is going to get up on stage and do a keynote, and we have [body language expert] Mark Bowden who’s going to give an awesome session as well, but pretty much the rest of the day is marketers talking about how to do this thing called account-based marketing. And that happens throughout all the sessions as well as all the networking opportunities at breakfast, lunch, and the evening reception.

It’s really funny to me: you put two ABM-focused marketers in the room and it’s really hard to get them to quiet down (laughs). They just love to talk about ABM and learn from each other, so we facilitate that at the ABM Innovation Summit.

Sounds excellent. Thank you so much for giving me a lot of insight that I think marketers are going to really enjoy. There’s a lot of good nuggets of wisdom here. This will be valuable to marketers no matter what size companies they work for.

Account-based marketing applies to companies of all sizes, absolutely. Yes, expensive technology is sometimes out of reach of smaller companies, but sometimes they are the ones who need to spend the money on the technology because they don’t have the manpower to really execute on an ABM strategy. So they need the technology to assist.

The book is definitely meant for companies of all sizes and marketers in all industries. This isn’t just a buzzword, or a trendy thing. This is the future of B2B marketing more generally.

Thank you.

The ABM Innovation Summit happens March 14th an 15th at Pier 27 in San Francisco. For more information and to register, click here.

To get your copy of the book, click: Account-Based Marketing: How to Target and Engage the Companies That Will Grow Your Revenue

Follow me on Twitter for updates from the conference and an interview with CEO Chris Golec.

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