The coming battle between ABM and marketing automation tools

The coming battle between ABM and marketing automation tools

For those of us who aren’t salespeople or marketers, account-based marketing (ABM) may seem like something that should have been part of marketing platforms all along.

After all, if you’d like to get Big Company to become a new customer of your products, wouldn’t you choose and pitch the account as well as the individual?

Of course, Gartner Managing VP and analyst Todd Berkowitz told me.

“The notion of ABM has been around for a while,” he said, “starting with very large companies looking at their top 50 accounts” and trying to figure out how to increase their customer base. Last month, he and Senior Director/analyst Noah Elkin released their “Market Guide for Account-Based Platforms.” [Gartner account required.]

Traditionally, he said, B2B sales was oriented toward key accounts to sell them more product, while marketing was focused on new customer acquisition.

Many digital marketers originally found new business with their digital tools by targeting and nurturing profiles of individuals. Although the individuals’ profiles contained firmographic info about their respective companies, the marketing automation platforms were largely set up to handle individual leads.

“Everyone thought about [individual] leads,” Berkowitz said, “because everything was based on people [who] engaged with you, who came to the web site.”

Now, new intelligent tools allow marketers to target prospective new accounts, at scale, while juggling interactions with individuals from that account.

As these ABM tools evolve more capabilities, a battle is brewing among these tool providers and marketing automation platforms. And the results of that battle can impact marketers’ future options in tool selections, customer data management and other areas.

More people involved in buying decisions

A key marketing reason behind the rise of ABM in the last few years, Berkowitz noted, is that “the number of people involved in the buying process keeps going up,” he said. This includes the number of what he called “assassins”: people inside a company who can kill a deal.

Why are there now more people involved in buying decisions?

One obvious reason, he pointed out, is that the more complex the deal — and complexity can correlate with the amount of money involved — the larger the decision team. Since many purchase decisions involve technology or other products/services that are used across an organization, wide-scale buy-in is often required.

“If it’s a $2000 annual subscription,” he said, “one person can decide.” But, if it’s a million dollars, he noted, there is often a committee.

And, since virtually all sales, marketing and other business software are now offered as cloud-based software-as-a-service, technology purchasing decisions have moved away from centralized IT departments and toward other departments, where a departmental buy-in is often needed.

The AI driver

Another reason why ABM tools have recently emerged is the availability of AI. First, AI was used by ABM to propel the automated selection of target accounts via predictive analytics. Increasingly, it is also driving the intelligent orchestration of nurturing and other marketing responses, based on how the targets respond, their needs and profiles, the perceived hierarchy of individuals in that account, and so on.

“One of the things about ABM,” Berkowitz said, is that “it takes a long time to do well and get it right.”

If you’re targeting, say, 200 accounts as potential new corporate customers, some individuals at those accounts will visit different pages at your site, some will download white papers, while others will respond to emails. Additionally, new data will emerge, for instance, on where new branch offices of the targeted companies are opening.

Responding to such a dynamically changing engagement and delivering the next best action requires a coordinated, sophisticated and automatic orchestration that is only now emerging in ABM platforms, he said.

Not a stable scenario

One might think that the tools in the ABM category would have been swallowed up by the large marketing automation platforms. While some ABM additions have been made to platforms like Marketo and Salesforce, Berkowitz said, they don’t offer the capabilities of ABM-specific platforms like Engagio, Demandbase, Terminus, 6sense, Radius and RollWorks.

On the other hand, ABM tools in general are not expected to be systems of record the way a Salesforce customer relationship management system is, and no ABM tools have a fully developed, native email capability — a key need for account nurturing.

As a result, ABM platforms all integrate with marketing automation tools, but Berkowitz predicts that this isn’t a stable scenario.

The coming battle

ABM tools are going to develop more of the capabilities of marketing automation platforms — like sophisticated email features — he predicted, because software is always looking for competitive differentiators and because the increased use of AI will enable new levels of dynamic response across channels.

With added capabilities, ABM tools can then coordinate email interactions, orchestrate across channels and determine the next best response, in addition to predicting the most responsive target accounts, tracking web visits and generating reports. In short, they will be able to offer the key interaction capabilities needed to pursue an account, lacking only a system of record for maintaining target and customer profiles.

By adding capabilities, ABM tools can get a bigger share of marketers’ budgets. With these additional functions, it’s unlikely they’ll fall victim to marketers’ desires to reduce their toolset, Berkowitz said, since many marketing departments have shown their willingness to manage “a massive stack.”

As ABM tools grow their resume, the Adobe/Marketos, Salesforces, Oracle Eloquas and B2B toolsets growing around Customer Data Platforms are going to have to decide whether to fully develop their ABM side, or to buy an existing ABM vendor.

It’s not clear yet how the larger marketing automation platforms will respond, Berkowitz said, but it is clear the battle is set.

This story first appeared on MarTech Today. For more on marketing technology, click here.