How to Select a Target Account for Account-Based Marketing

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Many B2B companies we work with are eager to try an account-based marketing (ABM) strategy or need help optimizing ABM programs already in place — and for good reason. Done well, ABM can increase opportunities, win rates, average deal size and customer lifetime value. 

But executing a successful ABM program takes a lot of planning, research, collaboration with more internal stakeholders than you might think (no, ABM is not “just” a sales and marketing activity) and buy-in from executive leadership. 

Assuming you have good reason to pursue ABM activities (ABM isn’t right for everyone), clear goals and a marketing/sales service level agreement in place, then you’re on the right track. 

ABM principles are simple enough on the surface: Whereas traditional demand generation is like fishing with a net, ABM is like fishing with a spear. Zero in on target accounts, nurture them and land them. 

The devil is in the details — starting with ABM account selection.

Account selection informs all other account-based marketing tactics: crafting the messaging, activating the right channels and deciding how to engage target accounts. 

In this blog post, I’ll cover the key steps involved in account selection for ABM, including:

  • Defining your ideal customer profiles, or ICP
  • Inviting the right internal stakeholders to the table for account selection
  • Researching prospect accounts
  • Narrowing down, or scoring, target accounts
  • Deciding on which plays to put in place after you’ve selected targeted accounts

I’ll also note some third-party tools that can support ABM, such as Terminus and ZoomInfo. If these tools aren’t in your budget, that’s OK. As long as you have a customer relationship management (CRM) system where you’re tracking account and contact activity, you have the basic tools to start an ABM program.

Defining Ideal Customer Profiles: A Prerequisite for Any ABM Play 

It’s tempting to dive in headfirst with account-based marketing tactics. Your sales team probably already has a list of target accounts on their radar, so why not just start emailing contacts within those accounts?

“Anybody can say, ‘I want to go after all Fortune 500 companies or Fortune 2000 companies.’ But do you really?” says Thomas Gallagher, an ABM expert and director of demand generation at Rhapsody Health Solutions. He explains that due diligence in defining ICPs and focusing your resources on accounts that match your ICPs will yield better results than casting a net that’s too large. 

While you can target a huge list, you risk wasting time and money on accounts that have no intent on buying your product or service, winning an account that your Customer Success team can’t support, or winning a smaller deal than you could have, if your efforts were more strategic.

Instead, focus on accounts that match your ICP. Limit your sales and marketing spend on the types of businesses that are most likely to benefit from your offering.

What’s an ICP? (Hint: It’s not your buyer personas). An ICP is a well-defined description of the type of customer that’s most suitable for and most likely to find value from your offering. It represents the most ideal attributes of customers that are most likely to benefit from, engage with and buy from your company.

Don’t confuse ICPs with buyer personas. An ICP is a representation of a company and can help you identify the right businesses to target. A buyer persona is a representation of different people, the decision makers, within those companies. 

(Need tips on creating buyer personas? Read 5 Must-Haves for Buyer Personas and How to Integrate Them Into Your Content)

When adding contacts to target accounts, include the personas that SiriusDecisions considers the buying committee. These personas can make or break a deal:

  • An executive within the organization who recognizes the value your offering can bring to the company
  • A champion who will keep the deal moving
  • Someone from finance or procurement
  • Someone from the organization’s IT department who will understand the requirements of integrating your solution in the organization 

“If you don’t have these four, you haven’t filled out the table,” Gallagher says. 

How to define your ICPs — and who has a say in defining them. Here are the essential steps and key stakeholders to consider when defining your ICPs. If you have multiple products or service lines or serve more than one industry, you’ll have multiple ICPs.

  • Review your largest closed-won deals within the last year. What characteristics do they share? Consider:
Firmographics vs technographics
  • Review your closed-lost accounts. “Having data on accounts that got to a certain stage in the buying process and ultimately decided not to buy is a key point to consider,” Gallagher says. What features or functions of your solution made them think it was a bad fit?

Think beyond sales and marketing leadership when defining your ICPs. Customer success (CS) and product management (PM) teams have valuable perspectives as well. 

CS has insights grounded in real-world customer experiences. You may have landed a whale of an account, but if CS can’t meet SLAs or is sinking resources to service the customer, then the account may not be so ideal.

CS also has a clear understanding of your customers’ pain points — the challenges they had before using your product or service and how your offering solved these challenges. Targeting prospects with similar pain points and knowing that you can solve them helps you land the right accounts for your business. 

PM plays a crucial role in defining your ICPs because they develop and manage products your customers use. They have a close pulse on the product roadmap and can help you identify accounts that will benefit the most from your offerings.

Researching Target Accounts and Contacts for ABM Programs

With ICPs defined, you have a North Star to guide you in identifying the ideal accounts to target. As you start, you’ll likely end up with a target account list that’s way too long to reasonably target. That’s OK. Accounts will start falling off the list as you determine whether they match your ideal customer profile. 

How do you get a target account list in the first place? Fire up an Excel spreadsheet and start with these sources.

  • Your sales team. Now that they’re familiar with your ICPs, ask them for accounts on their radar. Add the accounts to your spreadsheet.
  • Your current customers. It’s generally more cost-efficient to sell to your current customers than to win net-new customers. Your customers know you. You’re an approved vendor in their procurement system. Using ABM strategies with your current customers can help you expand your share of wallet in the account.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Dig into your CRM and identify accounts that fit the ICP. Assuming your CRM is set up properly, and data is accurate, you may find target accounts that your sales team hasn’t engaged with in a while and, therefore, weren’t included in the lists they provided to you.
  • Third-party vendors. If you have the budget for an ABM platform such as Terminus, 6Sense or Demandbase, you can identify new targets that may not be in your database. These types of tools can help you find “lookalike” companies that are searching for solutions like yours and have intent to buy, or they can help you monitor which of your target accounts are engaging with your content. 

On a smaller budget? Try LinkedIn advertising. You can upload a list of target accounts, including company name, contacts, roles and titles within those accounts, and serve targeted ads to them. LinkedIn can then recommend lookalike businesses and contacts that match the profile of your original list. It probably won’t be as comprehensive as what you’d get from the services noted above, but at least there’s a lower barrier to entry with LinkedIn advertising.

Once you have a list of target accounts, research them to see if they’re worth targeting. This is time consuming, so brace yourself. 

Tools like ZoomInfo or Crunchbase are helpful for finding firmographic and technographic data about your target accounts. In addition (or instead, if these tools aren’t in your budget), do some good ol’ fashioned internet research on your accounts, including:

  • Setting up Google alerts for the target account and/or on executives within the account
  • Searching for your accounts on PR websites such as BusinessWire or PRNewswire
  • Spending time on your accounts’ websites, looking for cues of any changes or developments, such as new hires, executive changes, acquisitions or new product launches
  • Following your accounts and their employees on LinkedIn. Again, be on the lookout for leadership changes and other developments. And don’t just lurk. Engage with their posts when you have a genuine reason to do so.

This business intelligence helps you see how well your target accounts align to your ICP. Through the info-gathering process, you should be whittling down your list to those who have a clear pain point they’re trying to solve and for whom you are confident you can deliver value.

You’ll probably find some accounts match your ICP more closely than others. This is a good reason to score your target accounts based on how closely they fit your ICP. 

Consider the following when scoring accounts:

  • Do they fit your ICP?
  • How well does your solution fit their challenges?
  • Are they already engaged with your company, and if so, to what degree?
  • Are they showing intent to buy a product like yours? (Tools like Terminus can help you determine buying intent.)

Assign a score to each of the criteria above to create a model that helps you weigh which accounts are best suited for targeting your solutions. 

Your model doesn’t need to be binary — yes or no. You could instead assign a tier to each account. Tier 1 accounts will end up getting more of your time, resources and attention than Tier 2 accounts, and so on. By the end of this part of the process, you should arrive at a list that your sales and marketing teams can reasonably tackle.

There’s no right amount of accounts to have on a list. Can your sales team reasonably nurture all the accounts that are assigned to them? Do you have the budget to target the number of accounts on your list? If you were to win these deals, is your customer success team ready to serve these new accounts? If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, keep narrowing down the list.

You’ve Selected Your ABM Target Accounts. Now What?

You have your ICP and list of target accounts. 

Resist the temptation to just jump right in by sending emails or LinkedIn messages to individuals within your accounts. At this point, you need a cohesive, comprehensive plan to engage your accounts and nurture them through the buyer’s journey with tailored content, webinars, advertising, email and other tactics. (Developing this cohesive, comprehensive plan doesn’t have to come after account selection. You can work on account selection and engagement strategies in tandem.)

This is where account-based marketing differentiates itself from other go-to-market strategies. Instead of broadly casting your company’s message out there to the masses (via traditional demand generation), if you’ve done your homework on target accounts, you can laser-focus messaging and content to address pain points they’re facing. For example:

  • Create an email nurture sequence with short messages that point readers to blog posts on your website. Make sure the content you’re pointing to gives readers actionable information to help them solve their unique challenges.
  • Share industry research, for example, from Gartner, Forrester or IDC.
  • Invite contacts within your accounts to register for a webinar you’re hosting on a topic that addresses challenges they’re facing (and ask them to forward the invitation to others in their organization).
  • Invite contacts to meet you at any trade shows you’re attending or exhibiting at.
  • Ask your sales team to send 1-to-1 emails or LinkedIn messages to contacts within the account, making sure to include trackable links to relevant content on your site.
  • Retarget the accounts with display advertising.

You don’t have to do all of these tactics at once. Choose the activities you think will yield the best results and test them. If it’s not performing, adjust your tactics and try again. 

Whichever tactics you try, tracking is essential to measure the ABM program’s success, see what’s working, make adjustments and continue to improve. With a comprehensive CRM like HubSpot, you have the basic tools required to track account engagement. Additional tools like Google Analytics, Terminus and others can offer additional insights for companies that have a bigger budget.

Executing a successful ABM play can help you close deals when done in a strategic way. It takes a lot of research, collaboration among different stakeholders, content and event creation, tools to measure effectiveness, and agility to make changes on the fly. 

Melanie Medina

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