B2B content marketing – but by very different rules

In B2B, content marketing is primarily concerned with helping businesses find, educate and convert potential customers using valuable content. Fundamentally, we’re looking to enable them to self-educate, getting answers to the questions that matter to them.

In our research into recent changes in B2B buyer behaviour, 66% of buyers said they’re self-serving more information than ever and a quarter want to be able to get everything they need before speaking to a salesperson.

So it’s clear: content has a massive potential impact.

However, the general consensus is that to be successful, you need to produce a consistent volume of high-quality, broad-reach content to catch potential leads. This can be both time-consuming and costly.

But what if you could streamline this entire process and make it far more effective? 

This is why so many B2B marketers are adopting account-based marketing (ABM).

At its heart, ABM is about concentrating on a small number of high-value target accounts and delivering highly personalised bespoke marketing campaigns. And, in certain circumstances, it works very well.

In our B2B Effectiveness Engine data, two-thirds of the highest performing demand generation marketers say 1-to-1 or 1-to-few ABM is very effective at meeting their objectives. This rises to 82% of respondents with an average deal size in excess of £1m. 

Deals achieved using the ABM model tend to have shorter sales cycles, more engaged customers and a higher ROI. On top of this, businesses that prioritise account-based marketing also tend to have a much greater alignment between their sales and marketing teams. But simply deciding to switch to an account-based marketing model overnight does not automatically guarantee results. 

So how do you see results? Let’s start at the beginning.


Why should you even consider ABM?

The typical vision of success in B2B content marketing is to attract a high volume of the right kind of customers to your business through quality content.

If this is your goal, ABM is not for you.

Instead of acquiring a large volume of unqualified leads to uncover a small number of qualified opportunities, ABM looks to connect your sales team with a small number of very high-potential, very high-value accounts right from the start. And, while this is often a large investment, it can deliver some impressive benefits.

ABM helps shorten the sales cycle

High-ticket B2B sales are typically slow involving multiple stages before a prospect ever talks to sales. Every major purchase is high risk and highly complex. And the penalty for something going wrong can be significant.

ABM helps accelerate this process.

Typically in the broader world of B2B, you’ll start a marketing campaign by creating attention to generate interest and, from there, find qualified leads to nurture and convert into clients.

But with ABM, you identify a small number of target accounts first. Then you focus on them, and only them, to nurture and convert.

This is very different from the traditional sales funnel.

It means no more wasting time with a mass of unqualified leads. A small number of named accounts are targeted with messages selected and tailored directly to them. As a result, you engage prospects earlier and build stronger relationships.

Gain greater alignment between marketing and sales teams

Marketing-to-sales misalignment is an ongoing issue in a large number of businesses. All too often marketers and salespeople struggle to agree on what a ‘lead’ even looks like.

In terms of alignment, ABM is about as close as we get to a magic bullet.

For ABM to work, marketing and sales teams must commit to working towards common goals (targeting the same accounts) using the same strategy.

This creates sales and marketing alignment by default. (Or else the approach is doomed to failure from the start.)

A key result of adopting ABM is better internal communication and a better experience for customers as they move between marketing and sales throughout the buying process.

Waste less budget through more precise targeting

While ABM can be a significant investment if you look at it on a per-customer level, it carries far less wastage than mass-targeting approaches. This means that more of your time, effort and budget goes to engaging the prospects who are most valuable for your business.

This is an area where Pareto’s Principle tends to hold true – 80% of a business’s revenue often comes from just 20% of its customers. So identifying the 20% (and others that look a lot like them) and focusing greater efforts on attracting more of them makes sound commercial sense.


Account-based marketing strategy – the essentials

An ABM strategy is, in some ways, no different from any other marketing strategy. It is always concerned with overcoming barriers to success be that identifying prospects or having prospects identify you.

With ABM, you are looking to identify what’s preventing named accounts from engaging with you and developing approaches that clearly demonstrate why they should.

Decide what you want to achieve 

What do you want your ABM activity to deliver? New name, new business? Incremental revenue from an existing account? The displacement of a key competitor?

There are many options. What you decide to focus on will have a significant downstream impact on what you choose to do, so getting clarity on your objectives is an important first step.

How will you measure success?

The reality in ABM is that measuring success is difficult (and is where many companies fail). You’ll need to be able to accurately measure the ROI, compare it to your other marketing campaigns and, finally, establish a timeline over which to deliver results.

We’re a long way from MQLs.

You’ll likely need to use a mix of engagement metrics to get a picture of whether you’re deepening your relationships with the accounts that matter. Of course, given the size of many of these opportunities, you are probably facing an extended sales cycle.

You (and senior sponsors of the approach in your organisation) will need patience and tenacity.

What’s preventing you from succeeding?

Once you have your agreed objective, you need a strategy that moves you towards success.

The focus is on what you have to do in order to overcome barriers. What’s stopping the target account from engaging with you? This could be a range of factors:

It goes on and on.

Being clear about these barriers is key to creating strategy that works. Remember, if there aren’t any barriers, you don’t need a strategy.

By creating a solid strategy, you can effectively cut through the noise, focusing your efforts to attract and engage target accounts and ultimately begin a conversation.

Identifying target accounts for your ABM strategy

To be successful, account-based marketing must begin by identifying good-fit accounts that can support your growth and revenue targets. This means companies with problems you can fix and who have the budget to let you fix them. Too many B2B brands target accounts that appear profitable but, in reality, are a poor fit for their businesses. (To be clear, we’re talking about prospective customers with the kind of significant budgets to make your investment in ABM viable.)

This may mean attracting new high-value clients or expanding your share of an existing high-potential customer. In either case, they must fit you as much as you fit them.

It also means researching elements such as the key issues they’re facing as businesses to identify the real-world challenges your products solve.

You’ll also need to understand where they are in the adoption of competitive solutions. An account may be ideal on paper but if they’ve just signed a long-term contract with a major competitor, you’re unlikely to see a move anytime soon.

You’ll need to carry out in-depth research into your target audience. Work closely with your sales colleagues – without a tightly integrated approach, your efforts will be doomed to underperform (even if you create super-relevant content that’s head and shoulders above your competitors). Continually narrow your focus to find potential accounts that justify the effort ABM requires.

Without understanding what a high-value account is to your company, your ABM efforts will be fruitless. Take time to thoroughly research whether your target accounts will support your overall business strategy. If not, they are not valuable accounts.

With your foundational ABM strategy in place, you’ll be in a position to begin thinking about content.


The basics of developing an account-based content marketing strategy

To succeed in creating effective content for account-based marketing, you need to answer two major questions:

  1. Who exactly is your content targeting?
  2. What kind of content do you need to create?

Importantly, compared to traditional ways of viewing content marketing, the ABM model takes established approaches and flips them on their head.

Who exactly is your content targeting?

This is maybe the most obvious way ABM content strategies diverge from traditional content marketing in B2B. Rather than distributing content to attract an audience, you find your audience first and deliver content directly to them.

From target audiences to target accounts

Typically content marketing attracts leads by putting a broad range of content in front of a wide array of people and seeing who bites. It must balance depth and relevance with range and reach.

Account-based marketing is different: You need to go deep, not broad

ABM is solely focused on depth and relevance. It never has to worry about range and reach.

As we’ve covered, ABM focuses on targeting specific good-fit accounts. And, within them, the individuals and teams involved in the buying process.

The goal is to create a direct relationship with key decision-makers to increase sales to these specific accounts. We’re looking to demonstrate that we understand their businesses and can bring value to working together. In ABM, this relationship is built through in-depth insights and customised content that speaks directly to their individual needs as a company.

What kind of content do you need to create?

The biggest mistake many businesses make with content for ABM is to rush into creation before taking the critical steps that will build a foundation for success. So, before you can even begin thinking about developing content, you must invest time in deciding precisely who to target.

Understanding the people who make buying decisions

Once you have a robust ideal customer profile (ICP), you’ll need to learn who in the company actually has buying power. This may be relatively obvious but different companies vary in how decisions get made and who is ultimately responsible for making them.

Using increasingly refined research, you’ll go from selecting valuable accounts to pinpointing valuable individuals within them. From there, your task is to uncover these individuals’ personal pain points and identify the tools they currently have available to fix these. This will be easier if you already have a relationship with the business but for new customers, it can take some detective work.

Importantly, always bear in mind that your #1 competitor is ‘do nothing’ – ie, carry on as you are. Inertia is incredibly powerful.

Using the information you discover, you can develop a buyer persona – a profile of the relevant decision-makers and what matters to them.

Done right, this takes the guesswork out of content creation enabling you to develop highly focused assets that are personalised to the needs of the buyer.

Remember, the buying decision ultimately falls on real individuals not a corporate hive-mind. Don’t be afraid to concentrate on the needs of those people. Importantly, base your personas on data not assumptions or wishful thinking.

Matching your ICP with real-life individuals and teams within key accounts is crucial to creating effective account-based content. In our B2B Effectiveness Engine data, those who research the individuals who make up the buying committee for their products/services are 30% more likely to be leaders in demand generation and 35% more likely to be top performers in lead generation.

So getting this level of understanding matters. A lot.

Developing the right content

Creating valuable content is at the core of putting an ABM programme into action. But delivering premium customised content will be a big investment.

The level of research needed for success is time-consuming and the content creation itself will likely be resource-heavy. Creating one-off content not only requires intense effort from content marketers but also input from expensive senior staff, relatively high production costs and possibly the delivery of physical items.

It adds up.

Even if you end up reusing this content later, the costs can be significant. And success or failure is more variable (when you target a small number of prospects, tiny changes in response can have a big impact on metrics).

Put simply, it’s important to get it right.

So how do we do this?

It will differ from account to account. This is not a one-size-fits-all process (it wouldn’t be ABM if it was). 

So, for example, say you commission some research into key challenges in a prospect’s industry (which can be reused for others you target in that market).

Your content may come in the form of a report that talks about the findings in relation to the target account’s specific business. Perhaps you could support this with a video series from your own people giving their insights into the key challenges. You could house this on a custom portal focused on the customer.

Alternatively, you could invite them to a prestige event where a high-profile speaker in the industry talks about the key issues they’re facing. You could then extend this into a workshop environment placing your best people in the same space as their core decision-makers.

Keep in mind the objective of your campaign and the level of relationship you do (or do not) have with the target business. The content you produce to get your foot in the door with a new target account will be different to the content you produce for a company you have partnered with before and where you are looking to expand into new areas.

Getting your content in front of the people that matter

Once you’ve developed your content, you need to get it to the people you want to influence.

Here, the goal is to create an environment where you can turn your content into the beginning of a conversation. One where you can start to build a relationship (or extend one you already have).

If you already have a relationship with the business, engaging with your existing contacts to gain access to the people you need to speak to will be key. You’ll need to show what’s in it for them – how this will help them increase their value to the business and enhance their position within the organisation.

For businesses where there is no existing relationship, you will need to employ a range of tactics – from direct marketing and retargeting to digital engagement and social media outreach.

The benefit of personalising content for your buyers

In any 1-to-1 or 1-to-few account-based marketing strategy, you should make sure that whatever you do is as highly personalised and intensely relevant as you can make it.

These are busy people. They’re under a lot of pressure. And they don’t care about you.

So your content needs to be all about them. It should be personalised to their business and their needs (not simply dropping their name in here and there).

This kind of personalisation:

Ultimately, this kind of content creates a bespoke customer experience that’s a far cry from a traditional content marketing strategy.


Why your content strategy must change for ABM

Creating an account-based marketing content strategy that works is difficult. It’s where most companies looking to switch to an ABM model fail.

But if you want to see the benefits to ABM (and there are many), creating a solid strategy that clearly outlines success and the approaches and content you’ll need to get there is fundamental to success. Get it right and you’ll be able to begin to implement programmes that ultimately deliver the results account-based marketing promises.


Final thoughts 

So, at the end of all of this, what do you really get from changing your marketing approach to be one that prioritises high value accounts and utilises ABM strategy to its fullest?

ABM is ideal for targeting a small number of high-value accounts. Doing so demands you create content that gets noticed by the right people, shows you understand their individual challenges, positions you as the expert in solving them, and leads to a conversation.

This means you need to be very focused on precisely who you target. You need a deep understanding of what challenges are driving the market. And you need to invest in creating content that speaks to the pain points of a wide variety of customer stakeholders.