It’s Time for B2B Content Marketing to Adjust to an Account-Based Marketing World

September 9, 2016

Account-based Marketing (ABM) aims to strike down a core tenet of modern marketing. It challenges the idea that success comes simply from more quality leads nurtured through to purchase. The focus on individuals is misguided. The focus should be on the account itself.

This idea comes in part from how targets respond to business pain. When a company is in the market for, say, HR solutions, the pain is likely felt by multiple hiring managers, the HR team itself, and employees. And the purchasing decision will likely be influenced by a similarly diverse group.

This is supported by data from the CEB, publishers of the Challenger Customer. It found that the average B2B purchase involved more than 5 decision makers. The more decision makers the more likely an opportunity will result in “no decision”.

So, the marketing and selling of HR solutions needs to be coordinated across this set of buyers at the account level.

Content Matters in an Account-Based World

How do you orchestrate that consensus across an account? Fundamentally, it is about the coordinated distribution of relevant content to the right people in the right context. Content here is in the broadest sense. It could be, for example:

  • Internally developed or third party business cases distributed via email;
  • Coaching, training, experience, and sales guidance processed and delivered in person by a rep;
  • Opinions and best practices of industry peers that illustrate successful change.

And no wonder. Buyers remain hungry for genuine insight that helps them succeed. They want to be engaged and informed, and they want to drive improvement at their businesses. This fundamentally changes how marketing content is created, distributed to targets, and used by reps to orchestrate consensus.

More Buyers, More Complexity

Within the decision team there will be competing priorities around value, risk, and effort. Customizing your message to address these various stakeholders can help confront tactical challenges. But ultimately there will be a group decision based on the account’s priorities.

That means that sales and marketing resources should avoid hyper-niching their messages. An excessive focus on departmental value at the expense of account level value can lead to individuals prioritizing their own needs over a shared need. That risks opening political conflicts that end in stalemate or false-starts because an internal alliance couldn’t be made to affect change.

How should you reshape your content strategy in light of this? How should you adjust what content you produce and how it is distributed? Let’s take a look.

Personae Grata

Even if your solution and sale are low-complexity, there will be account-level priorities. These are concerns that shape how groups choose between which issues to confront. They may be cross-organizational or not, but except in the smallest companies, they always affect groups of people.

So, don’t limit your persona analysis to just individuals. If it’s true that accounts buy as accounts, then treat the account as a persona to be convinced.

  • Talk to Sales: Understand the account-level drivers by interviewing your sales organization, and in a multi-product company, across sales teams. Learn who is involved in a purchase and how they came together to arrive at a decision. Discover which kinds of messages resonated best.
  • Look at the Data: Your marketing and sales automation platforms have a wealth of data on which messages, and kinds of messages, were most effective. Don’t just focus on which content was effective by individual persona. Look at common threads across accounts.
  • Talk to Customers: There’s no substitute for speaking directly to buyers themselves. Don’t get stuck on why the purchase mattered to them individually. Understand friction points that stemmed from group stalls. And find out what convinced them to push through the organizational inertia.

Group Drivers by Persona Type

You’re a marketer. You’ve done persona analysis a lot. So, now apply the same process but at an account-level. Armed with the various account-level drivers, group them based on account types.

Yes, you will often want to have highly specific messaging for your accounts. That specificity is one of the advantages of taking an account-based approach. But if you can find common themes across your accounts then you can develop reusable messaging that can be used repeatedly.

  • Firmographics: Just as you can predict which message will drive action for individuals based on demographics and behavior, you can do the same by account. Think of the firmographics of your target accounts. Do accounts with different industries, geographies, or employee counts respond to different messages?
  • Account Behavior: Similarly, accounts have behaviors too. They issue press releases, tweet as a company, and hire particular skill sets, and individual employees themselves collectively act in ways that can be thought of as account-level behaviors. These signals can strongly indicate whether an account is in-market or where they are in the buying process.

Map the Account’s Journey

Helping the target account move along the buyer journey means content marketers should understand the pains and frictions in each stage in the journey. Let’s consider an example buyer’s journey in a multi-influencer decision.

Identifying a Problem

A single individual may recognize a business pain because of research they’ve read. But if they are on an island in recognizing the issue and can’t tie it to a corporate priority, they’re less likely to press for change. Here’s a parallel:

Dropbox is often used by individual employees to store large files that can’t be easily shared. These islands of usage are hardly an enterprise deal on their own. By coordinating and linking these voices of demand together, Dropbox engages senior IT leadership as to the scale of the file-sharing challenge.

Understanding the Problem

An individual or sub-group may decide to pursue the problem. But every account works through its own priorities. It balances risk, effort, and potential value to determine whether to reprioritize initiatives. If the team can’t grasp the scope of the issue, impact of change, or examples of success, if they lack a shared set of priorities and the vision to get there then they’re likely to revert to inertia.

Addressing the Problem

Change is driven by getting decision makers on side, proving value, and managing risk and effort. All within what might be a political and dynamic environment. If they can’t see examples or paths to succeeding, then change will again be hard.

Individuals within a company may not have the power to push a project forward. So, generating individual fans within an organization is not necessarily indicative of a forward moving deal. But coordinating these fans by account can be directed toward an advancing deal.

The same applies to content in an organization. You’re clearly generating interest and hitting on a pain that individuals feel. But if they sense that this is their own isolated thinking and challenge, they are unlikely to take the next step. Coordinate the various players so they know there is momentum for change in their own organization.

Build, Distribute, and Measure that Content

Now that you’ve identified the kinds of account-level content and content types you should build, it’s time to build it. You’re creating materials that focus on the needs of the account-level persona.

Build the Right Content

A word of caution. Traditionally, content and product marketers have different skills sets and insights. Content marketers may produce great early stage material that generates interest. Product marketers might be great at late sales content or technical information. Build content based on what addresses the needs of your persona, not based on who you have available to write.

Get it to Your Audience

Once written, it’s time to look at distribution to your account. Yes, individuals read your content. But you must coordinate the distribution so that it supports decision making. And the correct people are consuming it to support group decisions. Typically, these distribution mechanisms include social, ads, email, web browsing, physical and in-person or phone connections.

It’s not merely about bombarding individuals with content. It is about coordinating the distribution of content so the group decision is appropriately influenced. Leading ABM platforms assist in this coordination effort.

Measure for Improvement

Lastly, measurement is critical. You’ve drawn conclusions about which content types will work best for account personae and at different stages. Now you need to refine and improve that understanding. Look to understand both:

  • Engagement on Content: Which teams and at which times are consuming content, responding to ads, or positively acting based on personal communication. Measuring this attribute helps.
  • Correlation with Wins: In addition to situational success of your content and messaging, look to the correlation of your content and its consumption with advancements through the account’s journey. Which content was presented or consumed prior to a lead converting, opportunity being created, deal closing, or account upselling?

Build the Influencer Network

Once content has helped to land a new account, the content creation cycle starts up again. A happy account provides not just proof points for your product. They help prospects work through their own journey by providing best practices and evidence that the change is worth championing across the organization.

Wrapping Up

Content marketing has reshaped marketing through its ability to educate and influence buyers. Now, by bringing together the lessons of ABM, marketers can target their content efforts not just at individuals but at the groups that make today’s B2B purchases.

VP Marketing

Peter Mollins heads marketing at martech vendor <a href="KnowledgeTree Inc.">Knowledge Tree</a>. Peter has held senior marketing roles with Borland, Micro Focus, Relativity, and started off as a Netscape intern. He holds a Masters of International Management from Thunderbird and has been known to voice-over a (home) movie or two.