Had I realized the Account-Based Marketing Hype Cycle was going to attract so much attention, I would have made it a lot prettier.
You know how it is, right? You get an idea, and you want to run with it NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week… NOW!
That need for speed is the story of me making the ABM Hype Cycle one evening recently. It’s also the root of the problems often encountered in launching as depicted in the Account-Based Marketing Hype Cycle.
Critics were quick to point out things like: it’s not actually a cycle, it’s not scientific, it merely comments on existing trends rather than providing real benefits for the development of new technologies, and a host of other criticisms.
Yet two decades later, we’re still talking about it, still making new versions, and my hastily-prepared ABM Hype Cycle continues to draw a crowd on LinkedIn, so clearly she was on to something.
I think the real power of the Hype Cycle is that it doesn’t just depict technological adoption. It also turns out to be true for the adoption of new business strategies too.
A Familiar Pattern
The pattern goes something like this:
First: This is going to be easy.
Soon followed by: Oh no! What have I done?
Then, often after a painful reboot, a methodical and successful rebuild leads to continued prosperity.
Comments on my original LinkedIn post support the fact that this is a common path.
And some went a little deeper, digging into why it happens.
Do You Really Have to Follow The Hype Cycle?
No. You really don’t. The problem is that a lot of internal and external forces pull you that way.
I’m a doer. I have a bias for action. I get stuff done. I move fast and break things. I jump off cliffs and build airplanes on the way down.
Whatever the particulars of your action hero self-identity, sometimes all that espresso in your veins leads you astray if you don’t channel it in the right direction.
Blasting out of the blocks with your first account-based marketing campaigns at record speed is one of those times. At best, you’ll maximize inefficiencies and minimize crucial learnings. At worst, you’ll burn your own credibility, and that of your organization’s ABM future, in your dash toward the Trough of Disillusionment.
If you’re not doing it to yourself, there’s a good likelihood your boss is doing it to you.
“Can’t you move faster?”
“Why are you wasting time meeting with sales? Just pick some accounts and get going.”
“Look, I researched a company in five minutes. You should be in market by, what, next week?”
As crazy as those last two sound, I’ve heard them. We should put together a list of “Stuff Horrible Bosses Say” that push us toward the Trough.
This one may seem a bit circular, but it’s really important. Lack of good thinking about metrics is one of the common symptoms of racing toward the Peak of Inflated Expectations. It’s also one of the causes.
If you focus on, say, Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) and Demos Delivered in your traditional demand generation, it may seem logical and expedient to do the same as you shift to account-based marketing.
It’s also very likely a big mistake.
For many organizations, MQLs and Demos are appropriate early-stage measures of your inbound marketing.
Are your SEO, SEM, content, social and other efforts generating a lot of form fills? Great.
Is your Sales Development team turning a lot of these hand-raisers into demos? Fantastic.
If your deal size is small and your sales cycle short and transactional, these metrics may be okay for ABM too.
If, however, you’re entering into ABM because your deals are large, your sales cycle is long and complex, you’re looking to move up-market or into new markets, or perhaps you’re aiming to shift perceptions about the strategic value you deliver, these metrics are going to lead you astray.
People work to their comp plan. That’s why we pay commissions and bonuses and dole out praise and consequences. If I’m rewarded for form fills and demos, I’ll deliver form fills and demos.
If You Want to Achieve Something More Ambitious, Measure Something More Ambitious With Account-Based Marketing
Perhaps you’re unknown or misunderstood and you need a groundswell of awareness in key accounts. Perhaps you need people in their operations, finance, procurement and legal teams to recognize you as a legitimate player in your field and worthy of consideration. Until that mission is accomplished, all your features and benefits are meaningless.
Finding your champion isn’t enough. There are a wide range of influencers, stakeholders, and potential blockers you need to begin to build mindshare with on the road to engagement.
And most aren’t going to “give you 15 minutes for a call next Tuesday”. They just aren’t.
I’m not “jumping on a call” with some guy from a company I don’t know to tell him “what keeps me up at night”. He hasn’t even begun to earn that yet. And the passive aggressive follow-up emails or requests to “point you in the right direction” are going unanswered too.
And you’ve kind of made me mad.
If you upset 19 people in your most desirable accounts on the way to getting that meeting with the twentieth, what are you really doing?
If you’re measuring account-based marketing on conventional demand generation metrics, this is exactly the behavior you’re encouraging.
The right account-based marketing metrics are going to vary from organization to organization, and from tier to tier. Maybe you’ll build it around coverage and engagement. Maybe relationships and reputation. Maybe a mixed basket of online and offline, qualitative and quantitative measures. Maybe you’ll roll it all up into an account score of some kind or maybe you won’t.
The point is, failing to think through what you’re really trying to accomplish, and an unwillingness to measure accordingly (and maybe very differently from today), is a very common mistake if you’re sprinting out of the starting blocks.
We’ll see you in the Trough of Disillusionment pretty soon.
How to Avoid the Painful Account-Based Marketing Hype Cycle Path
1. Start with a Pilot
Don’t take your foot off the gas of your existing demand generation machine until you’ve built an ABM pilot that outperforms it.
You’ve got numbers to hit. You’ve got a sales team to feed. You need collaboration and support for the long-term. Don’t burn it by going all in too fast.
- A pilot needs to be big enough to be material, and small enough that nobody freaks out. Nobody gets fired.
- A pilot needs to be very focused. Don’t think you’re playing it safe by spreading your bets too wide. Focus, then focus some more. You’re building something highly personalized, highly engaging, and highly impactful. Go narrow and deep. There will be lots of opportunities to scale later.
- A pilot needs to deliver a delightful user experience. Remember, these people aren’t raising their hands. You’ve determined that they are ideal customers, they just don’t know it yet. When you’re highly focused, you have all sorts of opportunities to delight. Blow their minds!
- A pilot allows you to do things that don’t scale, or that you can worry about scaling later. Design those customized ads one at a time. Stuff those envelopes and lick those stamps yourself. Write that perfect piece of content for a market of one or of a few. Learn what really moves the dial. You’ll figure out how to make it more efficient later.
- A pilot needs to maximize your learning. You’re going to look back later and see that your first efforts were much less effective and much less efficient than what you evolved to. Accelerate these learnings by baking in smart testing at every stage.
If you’re just getting started in ABM or if you’ve already raced past the Peak of Inflated Expectations and crashed down hard in the Trough of Disillusionment, a pilot is the beginning of success.
2. Build True Alignment with Sales
This is vital from a 1 + 1 = 3 perspective, meaning that the combined and highly collaborative efforts of sales and marketing are much more powerful than the sum of their parts.
Take account selection for example. Marketing has a bunch of internal and external data that suggests particular segments and accounts are ideal for a pilot. Sales has a bunch of insights, experience, and relationships that add or subtract from the desirability of any given segment or account.
The same is true of content and messaging. Marketing has the data, sales knows what lights prospects up and what doesn’t.
Alignment is also vital from a cultural change perspective. New ways of going to market will require new ways of thinking, acting, and collaborating. Buy-in is essential. And no self-respecting sales professional is going to fully buy into something that isn’t their baby too.
It’s not enough that they sign off on it or otherwise passively agree. You need full, active co-ownership. Nothing less will create the conditions for real success.
3. Don’t Evangelize Too Early
Sales alignment for a pilot doesn’t mean you should be running ABM training sessions for all your sales people, unless you’re in a really small company.
Get two or three or five of the right people deeply invested. There will be plenty of time to sing the praises of ABM far and wide once you’ve built a pilot that delivers clear results.
4. Don’t Buy Tools Too Early
You can’t buy account-based marketing. You’re going to have to build it.
There’s a wide and ever-growing range of fantastic account-based marketing tools available. You’re going to use a number of them before long.
But you need to know what hurts before you try to heal it.
- Predictive account-selection tools can help you find your ideal market.
- Organization mapping tools can help you find the right people in large enterprises.
- Buyer intent tools can help you determine who’s ready to explore.
- Ad-targeting tools can put your message in front of the right people.
- Website customization and content portal tools can help you deliver a highly personalized message.
- Other tools will enable you to send the perfect gift at just the right time with the click of a button.
- Others will measure the impact of all this to enable you to continuously optimize and improve ROI.
Until you’ve rolled up your sleeves and muscled a sub-optimal handmade pilot into market, you don’t know enough about what parts really hurt.
You don’t have the time to investigate all these tools and you don’t have the money to buy them all either. Don’t let that stop you from getting rolling on your pilot.
Similarly to needing to know what hurts, you need to know what’s awesome before you scale it.
- If physical mail and gifting moves the needle, you’re going to need to stop doing it by hand.
- If account-specific ads are driving engagement, you’re going to need to create and deploy them at scale.
- If customized content proves key to engaging vital stakeholders, you’re going to need more of it and better ways to present and measure it.
You’ll spend a lot of time, and probably a lot of money, on amazing ABM technology in time. Don’t sweat it in the early stages.
The Plateau Of Productivity
Don’t let the Account-Based Marketing Hype Cycle scare you off. The Plateau of Productivity awaits, and those who have arrived are loving the view and reaping the rewards.
The ABM Hype Cycle
I took a bit of time and made the second version of the Account-Based Marketing Hype Cycle, seen in this post, much nicer than the first.