Account Intelligence

How to ABM Like a Boss (Part 4): Select Your Target Accounts

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November 19, 2020

14 mins read

How to ABM Like a Boss Part 4 Select Your Target Accounts

How to ABM Like a Boss (Part 4): Select Your Target Accounts

If you’re just digging your feet into ABM and looking for pointers on how to build a successful account-based strategy, then “How to ABM Like a Boss” is the definitive blog series for you. No need to read through a stack of posts from a dozen bloggers. This is it. It’s like reading an eBook but in an easier and more digestible way. The blog series covers how to create a budget, build an ABM team, get your data ready, select your target accounts, personalize your content, and measure and realign. Check out the rest of the posts in the series and own your ABM!

Part 1: Build a Budget

Part 2: Establish an ABM Team

Part 3: Get Your Data Ready

Part 5: Personalize Your Content

Part 6: Measure with ABM Metrics


Talk to any ABM analyst, read any ABM report, or listen to any ABM keynote, and they’ll all give you the same advice for getting started with ABM: The most critical piece in your marketing strategy is selecting the right accounts.

However, this is not how many B2B marketers were trained to think. Traditionally, we always started with WHAT (i.e., content and offers). This image illustrates the difference in thought process between a traditional demand generation approach and an ABM strategy.

Demand Gen vs. ABM Strategy

But account-based marketing is different. You must start with the WHO. In other words, the starting place is defining your target accounts. This is the most important decision you will make with ABM. It’s the lead domino that will create a cascade of positive outcomes through the entire sales process.

In this post, I’ll dive deep into how to select your target accounts. We’ll cover everything you need so you will end up with a highly refined set of accounts you and your team can feel confident in targeting with your ABM efforts.

The first step in this process is defining your Ideal Customer Profile.


Step 1: Define your ideal customer profile (ICP) and conduct a “won” sales analysis

Your ICP is a prototypical company that fits the profile of your best customer. This is the customer that would most benefit from your offering or service and provide you with significant value in exchange.

Before we dive into how to define and build your ICP, it’s important to note that you need the right people involved. ICP definition and target account selection isn’t just a job for marketing; you must get buy-in and participation from your sales and Customer Success counterparts as well.

We recommend that marketing own and lead this exercise, as they are likely the team that’s most familiar and comfortable with the role. However, it’s important that leadership from both sales and Customer Success be involved as well. Each unit of the organization must provide their buy-in, give their sign-off, and take ownership of the key accounts.

Is everyone at the table? Good. Onward!

Your ICP isn’t a wish list of accounts. Rather, it’s a list of accounts that are most likely to do business with you. Here are some factors to consider when defining your ICP:

  • What sector(s) are you winning in?
  • Are there ‘look alike’ segments similar to those you have success with now?
  • Alternately, what new markets are most important for your company to develop?
  • Are these markets growing?
  • What accounts will deliver the most value (including strategic value, advocates, referral sources, geographic presence)?

The output of your ICP should be a one-page document that clearly represents the type of companies you are targeting in your ABM efforts.

Now, let’s take it one step further and pull in additional data to fine-tune the list.

Use data to identify high probability accounts

With artificial intelligence and machine learning, there’s more data at our fingertips than ever before. We can leverage that data to identify the accounts that have the highest propensity to buy. The type of data that you’re going to want to look at are firmographic, technographic, intent, and engagement data. Let’s dive into each one.

Firmographic data

Chances are, you already have a pretty good idea about the kinds of companies most likely to deliver the big deals. Ask yourself, of those companies, which shared characteristics best predict a successful sales process.

The answer will likely come from firmographic attributes such as:

  • Company size
  • Number of employees
  • Industry
  • Growth trajectory
  • Number of locations

You can find this information from a variety of sources, including annual reports, LinkedIn, and third-party data vendors such as Dun & Bradstreet and Leadspace. This is an excellent starting point for the account selection process, but it’s only the beginning.

Technographic data

If you are a SaaS or technology company, you’ll want to define which technologies your top accounts currently use or are looking to invest in.

Consider what complementary technologies pair well with your solution, and, in contrast, which technologies make an investment less likely. For example, if you provide marketing technology, knowing what a prospect uses for marketing automation or their CRM might impact their candidacy for your solution.

You can source this data from desk research but to be most efficient, tap into the knowledge of data intelligence firms such as HG Insights, ZoomInfo, and Built With.

Intent data

One of the key elements of selecting target accounts is understanding intent. Firmographic and technographic data are both static descriptors that decrease the total size of your audience and thereby concentrate your efforts. But intent data uses the search behavior of new or previously unidentified contacts on third party websites to indicate buying signals.

Intent is an indicator that a company is interested in a certain topic, based on the content consumption of the buying committee within that company. This data can uncover signs that a target account is in the market right now for solutions like yours.

For example, if multiple contacts in an account have been proactively searching for a new solution over the past one to two months, that information indicates buyer criteria and buyer intent. More importantly, it tells you they’re in the market now.

It’s important to leverage intent data to identify interest in a solution like yours. Spend time narrowing search topics that pertain to your company and determine the threshold that surfaces surging interest.

Engagement data

While intent data can signify what buying activity an account is exhibiting elsewhere on the internet, engagement data seeks to identify how engaged with your company an account is right now.

When faced with a long list of potential target accounts, your quickest path to traction with ABM is the companies that have existing activity.

Your formula for engagement could include:

  • Account’s sales history
  • Account’s engagement with sales and marketing activities
  • Account engagement by persona
  • Existing relationships and connections into the account
    Executive entry point

This information is found from a variety of sources, including:

  • Your CRM data
  • Web analytics
  • Marketing automation reports
  • LinkedIn
  • An ABM platform like Demandbase
  • Sales rep activity
  • Executive input

Used in conjunction, these four types of data combine to make for a powerful strategy. But there’s one more thing we should talk about. It’s an advanced strategy that takes these four types of data and superchargers your selection process.

The power of predictive analytics

Predictive analytics uses data paired with algorithms and machine learning to identify the likelihood of future outcomes based on historical data. It allows us to process far more information than we could on our own. For the purpose of increasing closed-won deals, predictive analytics can help us better predict the account’s propensity to buy.

Just as Netflix predicts which movies you’ll like based on the ones you’ve already watched, predictive analytics helps choose the companies most likely to buy by analyzing the ones that have already bought from you (or have become opportunities).

Predictive analytics uses data about accounts that have progressed to a certain stage of the buying process to highlight other accounts in your market that most look like them. What’s unique about a predictive analytics model is that it gives us the ability to include many more dimensions and data points in the analysis—often in the hundreds or even thousands. In fact, a big part of the value of predictive analytics is that it does the data collection and data cleansing for us.


Tips to FIRE up your pipeline!

FIT: Identify accounts within your ICP that have the best chance of becoming customers.
INTENT: Discover accounts doing anonymous research on your unique products and competitors.
RELATIONSHIP: Understand the context and history of previous sales outreach and efforts.
ENGAGEMENT: Measure how accounts interact with your brand across your website, content, and campaigns.


Step 2: Take a three-tiered approach

Aligning how you will go after each account is another foundational step in ABM success. We advise taking a tiered approach to ABM. See, not all accounts in your total addressable market (TAM) are created equal.

The 3 Types of ABM

Use account tiers (one-to-one, one-to-few, and one-to-many) and the different tiers to ensure the right amount of resources for each account. And make sure everyone in the company is aligned around the prioritization and resources applied to each tier, then we are much more efficient and get better ROI.

There is a lot of content out there on this three-tiered approach to ABM, but here’s a quick recap:

Tier One: “Classic” one-to-one ABM

In its purest form (as defined by the ITSMA), ABM is about treating each account as a market of one, with dedicated resources and everything customized to serve that account.

Tier one should get the “full” ABM treatment, meaning each one gets deep research, a full account plan, personalized content, bespoke campaigns, and lots of one-to-one attention from sales and marketing team members.

Tier Two: “Lite” one-to-few ABM

While you can probably count the accounts getting Tier One treatment on your fingers, Tier Two tactics allow you to apply much of the focus and benefit of ABM to a broader list. Some call this “ABM Lite.”

Tier Two accounts also get individual research, but perhaps it’s limited to a few key talking points for each account. Since you have more of these accounts, you cannot afford to spend the same amount of time researching and sending personalized messages to them as you would to Tier One accounts.

Tier Three: “Programmatic” one-to-many ABM

This style covers all the accounts that you want to target but don’t have the resources to execute rich personalization and customization on them. These will often be smaller accounts and can be counted in the thousands. To execute on these, you’ll need the help of automation, which is why this type of ABM is often referred to as “Programmatic ABM.”

You may target Tier Three accounts with specific outbound tactics, sometimes customized by industry or solution, but the rest of the time you’ll simply use broad demand generation plays. You will still be targeting specific accounts, but you’ll leverage tactics such as ABM advertising, content syndication, and web personalization.

A tiering consideration: Apply a calculated way to choose your accounts

In addition to applying a framework for tiering accounts, we must next look at how many resources we have to invest so that we’re spending our time wisely. It’s not enough to have a list of all possible accounts; you must prioritize your efforts by determining how many resources we can apply to each account.

The right number of accounts is the number that your team can handle in a tier-appropriate way. A given enterprise account executive may only be able to handle a few Tier One accounts, but a corporate rep could probably handle a few hundred Tier Three target accounts at a time.

For example, let’s take a look at your “classic” ABM approach, where all of your interactions are one-to-one. If you have 10 of these high-value accounts, but you’re struggling to keep your communications one-to-one (i.e., personal outbound emails versus automated marketing email, handwritten notes versus mass-printed letters, etc.), then scale back the number of target accounts. There’s no shame in doing less if your quality improves.

The right number of accounts in each tier of your ABM program will depend on many factors, including:

  • Your expected deal sizes
  • The length of the sales cycle
  • Your available sales and marketing resources
  • Your current level of engagement with certain accounts
  • The intensiveness of your account-based strategy

Then it’s a matter of applying your available resources intelligently. The challenge is to scale your ABM program so that you can address internal requests from the Sales team, but at the same time not lose the unique approach of ABM and revert back to the traditional kinds of demand gen and marketing.

You must recognize that ABM takes time. Once you’ve chosen your list of target accounts, make sure you give your sales and marketing efforts enough time to work. You should definitely keep your accounts for at least the length of your sales cycle if not longer.


Step 3: Calculate the account score

Now it’s time to apply all of the work you’ve just completed with the different types of data and your predictive analytics to identify your TAL. One approach is by applying an account score. This section explores one way to do that.

Step 1: Assign a “fit” score to each account

Do this by identifying the engagement attributes your company has deemed most important, then assign a score range to each one. For example, if your ideal customer size is between 10,000 and 25,000 people, a company that falls within that range will get a 100. Companies that fall between 5,000 and 10,000 may get a score of 80. Companies that fall between 3,000 and 5,000 may get 60. Perform this exercise with each data point. Then, add up the individual scores for the aggregate. You’ll end up with your fit score for that account.

Step 2: Assign a “predictive” score to each account

Much like the fit score, the predictive score output is usually a number between 0 and 100, 0 being not a fit and 100 being a perfect fit. Whatever range you use be sure to be consistent across both the fit and predictive score. This will be important for Step 3.

Step 3: Determine your “account” score

Next, take the average of your fit score and your predictive score to identify a combined score. This is your Account Score. Then, sort your accounts from the highest score to the lowest score. (We prefer to show one score in our CRM system because it is simpler and less confusing to sales.)

Account Score Table

Finally, narrow down the list of accounts to those you can effectively pursue. For example, you’ll want to consider your budget, how many accounts a sales rep can manage, and how many accounts the marketing team can support.

The result will be your TAL.

Step 4: It’s selection time!

Once you have your ICP defined, your account scored and prioritized, your resources mapped, and your accounts selected, it’s time to share your accounts with your teams!

At Demandbase, our marketing team compiles all of the data for each potential target account, puts it into a spreadsheet, then gives it to the Sales reps for account selection. After they select their accounts, the executive leadership team gets the final sign-off.

Your rollout should look something like this:

Target Account Selection Rollout

The output will be a spreadsheet for each rep with the target accounts and executive approval.

The spreadsheet looks something like this:

Once accounts are scored, the executive and sales teams need to sign off on the listAs you can see, this process can be time-consuming. But, remember, if you get account selection right, it will make executing ABM easier, and ultimately, you’ll get better results.


Conclusion (Whew!)

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: selecting your accounts is the most important step in the entire ABM process. That’s why we advocate for a measure-twice-cut-once approach.

It’s not enough to just pick a list of target accounts, you also need to prioritize how much resource you can apply to each account. Don’t spread out your ABM efforts across all accounts evenly like peanut butter; use account tiers and the different styles to ensure the right amount of resource for each account — and make sure everyone in the company is aligned around the prioritization and resources applied to each tier.

Get your team involved and spend some time to complete the target account identification process before creating and executing your orchestrated ABM campaigns.


Take the next step! Build your deeper audiences. The Market Segmentation Playbook ebook cover

For a deep dive into market segmentation — how to refine your target account list into even smaller audiences — download a copy of The Market Segmentation Playbook.

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Brandon Redlinger

Thought Leader, B2B Marketing & Sales Strategy

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