Settling the ABM vs Inbound Debate

Oct 07, 2019 | Author John McTigue

I’ve been an ABM fan-boy for several years now, but I got my digital marketing chops in inbound marketing. Truth is, I like them both, and I scratch my head when I read serious professionals say that ABM replaces inbound or that inbound is just for B2C.

ABM is not the great savior of B2B sales and marketing, any more than inbound is the great Satan. People (and vendors) who perpetuate these myths may not be telling you the whole story. 

Let’s talk turkey about what’s really going on in the ABM vs inbound debate.

The Value of ABM

Account based marketing makes sense when your go-to-market strategy focuses on a relatively short list of target buyers. Hence the interest in ABM by B2B companies going after enterprise or larger mid-market prospects. It’s difficult to get past the gatekeeper when trying to attract these accounts, and the sales process is typically complex, involving a team of six to seven buyers, not just one or two. The value of an ABM strategy is that your team explicitly focuses on finding ideal target companies and identifying buying team members. Then, they are tasked with establishing a beachhead and moving inland with highly personalized communications for each buying team member. The process is inherently efficient, if done well, and the statistics are impressive for companies performing ABM at a high level.

The Downside of ABM

The problem is, when you create your ideal customer profile(s) and start to look for matching companies, you are usually starting from scratch. Your buyers have no idea who you are and may not even be aware that they have a problem that you can solve. This is the definition of cold outreach. Yes, your ABM team will do their homework and craft messages and offers that only a fool would turn down, but you still have to cross the moat to get to the castle!

You still have to send cold emails or do cold calls to break through for that first meeting. Yes, you can do highly targeted advertising based on custom, ICP-based, audiences, but how effective is that really? It may work better with retargeting, once they are aware of your brand. Don’t forget, you’re targeting a handful of companies. Your probability of success is, well, not that probable due to a variety of factors.

The other problem is that most ABM-based software and services target companies, not individuals. Your ads will show for the entire company, not simply the buying team, or better yet, influencers and decision makers on the buying team. Unless you’re prepared to bombard each company with a variety of messages, you have a hard time reaching those key contacts with messages that are relevant to them with some certainty that they are even interested. In addition, you have no way of knowing what kind of actual traction you are getting until those people find their way to your digital properties and become leads.

The Value of Inbound

Inbound marketing is all about gathering leads through attraction to your digital properties, mostly through a combination of content distribution, SEO, paid search and social media. If your inbound campaigns are highly targeted, by topics, roles, or other relevant criteria, they stand a decent chance of landing some good leads that your SDRs and email marketing can follow up on. Inbound is inherently more efficient from a labor perspective and is often less expensive than outbound on a cost-per-lead basis. Also, because leads are coming to you, they are probably further along in the buying journey than cold, outbound leads. That could mean shorter sales cycles and higher close rates. Not always, but in many cases.

The Downside of Inbound

The big problem with inbound is that you have no real control over who becomes a lead. You’re casting a wide net and hoping that qualified leads convert. Inbound is therefore notorious for producing unqualified leads that the sales team has to spend time reviewing and often rejecting. There are many ways to overcome these drawbacks, including targeted campaigns, website messaging, chatbots that help to qualify leads, and more.

The problem is that inbound marketing has gained a reputation as a necessary evil, but overall a wasteful exercise that yields only higher volumes of website visitors and unqualified leads instead of sales-ready leads with relatively high close rates. Very few revenue operations want that kind of outcome.

How Can We Resolve this Ongoing Debate?

I’m going to take the extreme position that both solutions are right, and both are wrong, depending on the circumstances. I know, I sound like a politician right now, but hear me out! 

Some of my favorite rules of thumb include:

  1. If you have a one-to-few ABM strategy, by all means go all-in on ABM.
  2. If you have a one-to-many ABM strategy, you’re probably best served blending both ABM and inbound to catch the big fish with a spear, and the rest with inbound.
  3. If you are somewhat buyer-agnostic, like a software app that fits a wide swath of B2B companies, you’re probably better off doubling down on inbound marketing.
  4. If you’re a startup or any company with a small amount of brand awareness, you should probably start with ABM to gain traction in the market and build brand awareness over time with inbound.
  5. In general, you need to have a solid foundation of website, SEO, social pages, and most importantly a repeatable, customer-focused sales team and process. You need to do at least some inbound marketing to gain that foothold over the long haul.

Even if you have chosen one of these paths and are executing it well, you might want to consider other ways to blend ABM with inbound marketing for maximum effectiveness.

Identify your ideal customers (both as accounts and contacts) for ABM

Yes, you can use LinkedIn and/or ABM software tools to build your ideal customer profile and find buyers in your market using second and third party intent data. But then what? You don’t sell to accounts, you sell to people - the ones that are actually searching for solutions, not the entire company. Some ABM tools will suggest contacts within interested accounts, but there is still no positive identification, verified by data, of who the best contacts are for sales and lead activation. That’s where contact levelTM intent data comes into play. By combining different complementary data sets, you can get a 360 view of accounts and their key influencers. Now, combine that with inbound data - the people who have already engaged with you - and you have everything you need to identify, reach, engage, close and delight high potential leads.

Reinforce your outbound sales with inbound leads

Even the best of highly targeted outbound campaigns is limited by human factors. Most people don’t respond to outbound emails and ads, unless they are precisely targeted and timely, like someone shopping for a certain type of car. B2B buyers are seldom this focused. Effective ABM can reduce the clutter by targeting certain buyers, but the chances that they will see or respond to your content or inquiries are still slim. In this case, it pays to be everywhere a buyer wanders when browsing their favorite channels or searching for possible solutions. That’s what inbound marketing buys you.

Find out what really works in attracting and converting sales leads

In ABM, you are by definition drastically reducing the volume of potential leads that could become your customers. That’s a good thing for efficiency and targeting, but it’s terrible for statistical analysis. Chances are, you won’t have enough engagement data to develop a data-driven strategy. You’re committing to a relatively small number of leads because you believe that they represent your best opportunity to grow revenues. That doesn’t mean that you’re right! Why not collect a broader spectrum of contact and account data using inbound and intent data to gain insights on engagement and conversion rates? Then zero in on the best of the best with ABM.

Develop a more comprehensive view of your accounts and prospects

More is definitely more when it comes to segmentation, targeted marketing, and sales development. You can certainly collect valuable information on both accounts and their respective contacts through both inbound and ABM, but that’s limited to first party data - people who actually visit your website or social pages. Wouldn’t it be nice to expand that information pool to include demographics, firmographics, technographics, psychographics and buyer intent? That’s the world of intent data, and you want both account-level and contact-levelTM intent data, added to your ideal customer profiles, account profiles and buying team member profiles. Now you have everything you need to target the best prospects, find their sweet spots for both marketing and sales, and observe their behavior in order to contact them at the right time.

Have we reached a consensus?

Let’s face it, B2B sales and marketing is hard. It’s complex. Rarely is it black or white. There are times when a concentrated ABM strategy makes sense, and so too with inbound marketing. But in most cases, there are some very good reasons to do both. The smart move is to plan for that blend and adjust over time. It doesn’t make much sense to pit them against each other and let the winner take all. Smart companies are leveraging the talent and resources they have, ideally, experts in both ABM and inbound strategy and technology, and deploying them to solve for their customers.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash


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