At the B2B Marketing Summit earlier in the year, two things were instantly apparent:
- Content marketers are increasingly stressed out about engagement and ROI.
- Account-Based Marketing is hotter than a very hot thing. With chilli sauce on it.
That’s no coincidence. The Content Marketing Institute says 88% of B2B organisations are using content marketing right now.
That adds up, putting it politely, to a metric shit-tonne of content.
Which is a problem, obviously. Doug Kessler was predicting it almost four years and three million SlideShare views ago. More recently (in fact, also at the B2B Summit), Octopus Group pointed out that the proliferation of content is actually making B2B buying decisions slower.
(I’ll repeat that, in case you missed it: the marketing content that was supposed to help B2B buyers buy, is actually making their job more difficult. That ought to worry you – as someone who spends his life writing B2B marketing content, it certainly scares the bejeezus out of me.)
Can ABM drive content engagement?
As far back as January 2014, my colleague Fiona was predicting that hyper-targeted content might one day help to counteract the vast island of unwanted B2B content, which even then was circling and growing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If your buying process is grinding to a halt among an endless, bewildering array of ebooks, infographics, white papers, case studies and buyers’ guides, then a tailored report that’s clearly written just for you (and focuses on only the most relevant and applicable information), is bound to have a certain appeal.
In this context, account-based marketing content doesn’t just talk about the buyer’s pain point – it actively takes it away.
But then, Fiona did have a little help with her prediction. She’d just worked with Quantum Marketing Group on an ABM project for Tata Consultancy Services, where 29 tailored retail sector reports had produced some outstanding results in terms of engagement, meetings and pipeline. (You can read more about it here, here and here.)
Wait a minute… Account-Based what?
Oh, sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
Account-Based Marketing (ABM) is a lot like the way sales executives tier their accounts, and (in smaller businesses) spend more time and effort on the big, strategic ones. Larger B2B organisations have entire sales teams dedicated to particular key accounts.
In the same way, ABM steps away from marketing to a broad target market, and instead focuses on very specific people. In some cases, it can mean entire campaigns designed for an audience of one. You’ll find a handy primer for marketers, here.
The other bit you need to know is that there are flavours of ABM:
- Strategic ABM really does focus on individual accounts, aligning closely with sales to produce entirely bespoke marketing stuff. (Like that time an IT company asked me to write a whole book to be read by one person.)
- ABM “Lite” focuses on small groups of (still highly targeted) accounts with clear common characteristics, produces campaigns that are likely to appeal to them, and then tailors that content as appropriate (like the 30 retail reports I told you about earlier).
- Programmatic ABM is technology and data-driven, and it’s new. You still need appealing, central stuff, but the audience is greater, and the personalisation is more automated.
None of this (programmatic aside) is exactly new – at one level, it’s basic sales enablement marketing – but there’s a lot of smart new tech making it easier to scale and personalise the approach, which is why it’s back on the agenda.
Well, that and the growing ocean of B2B marketing content nobody reads. Which brings me back to…
But who’s gonna write it, kid? You?
So. There’s a load of broad, scattershot marketing content about, and there’s little doubt that focusing on tiny – even one-person/organisation – audiences can increase your impact.
But that’s a mountain of content.
Because where you had one set of content assets aimed at, say, CIOs in large financial organisations, you now need those assets per organisation. Even if you’re taking the ABM Lite approach, you still need the one, central report to be tailored by hand.
One of the arguments for ABM is that it’s cheaper, because the audience is so much smaller. And certainly when it comes to delivering the message, that’s true. But the amount of content you need to create grows exponentially.
And, importantly, you need that content to be right.
Because if a piece of broadly-targeted content misses the mark, you get away with it. Yeah, it’s a waste of budget and a missed opportunity, but nobody dies. You can try again.
Compare that to the piece of content with that key contact’s name on it. The piece that says “Hello, Ms. Specific-Financial-Director-at-That-Very-Important-Key-Account. This thing was WRITTEN JUST FOR YOU.”
If that content isn’t up to scratch, you’re sunk. You get one shot, and this is it.
“Content is certainly critical to the ABM process… so on that basis good writing that is tailored to a company or even an individual is definitely a key element in the communications mix.”
“I would typically expect ABM content to be written by a copywriter.”
Content that’s aimed at an individual can’t be vague, or lazy. It needs the research to understand their real issues, the writing skill to capture their imagination, and the understanding to deliver the most relevant information without wasting their time.
You’ve said “Here’s what YOUR business needs…” and from there, the way the content’s written will either establish your authority, or destroy it. It needs absolutely top-notch copy.
What skills does an ABM copywriter need?
I asked Bev Burgess what a copywriter should be bringing to the ABM table. She was kind enough to give me a very detailed answer.
“ABM is all about treating an account as a market in its own right,” Bev explains.
“As a result of the research you conduct and insight you build into that account and the key people within it, you are able to develop messaging that is more relevant, personalised, and presented in the language and format that the buyers and influencers in the account prefer.”
But more importantly still, Bev believes the copywriter’s core skills are different, depending on the kind of ABM you’re doing.
Copywriting for strategic ABM
For strategic work, Bev says the most important thing for account-based marketers is to find a writer who’s strong enough to push the brief back if it’s wrong.
She says: “Writers working on strategic ABM campaigns usually make the account’s issues and the language it uses the starting point for any bespoke or customised brand propositions, thought leadership content, and value propositions.
“This outside-in perspective is not different from good marketing – just more focused on one account – but it is different from the inside-out messaging that many technology companies put out in the market.
“This means writers in ABM need to not only get into the mind of the audience, as experienced journalists would typically do anyway, and create an impactful headline or proposition in the right language, but they also need the soft skills to push back on those who want to revert to their own technical language or messaging, or add back in technical details that will not resonate.
“In essence, ABM copywriters need the assertiveness to help suppliers create something powerful and ‘get over themselves’ to be effective in an ABM context.”
You heard it, marketers: get over yourselves.
Copywriting for ABM Lite
With ABM Lite, Bev believes writers can help the marketing team to strike a balance between enough personalisation, and overkill.
Bev continues: “With ABM Lite, the challenge is to understand the common issues and language used by a cluster of similar accounts within a context, and be able to craft language that resonates with as many of the stakeholders in those accounts as possible, without creating the need to feed an unmanageable content beast!
“The balancing act is a tough one. But essentially it’s about the 80/20 rule: making sure enough content is customised to stakeholders and accounts within the cluster while keeping as much of the content created for all the accounts in common as possible.”
Copywriting for programmatic ABM
Finally, Bev says that writing for programmatic ABM campaigns are a lot like the B2B marketing copywriters already know and love.
“As you hit programmatic ABM, it becomes much more like ‘just good marketing’, as one of my clients calls it. It’s about creating the right content to reach the right people at the right time in the accounts that matter to you.
“Writing for buyer personas is really the best way to work here.”
When and how should you get a copywriter involved?
The process of pulling together content for strategic ABM, or ABM Lite, can be a long one – involving a great deal of research to determine the most important issues, solutions, value propositions and language. What is the right time for the account-based marketer to bring a copywriter into the mix?
Andrea Clatworthy, Head of Account Based Marketing at Fujitsu, believes it should come once you’ve decided what you want to say, to help you shape the how.
She says: “One of the key things when communicating with a customer is to use their language, their terminology, so insight and research are important to get that right – this should be a joint effort between the ABMer, the account team, and the extended team including, for instance, a copywriter.”
“I think the right time for a copywriter to get involved is when the ABMer has determined what to communicate, and brings in folk to shape how and when.”
Robert Norum, meanwhile, believes that copywriters should be involved earlier in ABM than for regular marketing campaigns.
“Typically we would expect to start with industry, company and stakeholder insight before moving to value proposition and messaging development, which would then lead to a creative brief for content and creative execution,” he says.
“But [with ABM] I think the copywriter should be immersed in the insight findings and heavily involved in workshops or conversations around value proposition and messaging.”
…Which makes sense to me. If you get a writer involved early on, we can help to make sure the research is meaningful, and will find out things that help us write with real authority and insight.
Like garlic bread, ABM is the future.
Most talented B2B copywriters can expect to be working on more account-based content in the future. And – as long as you’re not too wedded to the vicarious glory of seeing your (anonymous) work shared far and wide – that’s probably a good thing.
If we’re going to do it right, it’ll mean clearer briefs and better research to work from than ever before. It should also mean writers need to form closer partnerships with marketers and key account teams, and help to define how much work is really necessary. Ideally, there’ll be more licence to push back, too – because ABM leaves no space for lazy, half-arsed or poorly thought-out work.
(And, hopefully, the direct accountability of the work will mean there’s no hiding place for weak, wannabe copywriters churning out thousands of words without really knowing the craft.)
As Bev Burgess concludes: “For writers, ABM is a chance to focus on a more tightly-defined audience and create relevant, engaging content as they pass through a buying cycle.
“The amount of content needed could be enormous, so the judgement to know when you’ve hit diminishing returns is important, along with the assertiveness to help suppliers adopt an outside-in mindset and move away from their corporate messages and jargon.”