Ep 9: Charlie Liang - How to Operationalize Account-Based Marketing

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  1. Show Introduction [00:00]
  2. How would you decide whether ABM fits in a new organization or how do you tackle it? [01:06]
  3. If your Average Contract Value is below $25K is Account-Based Marketing worth it? [02:47]
  4. Is it worth investing in ABM with the intent of growing or should you grow big and then institutionalize ABM? [04:19
  5. What do you see as the core pillars of a successful ABM implementation? [05:53]
  6. Do you try to include as many accounts in your account list or try to exclude as many accounts from your account list? [08:36]
  7. Do you only talk to the HR department and then move up to the CEO or do you talk to everyone at once? [11:10]
  8. What have you found the triggers you try to incorporate into ABM? [17:32]
  9. What is the ideal balance between what should be automated and what reps should be doing? [19:49]
  10. When people say this company landed on my site, therefore they are definitely on our ABM process, do you feel that is a reliable source? [21:49]
  11. So how do you balance personalization at scale? [24:03]
  12. What are your other methods of outreach to the customers? [28:07]
  13. How will privacy considerations really tamp down on our capacity to reach customers in the future here in the US? [32:32]
  14. How do you approach ABM in the EU in the GDPR world? [34:15]
  15. MSP is great for sales but do you have anything like that for marketing? [36:38]

How to Operationalize Account-Based Marketing

Meet our guest: Charlie Liang

Kyle: Hey listeners. My guest today was Charlie Liang. He and I spoke in-depth about account-based marketing and how companies can get ramped up and all the things you need to consider if you're trying to apply account-based marketing to your sales process. I hope you enjoy.

We'll Charlie I really appreciate you being on the show. As a background, I know you've been at companies like Engagio and you've been involved as a thought leader at ABM for a long time. I'm definitely excited to learn from you especially about ABM and how to operationalize it today.

Charlie: Yes absolutely thank you for having me on Kyle. I think this has been a long time coming and I'm excited to chat a little bit more with you especially with your knowledge about ABM and how to operationalize data.

Kyle: And I know Engagio was definitely a leader in the space for ABM, so for a primer, I feel folks already know what Account-Based marketing is but if you are moving companies and you're starting fresh at an organization, how would you decide whether AMB even fits or how you should start tackling it. Where do you typically start when you're starting your company?

How would you decide whether ABM fits in a new organization or how do you tackle it?

Charlie: It's a good question and I recently experienced that when joining Lattice. I won't go deep into Lattice. We sell HR software about $10K average contract value so and we have about 1300 customers. And as I was transitioning here I was going through the same process. Initially, every company wants to go upmarket. So initially my marching orders were, let's roll out ABM here. I took a step back and I thought about what the company actually needed. Not just in 3 to 5 years, but what the company needs in the next 6 to 12 months. And looking at the matrix, products, and the customer attributes from industries, what type of customers they were, what types of people we sold to and which customers we had the least amount of churn in, it didn't really make sense for ABM. ABM only makes sense if your ACB is above a certain size. Obviously the higher the better. I would say, the minimum for staff is probably 25K to 40K. With those figures, you can start doing good ABM. Underneath that, you're still doing good marketing.

Kyle: When you said your ACV was like around 10K, in my mind I was like, that feels like it might be too transactional for a proper Account-Based Marketing process. So you're saying if you're typically north of $25K maybe even $50K then it's a slam dunk but if you're below that you're kind of if-fie?

If your Average Contract Value is below $25K is Account-Based Marketing worth it?

Charlie: Exactly. It's kind of like, I was in Vegas this past week so I'll use a roulette analogy if you will. It's kind of like when you have a lot of accounts, there are 38 numbers if you count the 00 and the 0 on the roulette table. If you have a small ACV, then you have that many numbers on the roulette table. And so to be able to win you spread your bets around, you don't put it all on one number. If you put it all on one number, then the bet could fail. If you have an Enterprise, you don't have that many numbers. There are not so many accounts you can sell to. Then you only have 8 numbers you can bet on for example. Then maybe you put more chips onto each of the 8 numbers.

Kyle: Yes, you go all-in on 00. Yeah, that makes sense. The roulette is a good analogy having played that myself. That intuitively makes sense. If you're selling a $500 one sale close it's not worth the time to do all this research but let's assume you're a company and you're maybe $10K but you want to get your deals to a 100K, do you think it's worth starting exploring ABM cause companies might have a mix where they're not only Enterprise or only mid-market or only SMB, they tend to spread the gambit? Are you finding that in those cases it's worth investing in ABM with the intent of growing bigger or do you feel you should grow big and then institutionalize ABM?

Is it worth investing in ABM with the intent of growing or should you grow big and then institutionalize ABM?

Charlie: That's a great question. I think you should always be thinking about the future, the 2 to 3-year horizon. And starting to get learnings for when the company is ready for it, you know, ABM. When I started last year we were at 5K ACV, this year we're at 10K ACV, next year we're going to be aiming at 20K ACV. The company is growing. Not every company is like that but if you have a company that's growing ACV that fast, I think you have to accelerate the thinking of the future. And I think the way to do that is to start experiment with campaigns in the larger Enterprises cause that's when they can have real-world feedback on if they win great, but if they lose then they learn. Those learnings are going to be critical especially as your company moves upmarket so I always think it's a good time to invest in ABM early and the way you do that is you dedicate maybe 25% of your time and you try and get some learning there, and once you're there you can have some learnings already in your back pocket. And you can hit the ground running.

Kyle: Yeah I got you. I'm pretty naïve when it comes to ABM. My idea of that is like let's use contacts, let's not use leads anymore. That's essentially as far as my experience goes with that. What do you see as the core pillars of this is a successful ABM implementation. This is how I think about structuring it broadly. Let's assume $50K to $250K deals. What are the core pillars of how to build this process and operationalize outside of just using contacts and not leads anymore? If that even applies.

Charlie: Yeah. I think you're selling yourself short there, Kyle but I think the real challenge with ABM, where a lot of companies fall short, is that they rush into campaigns. You know they start running these, there was this one company I worked at, did really well but were rushing campaigns, this is when the Apple Watch came out, we would mail these Apple watch chargers to folks and then say if they took a meeting we would send them the Apple watch. It was a good campaign but it was a very high-value campaign so we didn't have the budget to do it for everyone. We got a lot of meetings but a lot of the time the meetings were not with the right people and there were also a lot of accounts that we just couldn't get exposure to. The learning from that was, always start with the account list build-out. That's super important.

If you start and your TAM is only a few thousand accounts, when you're ABM it's not that many accounts, sometimes even less than that. You just start with the accounts and just understand who is at those accounts. The primary decision-makers. Who are the influencers? What does the org structure look like? What else are they using? What are they thinking about for the next 6 to 12 months? Like where are their pains? So you really do your research. The only way to do your research I think is to, you go to your publicly available data resources, you also want to mine your own data. Data is going to be the differentiator. If your competitors are targeting the same accounts and you're better researched then automatically puts you at a better advantage because your top tracks are more elevated and it's more tailored to the customer. I think the data component is an often overlooked piece, maybe and it's also the most important piece.

Kyle: Yeah, it's the backbone of it. If you have crummy data or you don't have a good account list, even if you find the right people with the right message, if it's the wrong group of accounts, cause they're SMB, you're just not going to find success.

Charlie: Exactly. Often times, if you don't have the right people at the account, you waste your time poking around getting intros and that could be time lost especially when it's an active deal cycle. A lot of the times people don't respond to that. It's really important to get in front of the right people and then the messaging will come.

Kyle: So let's say you and I, let's pretend, we start a business tomorrow, selling widgets to Enterprise companies. So we know we want to do Enterprise, like should we be pulling a list of the Fortune 500 and say let's talk to them, or do you feel a company should really have conversations with those Fortune 500 companies to see were there's a fit and then from there decide who their accounts are with?

Do you try to include as many accounts in your account list or try to exclude as many accounts from your account list?

Charlie: That's a good question. It depends. I think you want to start with the best of the best but you also don't want to make it too narrow. Because you know, in the Enterprise, there's one thing I've learned, every Enterprise company is different. They have unique challenges. That's why selling to the Enterprises are so hard. I think it's finding a pocket of users that have a challenge that you can solve. Starting with that. And then once solving that expanding to other pockets of accounts.

But I think there's also a lot of narratives to not starting. Like if you and I were starting a company tomorrow, I really want to hear your thoughts on this as well, I'm not sure I'll necessarily start in the Enterprise cause it's really hard. It's really hard to convince someone to spend six figures with you. I would actually start lower and then see if there is a wider group of challenges. What do you think?

Kyle: I've never seen a company or I should say it's super rare for me to see a company start out of the gates in Enterprise because you need a lot of that social proof. If you're selling to General Electric they're going to want to see you've got Facebook, Amazon, and Google because that social proof makes it easy for them to move forward but if you're like, hey you're going to be our very first customer, that feels like a heavy lift unless you're a persona in the industry that everybody knows. If you're Steve Jobs and you're going to start another company they will have that conversation with you and they're going to trust you. So it's almost like if you've got this CEO who's like, which is not me, like super known it makes it easy for them to buy in because they can buy into your reputation rather than someone who they've never heard of starting a company. Even if it's a slam dunk, they are still going to have hesitations cause there's not that social proof. So I think you're right.

Charlie: And what I think what you're hitting on is risk aversion. Folks in Enterprise have more systems, they have more resources. They don't necessarily need to take the risk. So I think building up that reputation and honing your product and getting social proof, that helps with the procurement process once you get there.

Kyle: So if you're doing six-figure deals, I'm guessing these are companies that are making 10 million, 20 million a year, at least, like at the very bottom, it's not much more. So you're talking about companies that are pretty big. How much of your ABM process do you think of like, for you guys you're selling HR, but that could be the the CEO or the CFO potentially buying it. You're probably quite never sure until you have that conversation with them. How do you think about how to tackle certain situations, like we're going to try to talk to everybody or do you try to say we're going after the HR people for a while then we're going to move on to these and move over to the CEO? Or do you try to do all at once?

Do you only talk to the HR department and then move up to the CEO or do you talk to everyone at once?

Charlie: Kyle that's a great question. I think it depends on the company size as well. But I'm a big fan of not doing too many personas because a lot of the times I've found that when you have too many personas you try to talk to. You might be a small start-up yourself and the product marketing function might be ___. I think you tend to say the same thing to everyone and it only applies to a very small fraction. So I would suggest start with a small group, be that HR, Operations, peoples operations team within an HR department that is usually in charge of rolling out strategic initiatives. In HR, a lot of the initiatives start from the top usually at the HR director level either because the company is growing really fast or the company is going through some change and need a process to manage that change. And then take it down to the people ops. It's a good way of finding inbounds. Just being proactive. They might be thinking of a project next year but you're three months away, so going in with that messaging to a specific group is really good.

And then on the outbound side, I think it's okay to go to the executives because they might have longer field vision. And see things that might be coming down the line, six to nine months from now. And then once you can get ahead of that then you might get to bat because those executives might remember that you out-bounded them with this messaging. And once that timing is right they'll send it down to their peoples' ops team. The way I look at it is we don't try to blow the ocean we could also easily talk to managers because we have a full house of managers because we have a tool that helps managers have better one-on-one's with their teams, get better performance reviews. It's kind of one-off and they are not decision-makers and we lose a lot when the because essentially the managers have to refer us to the peoples' ops teams. Usually, you go direct to the peoples' ops team unless the manager manages a big team and then has team point themselves, like priority number one, priority number two, that works as well but in general I don't blow the ocean. What have you found Kyle?

Kyle: I always find that there is like an argument between Sales or Marketing, even Enterprise reps, or managers or individual contributors where some people say we've got to start at the top, cause that thesis makes sense of, if I get the CEO to commit to a project, it's clear, it's going to get done. If I get an individual HR associate to commit to a project, there's no guarantee that it's getting done. So that's kind of the idea. But there is also value if you find those 10 people that view your guys' product, started at Facebook tomorrow, you would probably want to hit those type of people to work bottom-up because they could build some brand awareness, brands association, positively throughout the organization because that's very impactful too. Cause you know one person can impact a deal negatively too if they've had a bad experience but if you have a bunch of people that had a positive one it can go the other way.

Kyle: I'm of the belief that if you start at the top, they can get things done but what I've found is selling something tactic to a person that's strategic can be very hard cause they want to think of a bigger broader vision but if you have a tactical solution it's hard cause they are going to kick you down anyways. I'm not a super great salesperson, to begin with, so I'd say there are people out there that are better but from an Account-Based Marketing position I would think if I were a new company how should I be, like I agree you start with accounts because if you don't have accounts you're going to go nowhere. Second, I think you're definitely right, let's limit our personas to where we have the best match. Then the third is like who are those people and how are we going to message to them, depending on how you're going to sell bottom-up. I always like the top-down one cause like getting that executive dialed in is supercritical. You're going to need that no matter what to get a sale, so you might as well start there but I think a lot of people would probably argue bottom up so there you go.

Charlie: I think you can have success doing both but it's different cycles. Depends on how good your messaging is. I want to double click on something you said. You said when people move to a different company that's a really good time to try and push a new initiative through. I've seen that happen time and time again.

I think it's mainly because of two things. Number one, when you're new to a company, you have some social capital you can use. You can have one or two suggestions that the company would want to adopt especially if you're higher up. And depending on what those initiatives are, you have a really powerful moment to reach out.

The other piece that I think is really important is everyone has different appetites for risk-reward tolerance. If you have a start-up and you have a cutting edge product then your main champions are going to be the people that are willing to take risks. If you have a good product and you make them happy then if those people move to different companies, it's not like their personalities are going to change. They're still going to be early adopters so I think finding those early adopters and keeping track of them is a really powerful thing that a lot of companies overlook.

Kyle: Yes, there are a ton of sales triggers like a person changing jobs, they acquired another company. Those are all triggers people tend to bite on. It's almost like a persona of a person who is a risk-taker. They are willing to try something new that somebody won't. Those are the ones you should be leading into. There are probably forward-thinking, even Enterprise companies who want to make a change. Epson is probably a good example there. Outside tracking champions moving what have you found the triggers you try to incorporate into ABM?

What have you found the triggers you try to incorporate into ABM?

Charlie: A lot of the triggers you mentioned already but I think the triggers that I have seen working really well: funding times for us when a company grows in scale in a vast way. They need to keep their employees happy. Downsizing tends to be a good moment as well. We have a lot of people come in when an employee leaves unexpectedly like, oh, I didn't realize that so and so was so unhappy. That's a negative thing but it also a good trigger event.

If there's a key hire made, personnel changes are always important. Whether a company has plans to grow, this is even before the funding amount. Forward-thinking companies, when they plan to grow, they will invest in the infrastructure early. I'm probably missing a few triggers. Have you seen others in your experience?

Kyle: If they buy a competing or complementary product. So let's say you complement well with Strike and you see a company add Strike that should be a situation to reach out and to introduce your product. Strike is a bad example because Strike is not HR. Or, I know you just did a major layoff or something along those lines or some kind of news that can impact the business can be a good one.

The balance between tools, using API to automate, versus people doing stuff manually. There are tools like Crunchbase that you can get in your funding round, notify the rep, no challenges there. But there are situations like a trade show, where we get a list and we got to share it and tie it to an account and maybe search Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Those things are heavy on manual effort.

What is the ideal balance between what should be automated and what reps should be doing?

Charlie: I think reps are expensive. There's a limited quantity of them and they're very smart individuals. So their time is best spent on creating messagings from the data and the research. Research is important but the messaging is something the rep should do. There isn't someone else that can do that. Ideally, all the data is there for them and they're just thinking about how to use that information to make a compelling statement to whomever they are trying to get in touch with.

A lot of the times that's not the case though. In this day and age of you can get a list of accounts that are visiting your website for the last three months. The problem is these are just accounts, and due to privacy laws (unless you have people cookied) they don't tell you who the person is. So at larger companies, it could be hundreds of people. That is something I've seen a lot of reps struggle with. It's like, I know Johnson&Johnson is on my site but I have no idea who it is. I know it's someone from Indiana but I have no idea who it is. If you can find a way to automate that, that could go a long way. And then the reps can focus on things they are good at and that's messaging.

Kyle: That's a trigger that comes up often when people say this company landed on my site, therefore, they are definitely on our ABM process. Do you feel that is a reliable source? Is that something companies should use?

When people say this company landed on my site, therefore they are definitely on our ABM process, do you feel that is a reliable source?

Charlie: Honestly I haven't done much analysis of the trustworthiness of the IP address. I used to work at Engagio and we subleased the building from Collective Health and so it would be, hi Collective Health. There's definitely a portion of that but there's also, people come to your site for a bunch of different reasons. They could have seen an article of you in the news and they're not like your persona. There might be someone that happens to work there. They could have seen an ad, you know look-alike marketing. The look-alike marketing doesn't take into account what company they're working for, it's just people. Those people could be on your site. People could be looking for a job. There could be a lot of different reasons. So those triggers could end up being a giant waste of time.

Kyle: So we are still on an unpolished territory to identify a person on your site to a person that could buy from you?

Charlie: That's right. I'm not sure, with the privacy laws, that we'll ever get there.

Kyle: So let's say you've got accounts, you've got your key triggers based up, you've got some kind of a mix between automation and manual effort. You mentioned that the value that reps add is really strategic, about how they can craft a personalized message and makes them want to talk. So how do you balance personalization at scale? Do you think it's a realistic concept or is it an oxymoron?

So how do you balance personalization at scale?

Charlie: I think that is an oxymoron. Although I've seen it done well, you have to be really clever. Oftentimes there is a fine line between clever and annoying. The safest way to go, if you don't have that many accounts, why risk that? A lot of times you only have one at-bat. If you don't get their attention and you annoy them they're going to unsubscribe and then you lose the email channel. Then why risk is it? A personalized approach is definitely the way to go. You could use different triggers like flattery, people like to feel good. You can use mutual connections. You can use other types of events that make them feel you are not saying this to anyone else. And if you do that, you have a much better chance to get an interaction with them.

We recently ran a direct marketing campaign and we sent some folks candles and some nice spa items. If they took a meeting we said their next spa day would be on us. We sent them in waves. Each rep got ten to twenty packages they could send for each wave. It wasn't like they had a lot. They knew they had to make it count. We had one rep that would hand-deliver the box. He somehow got past security in this one company and hand-delivered the box to the VP of HR.

Kyle: I'm curious to find out what are your other methods of outreach are. Do you have any ideas of what will be on the horizon, like how are we going to stand out if people are tired of getting cupcakes?

What are your other methods of outreach to the customers?

Charlie: I think of this from time to time as a marketer. I think direct marketing will always be above phone and email because we can see via phone and email if it's spam. But a direct mail package? Like it's not like you're not going to open a package.

Some channels that I think are underutilized are text messages. I've seen reps text when it's late in the cycle and it lubes it. The other channel is Slack (Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.). Slack is quickly becoming the de-facto medium of how companies communicate with each other. They haven't opened up an external channel to invite someone 'outside' off the street. If they do, it would become a huge channel in the future.

You also see a lot of people turn to outdoor advertising. Outdoor advertising is something you just can not block. You can block digital ads, you can block phone numbers, you can block anything, but outdoor ads, you're kind of forced to look at it. Hopefully, the ads are good and you like them. But I think that's why a lot of people art turning to outdoor advertising.

Kyle: GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is quite prevalent in the EU right now. It's made a big difference in how businesses sell.

How will privacy considerations really tamp down on our capacity to reach customers in the future here in the US?

Charlie: I'm not sure. I think the US might wait to, depending on how the stuff plays out in the EU and what's comes out of GDPR and whether consumers are actually happy or if it was an over-reaction. The US might have some learnings from it but we are still using yards and feet and inches and a bunch of other where we pride ourselves that we have a unique system. Given how big of a deal capitalism is here we might say that is the way it is here. Privacy is important but our capitalism is more important. It's kind of like privacy vs. capitalism.

Kyle: Do you guys do any sales in the EU? How do you approach ABM in the EU in the GDPR world? Do you even touch it?

How do you approach ABM in the EU in the GDPR world?

Charlie: We don't actively go into the EU but we have a fair amount of customers in the UK. We do advertising in the UK. Because we have a really good product, there is a lot of word of mouth. All HR people are no more than three or four degrees connected. Probably even less than that to each other and they all talk about solutions they're using. Advertising with a good product can actually go a long way in places where it's harder to do outbound. That's been working well thus far. I think about 15 to 20% of our revenue comes from that area even though we are not actively out there.

Kyle: Wow that's definitely a good product and word of mouth. Obviously, you know marketers change jobs every 12 to 18 months or so and that's an opportunity for them to, if they were a 'virus' they're spreading it to more people as they change jobs.

Charlie: They're good viruses. And I think that's why you see review sites like Trustpilot and Captura. These sites where folks go to do research. I think they are already used to do research on the consumer side like TripAdvisor on Yelp where they're going to eat, where they're going to stay. I think that's why it's important to have a good product and also have a good presence on those review sites because a lot of the time it's the only way you're going to get viewed.

Kyle: I am distrustful of those review sites, just because they astroturf and because there are no independent audits on these tools. Do you have anything like that for marketing?

MSP is great for sales but do you have anything like that for marketing?

Charlie: I've been fortunate to meet a lot of smart marketing people so I feel pretty fortunate to have a pretty strong network just on my LinkedIn. So if I have a really tough question I can just ask my network. For me, LinkedIn is a big source.

There are also a few different channels like Julian Shapiro. He wrote a guide to growth. There's a few thousand people on his channel now and there is no advertising so it feels like a safe community. So I would say my go-to is LinkedIn. I wish I could go to more shows as well. Shows are also good.

Kyle: I really appreciate you taking the time. How can people follow you as you are a real thought leader in this space?

To learn more or connect with Charlie Liang check him out on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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