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What is the difference between ABM and Inbound Marketing? Confusion persists about what is (and is not) Account-Based Marketing.

For clarity, we define inbound marketing as a general approach to answering customers potential questions and/or concerns. Its purpose is brand/credibility building and progressing a percentage of prospects to request more information.

ABM is about focussing on a key customer (or potential customer); the key personnel within that customer and trying to positively impact on their decision-making process.

A quick review of the sales process before the rise of the World-Wide-Web might help clarify the situation.

Inbound Marketing Drivers – A History

It may be difficult to comprehend now but supplier and product information was not readily available in the 1980s and 1990s. Tim Berners Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. Archie, one of the earliest worldwide web search tools was introduced in the early 1990s. Google was established in 1998.

The driver behind the rise of inbound marketing is widely assumed to be the availability of the world wide web as an information resource. It is suggested engineering and purchasing no longer needed a suppliers sales force to provide information. As a result, sales lost control of the sales process. However, there was another factor at work.

In the late 1980s, many senior purchasing people (and engineers) were nearing retirement age. These people had entered industry in the 1950s and had lived through unprecedented change. The transistor was first demonstrated in 1947. Moore’s law was in 1965.

Crucially, they had also lived through a period where supplier/customer cooperation was the only way to get things done. They had a good understanding of how technologies integrated, manufacturing issues and the key cost drivers. They were, in general, happy to meet with senior sales-people they respected and debate the issues.

As these people retired a new breed of purchasing people arrived on the scene. They were generally split between order placers and career purchasing people. Through the 1990s all the talk was about professional purchasing practice, six-sigma black belts, kanban, key supplier lists and more.

Did this new breed of professional purchasing drive out inefficiency? Yes, it did, but at the expense of close customer/supplier relationships and innovation. Did sales and marketing contribute to the fracturing of relationships? Of course, they did.

The customer now kept the supplier at a distance. The new breed completed their own research. When they were ready to talk in detail they called on their suppliers of choice. They were in charge. They did not, in general, see the same value in supplier relationships as their predecessors.

Of course, there were exceptions. Some suppliers successfully employed key account management techniques. Some customers did engage in collaborative customer/supplier relationships. However, most, so-called relationships were strictly one way. They were dropped unceremoniously with changes in management, strategy or market conditions.

Information Distribution Methods – Pre-Inbound Marketing

Sales-people stayed close to their customers. They supplied datasheets on products that could meet the requirements of an upcoming project. They requested their organisation to produce qualification, test or quality information to support the demands of their customer project teams.

Existing or new product information was pushed out by the marketing department. This could be via exhibitions, press releases, advertising or direct mail. It may sound quaint now but customers would read the trade press, spot a product of interest and complete a bingo card. On receipt of the bingo card the supplier would post out the requested information and the sales-person would follow up.

The push process described above has morphed into inbound marketing. In principle, the process is to make information widely available on all relevant channels in the hope a proportion of the market makes contact. Much of the trade press has gone. The bingo card has been replaced with the website contact form.

The pull process has morphed into Account-Based Marketing but with a twist. With less of a supplier/customer relationship, a level of guesswork has been introduced into what it is the customer decision-making team needs.

Account-Based Marketing vs Inbound Marketing – Blurred Lines

Brian Halligan of HubSpot is credited with coining the phrase Inbound Marketing in the mid-2000s. Hubspot itself was founded in 2005 as one of the first inbound marketing services businesses.

Hubspot defines inbound marketing as “a business methodology that attracts customers by creating valuable content and experiences tailored to them. While outbound marketing interrupts your audience with content they don’t always want, inbound marketing forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have”

But this is more than pushing information on the web that may be interesting to potential customers in the expectation that a proportion responds. Surely ‘Tailored to them’ brings in an element of ABM?

ITSMA defines ABM as treating individual accounts as markets in their own right. They suggest ‘Using a combination of market insight, account insight, and individual buyer insight, marketing and sales craft personalized content to drive interest and engagement’

To us, that makes more sense. In our opinion, the Hubspot definition needs to lose the ‘tailored to them’ phrase.

The Difference Between Inbound Content And ABM Content

We categorise inbound content as general and ABM content as specific. ABM content has a specific purpose, to impact in some positive way on a specific individual or (small) group of individuals. ABM content is targeted.

In contrast, we define inbound content as the shotgun approach. It has a purpose and is aimed at a target group but it is a general promotional tool. Inbound marketing should solicit an “OK, that’s interesting, tell me more” type response from a prospect. It can also be used to build credibility/authority.

What is common between both strategies is they require a deep understanding of the target prospect and the best way to reach them. Both inbound and ABM tend to focus on new business. It is vitally important not to forget existing customers. There is also a need for content to support them and keep them engaged.