The Relationship Marketing Approach to Account Based Marketing in the Channel

Written by Jonathan Calver, CEO, StrategyMix


There are many different approaches to Account-Based Marketing. Some claim it should be part of an inbound strategy, others go down the marketing automation route and for some, it is just cold calling under another name.

In this blog, I ask you to consider The Relationship Marketing Approach to Account-Based Marketing, where the primary objective is to build a relationship between a partner sales person and a new prospect.

Let me start by outlining my definition of Account-Based Marketing, which is:

“A marketing approach where you work with sales to identify, research and influence a set of target accounts.”

The two most important parts of this definition is the “work with sales” (where we are referring to the partners sales team) and the “set of target accounts”.

Because I am talking about “working with sales”, I am not talking about any kind of automated system. I wish it was that easy, but the truth is that the process of building relationships between humans is very difficult, particularly in the business world today.

Question 1: Why should “building relationships” be a marketing objective for those who sell IT?

The answer to this question is because people buy expensive and complex products, such as IT solutions, from people they know and trust, ie: people with whom they have an existing relationship.

If you accept this idea, then it is only logical that if you want to sell IT products to a set of target accounts, then you first need to build a relationship with those accounts and the individuals within them.

As I will explain later, Marketing has a valid and important role to play, because they can assist Sales to build relationships in ways that Sales cannot easily do for themselves.

Question 2: Are current marketing techniques designed to build relationships?

I would say that for the most part, the answer is “absolutely not”.

Most IT marketing is based on a mass marketing paradigm. It is about sending a stream of relatively generic content, such as white papers, to a large database. It is an approach where a 2% response rate is considered good. No one seems to care about the other 98%.
White papers and other types of digital content are popular because they are easy to automate, which of course perpetuates further mass marketing.

This mass marketing approach is flawed when it comes to Account-Based Marketing for 2 reasons:

  1. The numbers don’t add up. The volume of target accounts is typically small. So, a 2% response rate is “not enough”.
  2. Damaged relationships. When you “mass market” target accounts with a generic message, you run the risk that your target contacts may unsubscribe or block future communications, which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

Question 3: Why is Relationship Marketing harder today, than it was in the past?

Reason #1: Everyone is overwhelmed

Relationship Marketing is harder today, because there is so much noise from all the mass marketing that is being practiced by everybody else, that your target accounts can no longer hear you.

And the issue has been compounded by the problem of time – everyone is short of time. So, they are not only being overwhelmed with too many marketing messages, but also don’t have time to consider any new solutions – even those that will solve their problems.

Reason #2: Prospects are typically not looking for new solutions

The fact is that your target accounts are typically not looking for a new solution and they’re not looking for new suppliers, which is a fundamental problem if you have an “inbound only” strategy.

They have existing suppliers and are not looking to change, even if you have a much better solution. It’s a case of “Build a better mouse trap and the world will ignore it”.

Reason #3: Active Avoidance

And It’s not just that your prospects are “not looking” at your content or your solutions. They are actively avoiding you. They delete or block emails from people they don’t know and have put policies in place to stop phone calls being put through, give out names or provide direct phone numbers. And this is not just at the switchboard. It’s a company-wide policy. You should know. You probably have the same policy.

And it’s not just telemarketing that can’t get through to people anymore. Sales have the same problem, which is why most sales teams find it so hard to win Net New customers. Nearly every sales person who is hitting their targets, are doing so by farming an existing customer base. To verify this statement, talk to your sales manager.

This is significant because lead generation is the primary objective for many marketing programs.

If we take a white paper campaign as an example, many in Marketing will often assume that the leads are not being converted because the sales people have not followed them up, that in effect it is a sales problem. But it is actually a marketing problem because even if the sales team do follow-up these leads, the “leads” will not take their call. What is required is a new marketing approach.

Question 4: How can Relationship Marketing help?

Solution #1: Position Your Sales People as Thought Leaders

Prospects only want to form a relationship with sales people who can add value to them. This may be selfish but it’s also true.
The point is that your sales people need to be worth forming a relationship with. And how are prospects going to make that judgement call? The answer is that they will check out your sales people on LinkedIn, before they talk to them.

The onus is therefore on Marketing to strengthen the LinkedIn profiles of the sales people. Step 2 is to help the sales team further demonstrate their thought leadership by having them write or ghost write a series of articles that are worth reading.

Authors Note: Most people use LinkedIn articles and website blogs as part of an inbound strategy. My view is that since your target accounts are probably not looking for new solutions or suppliers, the real benefit of a LinkedIn profile / blog strategy is derived when a prospect decides to check you out.

This is the moment of truth. Will they determine that “you know what you’re talking about” and go on to accept your LinkedIn connection attempt or will they “move on by”?

Solution #2: Round Table Marketing

This is an excellent strategy when the marketing objective is to develop relationships. It is not nearly as effective when the round-table is a thinly disguised attempt to sell a product.

To run an effective round table marketing program, here are my top 4 tips:

  1. No PowerPoints – to facilitate useful discussion between industry peers and so add value to your prospects
  2. No Selling – of any kind. If you overtly attempt to sell, your target accounts may avoid you and your future events
  3. Have a “Drawcard” – either a client, an industry leader, a superb venue or all three
  4. Maximum of 10 to 12 delegates – so you can have a proper conversation

Authors Note: I’ll cover round-table marketing in a separate blog, but for additional information and a few tips, you can visit:

Solution #3: Engineer Introductions

The most effective way to start a relationship is to be introduced. Sales people have been using references for a long time as a primary means to acquire Net New customers. But how can marketing help?

Here are 2 options, both related to round-tables:

  1. Alliance Partners. One option is to run a round-table with an alliance partner. It is a case of I’ll invite my contacts and you invite yours. In this way, both parties are introduced to new contacts.
  2. Round Table Company Referrals. Here you run a round-table with a group of prospects, and then you run a second round-table a few months later, for other prospects within the same target accounts. Your initial delegates recommend your round-table to their colleagues, which expands your influence and enables you to form a stronger relationship with those target accounts.

Solution #4: LinkedIn Marketing

LinkedIn is obviously the number 1 business network website.

It is where your prospects will have listed themselves and there is a mechanism for you to connect with them. This marketing approach, just like junk mail and email spam is being abused but it’s still working, but only if your sales people have a strong LinkedIn profile.

Most sales people don’t have the time to do LinkedIn marketing properly as they are too busy looking after their existing clients and trying to close deals. LinkedIn Marketing is therefore a valid role for a marketing agent.

Authors Note: I’ll write a separate blog about LinkedIn Marketing as it is such a big topic.

Solution #5: Cut down on your Spam

If you think about it at all, you’ll reluctantly admit that a lot of your marketing is spam in the sense that a lot of the content that you send out to “educate the market” is being sent to prospects who have not been “carefully chosen”.

If you want to check the accuracy of this statement, ask your prospects.

Many marketers know – buried deep inside – that this is true, but they don’t know what else to do.

Well, now you do.

You adopt a relationship-focused, account-based marketing strategy.

You start by accepting that when it comes to responses, quality is better than quantity.

You then only email high value offers to carefully selected prospects.

Then you stop emailing or calling the rest of your database. It’s that simple.

Thank you for reading this blog. If you have any questions, please let me know.