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Why you shouldn’t turn your account-based marketing (ABM) into AI-based marketing (AIBM) just yet.

The tale of the B2B corner shop


Don Peppers and Martha Rogers are often credited as the godfather and godmother of what we refer to today as ABX, ABE or ABM (pick your favourite acronym). I’m talking about account-based marketing of course, and not the acronym for the German word ‘Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme’ (I’ll wait while you try to pronounce that in your head). It refers to poorly managed job creation measures the German government ran and then quickly abandoned in the early 2000s. Incidentally, badly run ABM programs can feel similar – a lot of action with little outcome. 

In their 1993 book, ‘The One to One Future’, Peppers and Rogers predicted that “new technologies make it possible for even the mass marketer to assume the role of a small proprietor, doing business again with individuals, one at a time”. They couldn’t have foreseen what AI and technology would be capable of 30 years later. But it turns out that they made an incredibly accurate prediction, while also laying the foundation for what is now regarded as one of the most powerful B2B GTM strategies. 


Cherry Ripe. Seriously?! 

Marketers and sales leaders alike love picturing themselves as small proprietors offering the same level of personal service and familiarity to their customers as the now long-gone corner shop owner, who knew all her customers by name – and favourite choice of sweet. The reality, however, is that this is an incredibly time-consuming way of doing business for both buyers and sellers. Today, members of B2B buying committees prefer to spend most of their buying journey without in-person interaction – and without letting on that that they like Cherry Ripes better than Snickers bars. 

Acknowledging that the ‘local corner shop owner approach’ takes serious commitment and a joint GTM team effort, smart marketers and sales leaders strategically select a small number of customers that they deem worthy of 1:1 ABM – read: the corner shop treatment. 

More recently, technology like marketing automation and ABM platforms have enabled teams to scale this approach and provide a personalised approach not just to a small number of strategic accounts, but hundreds or even thousands of potential customers. This is often referred to as ABM at scale or 1:Many ABM, and while the customer experience has vastly improved – and sure beats the more traditional ‘spray and pray’ demand-gen approaches of old – the messages that customers see are customised at persona, industry, and buying-stage level (at best). They lack a truly personal one-to-one ‘human feel’. 



Millions of proprietors 

What if you could hire an army of corner shop proprietors though, who give your customers the feeling that they deeply care about them, because they understand their challenges, anticipate their needs, and know how to make them feel special. 

Your CFO would of course question your sanity, but technological advances in the form of AI will likely enable you to do exactly that - without adding headcount. 

OpenAI founder Sam Altman predicts that AI will reduce the cost of human intelligence by a factor of a million, effectively making intelligence free and enabling systems to create true 1:1 experiences at scale – and at very low cost. Altman doesn’t, however, talk timeframes and one could argue that machines – no matter how smart or powerful – will never be able to recreate the feeling and impact of true human connection. But then again in the 70s, experts predicted that ‘there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home’, so we’ve been wrong before. 

Of course, there are already many ways in which AI is making the job of the ABMer easier, and the experience of their customers more personalised. When Green Hat’s CEO Andrew Haussegger and 6senses’ Chief Revenue Officer Latané Conant met in Sydney earlier this year, they discussed how 6sense is leading what they call the ‘Revtech revolution’. Its Revenue AI platform uses AI to help sales and marketing teams understand who is part of the buying team, when and how to contact them, as well as what to say. Tools like ‘Conversational Email’ use data and AI to craft relevant, on-brand emails that strike up real conversations and get meetings booked. The team at 6sense had me interact with the tool unknowingly a little while back, and I can tell you that it feels so much more human than any of the clunky chatbot experiences we’ve grown used to. 

Bender from Futurama or Counsellor Troy from Star Trek? 

So thankfully, it seems that the days of clunky human/robot interactions are coming to an end. In the future, machines will have less of Bender – the notoriously grumpy robot from Futurama – and more of Counsellor Troy from Starship Enterprise. 

But experts argue that even advanced ‘Emotional AI’ won’t be empathetic because the algorithms – however advanced – base their assessments on facial and tonal emotional expressions without considering the social and cultural context of the situation and the person. 

That means that you shouldn’t trust Zoom’s Zoom IQ feature to tell you whether the people in your meeting are bored or engaged. Based on their cultural or situational background they’ll likely display boredom differently. Your presentation might indeed be horrible, but your audience may just be very good at hiding their displeasure. 


AI will not do the ABM job for you – and it knows its shortcomings 

What does all this mean for the astute sales and marketing dream team – aspiring to grow revenue by giving accounts the best customer experience? It means that technology and AI will get better and better at helping them scale their efforts, but likely never good enough to completely replace them. 

Or as ChatGPT put it when I queried ‘Empathy, Emotional Intelligence and AI’: 
‘Empathy and Emotional Intelligence are the essence of human connection, a symphony of understanding that transcends mere data. In the dance between hearts, AI may assist, but it is the human touch that orchestrates the melody of compassion and resonates with the true depth of our shared emotions.’ 
(It turns out that AI can be very prosaic and is pretty self-aware.) 

The most impactful 1:1 ABM programs rely on this human touch and connection. They work because marketers and sellers understand the account, and more importantly, the humans that make up the buying party. The joint GTM team crafts experiences that build understanding and trust with these humans and in doing so, guides the whole account through the buying stages. 

In the same year that Peppers and Rogers laid the foundation for ABM, Bob Burg published ‘Endless Referrals’ containing the now famous quote, ‘People buy from people that they know, like, and trust’. 

I would argue that 30 years on this quote is still as true as it was back in 1993, and that account-based marketing, not AI-based marketing, is still the best strategy to build knowledge and trust in your target accounts. 

You can learn more about how AI can make your ABM life easier today in our recent webinar: AI Email Assistant: Cutting through Marketing Leads Clutter 


Malte Weyhe

Malte has been living and breathing B2B marketing for the past 15 years. Originally from Germany he now calls Australia home but has spent most of his career working for global professional services firms. He’s worked in field marketing roles, led global digital teams, ran the marketing function in Asia Pacific, and in his last gig before joining Green Hat set up the global ABM program for consulting firm Korn Ferry. He loves everything to do with account-based go-to-market approaches and heads up our ABX team.