Inverta investigates to uncover the truth: Who Killed ABM?

Chapter 1

Trouble in Paradise

We open at the aftermath of a lavish party. If this were your traditional mystery story, we’d be at a country manor. Dawn would be breaking as the servants busily tidy the half-filled glasses of champagne, the guests still sleeping off their hangovers. Suddenly, a piercing cry breaks the air. The moment of discovery: There’s a body drowned in the baroque fountain or poisoned in the ornate hedge maze. The police would be called. Suspects drawn up. A famous detective (conveniently on holiday in the neighborhood) urgently consulted. The mad dash to solve the case before the perpetrator could get away with their crime.

No items found.

But this is B2B marketing, so the scene looks a little different. In place of streamers and champagne, the aftermath of this conference party is a trail of cocktail-stained whitepapers, how-to guides, and LinkedIn posts. But the discovery is no less shocking. After a charmed rise to fame and prominence, Ally B. McKettering (ABM, to her friends) is dead. 

And we suspect foul play. 

How did this darling of 2010s marketing come to meet her untimely end? Let’s back up and return, for a moment, to the sepia-toned days of the late aughts to set the scene. 

The halcyon days of early ABM

For decades, the hardest and most expensive part of marketing was reaching your audience. You had to physically print paper catalogs, buy advertising space in print, radio, or TV, or show up to in-person conferences and trade shows. The rise of the internet changed all that, paving the way for a new era of digital marketing. 

Suddenly, sharing your message was easy and cheap. Thought leaders like HubSpot promoted an “inbound” approach—produce great content and your buyers will come to you!— they said, in about as many words. As marketing budgets were slashed in the wake of the great recession, these new digital channels only grew more attractive. Teams embraced content marketing by starting company blogs, creating gated ebooks and how-to guides, and publishing infographics galore. Ah, remember those days?

Marketing had never been so accessible, but this new landscape brought challenges too. While teams got swept up in content fervor, many forgot (or had never learned) the fundamentals that undergirded the broadcast era: knowing the right person to target, with the right message, and at the right time. As the economy recovered and many SaaS companies received new injections of venture funding, marketing teams’ budgets recovered, but their content-first approach did not waver. 

While teams got swept up in content fervor, many forgot (or had never learned) the fundamentals that undergirded the broadcast era: knowing the right person to target, with the right message, and at the right time. 

As a result, a lot of this early digital marketing was ineffective. A Forrester report from 2013 showed that just 0.75% of MQLs converted to revenue. Without the right audience for their content, marketers were essentially screaming into the digital void (and spending a lot of venture money to do it) while wondering why no one was answering them. 

It’s against this backdrop that interest in an old idea—targeting specific accounts—began to resurface. The phrase “account-based marketing” was coined in 2004 by ITSMA (referring only to 1:1 ABM) but it didn’t start to gain traction until much later. The search term started to make a noticeable impact on Google trends starting in late 2015—by which point, 1:many ABM had hit the scene. 

This timing lines up with a few key events. Demandbase authored the first ABM certification in 2015, alongside Inverta (a program that now has over 10,000 Certified ABM Strategists) and started the ABM Innovation Summit, the first ABM conference. Marketo co-founder Jon Miller left to launch Engagio in 2015, becoming the first recognizable ABM evangelist. Sangram Vajre, co-founder of Terminus, started the FlipMyFunnel movement, which also hosted its first conference in 2015. The publication of Account-Based Marketing for Dummies followed soon thereafter. 

From there, momentum continued to grow, with the ABM Leadership Alliance forming in 2016. This featured a loose network of companies all focused on the goals of promoting ABM, including Demandbase, Drift, NetLine, ON24, PathFactory, PFL, Vidyard, Salesloft, and MarketingProfs. Its goal was not just to provide resources and education around ABM, but also to promote their technology solutions as part of an ABM-focused tech stack. 

After that, we see a veritable ABM explosion. From here onwards, notable events in the ABM timeline become more difficult to track because there was such a huge proliferation of blogs, guides, whitepapers, podcasts, ebooks, and webinars. By the end of the 2010s, ABM had reached saturation—and if you worked in marketing at a B2B software company, it was nearly impossible to avoid. 

The Demandbase team at the ABM Innovation Summit.

But slowly, the neverending deluge of ABM content reduced to a trickle. 

ABM’s untimely death (or, murder most foul) 

Looking at Google trends, ABM’s heyday seems to have been from 2015 to 2021—since then, it’s been on a slow but perceptible decline as a search term. People aren’t engaging with ABM content the way they used to, and it’s not because everyone already knows everything they need to know to execute it successfully. Nor is it because ABM entirely failed. 

Here in 2024, we're watching people walk back their ABM programs and still argue about sales and marketing misalignment. Teams are reverting back to using marketing qualified leads (MQLs) as their main success metric rather than pipeline. All the software platforms that used to so proudly bill themselves as “ABM tools” have quietly rebranded. There’s a growing consensus that while ABM swept B2B marketing in the mid-2010s, little actually changed, and we’re not that far off from where we started.

The curious thing is that ABM did work—quite handsomely for some companies, at least for a time. ABM was in her prime, on the cusp of changing the world of sales and marketing forever. All the pieces were there. It was supposed to work. It did work. Why didn’t it stick? How did a movement so young and full of promise just…die? Something doesn’t add up. 

This was no death by natural causes. Something or someone wanted ABM dead. 

This is now a murder investigation. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it. Join us over the course of the next eight episodes where we uncover the real answer behind the question: Who killed ABM? 

Everyone’s a suspect, your team included. And no one is leaving this (metaphorical) manor house until we have our answer. 

Join us next week as we investigate our first suspect, Vega List.

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