This time about a year ago, Greg Bear and Travis Caldwall at Bear Group were venturing out on a new sales strategy. They decided to add Account-Based Marketing (ABM) to their mix, whittling down a large list of prospects to just a handful of very specific targets. Researching and planning, they hired a sales development rep, then began crafting personalized campaigns for each prospective account.

Greg Bear, Systems Architect / President,    Bear Group

Greg Bear, Systems Architect / President, Bear Group

Travis Caldwell, Marketing Director,    Bear Group

Travis Caldwell, Marketing Director, Bear Group

Initially, their efforts seemed to work. But as the hours added up building assets, they wondered if ABM was worth it. They found organizations were either ready to embrace custom web development, or they weren’t. And they wouldn’t know until they had invested a significant amount of energy. Fast forward to today, and Bear is on a different course. Find out what they’re up to, why ABM didn’t work for them and why relationships are everything in this business. You can also rewind to our earlier conversation, Finding Focus with Account-Based Marketing.


Carl Smith: Hey everybody. Welcome to The Bureau Briefing. Today we have a couple of guests coming back. Now you may remember listening to an episode where we had people from the Bear Group who were getting ready to do Account Based Marketing, or ABM, as a way to go after new clients that they really, really wanted. Well, today they're coming back to tell us how it's going. It's been a few months. Please welcome back to the show Travis Caldwell and Greg Bear. How's it going fellas? 

Travis Caldwell: Great. Thanks for having us. Great. 

Carl Smith: You're welcome. It's so good to have you all back. Now I have zero concept of what has happened since we talked last time. If you don't mind, go ahead and just give a little bit of a buildup. You were getting ready to do Account Based Marketing, you had some clients targeted and what? 

Travis Caldwell: Yeah, you want to take that Greg or you want me to take that one? 

Greg Bear: Yeah. Setup-wise, I can take that for a second and then let you run with it. It was an interesting ... Coming out of our annual planning ... Exactly October a year ago, one of the drivers for us was like getting control of the lever. That was one of the, for the sales lever that one. ABM surfaced as a ... Just adding that third leg, which was something we didn't have internally was really direct sales. As an organization had really kind of strong, continue to have strong marketing efforts as a company and, obviously, good referral business, like lots of our counterparts also have great referral businesses. 

We wanted to kind of get a handle on more direct prospecting, but to the people that we wanted to target. Travis kind of led us to ABM. It was a really interesting blend of both something we like and relatively think we're good at. It's actually just pure marketing and adding in a sales component on top of that, but it's really based as a marketing strategy. We went all in on it in January, so hired to it. Got, brought in an SDR, kind of a sales development rep and really became a core strategy for us for multiple months. It was a very interesting experience and I will let Travis sort of fill in from there. 

Travis Caldwell: Yeah, so when we set it out, we had these criteria and markers for how we were going to identify accounts. We had different technology and platforms to be able to prospect for them. We had kind of a litmus of stuff to run through from each one of these. At first, we started with really targeted, and we were diving deep into these organizations and really trying to build value to Bear Group with them, and that sort of started to fade after a little bit of time. I guess to kind of step back, there's multiple phases to this story. Phase one being strategy and planning and coming up with the idea. Phase two being implementation and execution. Then phase three being adaptation. Then phase four being scrutiny and evaluation.

Phase one and phase two went really, really well. Everything looked great. We're probably talking about this, you can probably gather that we've moved away from this strategy. How those phases went through really was around the fact that we still couldn't create demand in the marketplace with this new tactic. Organizations have either made custom web development a priority or they haven't. We started to identify that early on when we'd build lots of information for them, "Here's how you are against your competitors, and here's why this value ..." Whether maybe it's, maybe they still don't have a responsive site. "Hey, here's why responsive websites are valuable." Still, it was kind of falling on deaf ears. As we ramped up, we got to the point to where we would export these lists, we would start our advertising strategies, we would start our social media strategies. We'd warm them, the SDR would engage lightly with emails, and she was calling. We got to the point to where by April, May, June, we were averaging a couple hundred calls a week.

Carl Smith: Wow. 

Travis Caldwell: ... Four or 500 emails a week, and early, we had some success. We did generate some introduction calls and so we had multiple tiers of what we considered success. There were the tactical metrics of, "How many calls did you make? How many emails did you send?" Because there should then be a metric that would say, "This is how many intro calls we should be able to expect. From that volume, from those intro calls, some percentage should turn into a new business opportunity." Early on, we were getting a couple. Probably on average we were getting two intro calls a week when we really started humming along in April, May.  

Carl Smith: That sounds pretty good. 

Travis Caldwell: It is, it was, but what was strong ... Or, it didn't sustain.

Carl Smith: Okay. 

Travis Caldwell: That's when we started thinking, "Well, maybe it's a volume game." We reduced the effort we were putting into the research and the preparation we were doing, and so then calls started to ramp up and no new intro calls were being scheduled. 

Greg Bear: That's a good point though that the effort it required ... One of the things, when we did sort of an evaluation of it after even just a month or so was we were putting ... It was quite a bit of marketing effort required to ... Building up the list is not too hard, and then finding the people within each company to contact is not terribly hard, we got the tools for that, sort of the direct prospecting. It got to this point where we needed to make a decision. Like is it worth ... 

It would take you almost a week of prep or 35, 40 hours of prep to build up the assets around to target a particular company. We would pick a company and be like, here's the research that's needed ... It came to, Travis and I talking this through, it's like, "Is it worth putting that effort into it before we even have a hook into the company?" Like, "We don't have anything to hang on yet." That was a bit of a course change for us and like, "Let's go prospect a little bit wider," instead of our list of 10 or 15 that we were going after, trying to negotiate with. Get a hook first and then follow up with actually ... Then broaden that discussion a little bit, but when there's absolutely nothing there to have put all that effort in, and then you put a week's worth of energy behind something that then is like when you finally, if you do break through it's they're like, "Yeah, we have an in-house team. We're never going this road." 

Travis Caldwell: That was part of the slippery slope for us. 

Greg Bear: Yeah. 

Travis Caldwell: As soon as we started to do that, we started to move away from ABM and we started to move towards direct prospecting and direct sales.

Greg Bear: Which we had done about four years ago too, and it was just like, it was horrible. It was a really hard road, and then you led into it and like, "Okay, we weren't trying to set up a sales organization," and that's we ... 

Travis Caldwell: No. 

Carl Smith: Not blowing any smoke, but your group is a great shop. I mean, like I've looked at your work. I have met you, Greg, and Travis, you seem great. It's, there's no doubt to me that you do great work, you take care of your clients, all that sort of stuff. What's interesting to me is I remember from the first time we talked, this idea of targeting this small number and really going all in on trying to understand them, but what you said Travis, when you were explaining it, if they don't appreciate what a great web experience can do for them, for their customers and for them, then all is for naught. 

Travis Caldwell: That is really the crux of marketing for a custom web development agency. Because we're not a product. [crosstalk 00:09:11] We're not a, "Hey, add an analytics tool." We're not, "Buy this widget." It's you're either all in as an organization, you've already made the decision to embrace custom web development because of a size, because of your branding, because of your marketing strategy, your IT infrastructure, whatever it may be, or you're not and you're skeptical and you haven't been able to build that business case for it yet. To kind of come back to our successes, we did end up generating six new business opportunities, total, for the six month ... One a month isn't bad. It's well below the three a month that we had a goal for. We did end up closing one, so ... 

Carl Smith: Okay. 

Greg Bear: They've all been huge. 

Travis Caldwell: They're all big projects. 

Greg Bear: Yeah, they were not, none of them were small projects. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:10:14]

Travis Caldwell: They also had really long-tail cycles to them. The one that we did end up closing was one of the first ones that we created. We nurtured that from April, and it didn't close until September? August timeframe. 

Carl Smith: Whoa. 

Travis Caldwell: From a pure cost to generate and time to close, the cycle for, again, for the types of projects that we were looking at and the type of sales cycle we were dealing with, it became pretty apparent, especially as intro calls started to fizzle, new business opportunities started fading away, a couple months there towards the end before we finally called it, where we weren't generating anything, and-

Carl Smith: Keep going. I'm sorry, Travis. 

Travis Caldwell: I was going to say it made it pretty easy to evaluate the data and say, "This strategy, we've changed it enough, or we've modified it enough from our original strategy to improve, chase, whatever might have been, and the current way it's structured for our type of business, this marketing strategy isn't the best one for us like we thought it would be this time last year."

Carl Smith: You go through that process and during that time, what are the inbound leads like?

Travis Caldwell: They're the same as they had been in terms of we still generate inbound leads through content, through white papers. We also have our PPC strategies and our social strategies. When we're comparing the volumes, the idea with ABM was that it wouldn't take away from the other sources, that it would be an additional two to four opportunities a month, and that's what would help stabilize our pipeline throttle, give us that one kind of additional lever. When we have multiple strategies that are hitting their numbers or close to on average, and then we have a new strategy that was working for a couple of months and over the course of two, three months wasn't coming close to its numbers, while it's always still a hard decision to step away from a strategy that you implement, design, implement and believe in, it was a fairly easy one at the same time, because the numbers don't really lie. 

Carl Smith: Well, and I think that shows a sense of maturity in an organization when they realize that, "We've invested in this, yes. It's probably going to change the team a little bit, it's going to change different things, but it's not working." You can only swim underwater for so long before you realize, "I'm not breathing. This is no good." 

Travis Caldwell: We might have ... Again, I still think about it. Let's see, three months later, it's still on my mind as to why it didn't work. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, what happened? Is it the nature of the web business or is it something else? 

Travis Caldwell: I do believe that it is partly the nature of the product that we're selling. I think it's also, at the price point we're talking about for our services, there's a cycle, a long-term play here. I don't think we realized how long of a play ABM would be for a custom development shop, where really ... 

Greg Bear: Like probably six months to two years.

Travis Caldwell: Yeah. 

Greg Bear: Sort of a closed cycle, would be you'd have to nurture something a very long time until they were ready for their next big development effort. 

Travis Caldwell: Right. At which point, it's essentially networking. It's essentially, you're trying to create a relationship and a connection with a new account, a new business, which you can do a lot of different ways than the way that we kind of, we structured it with our ABM strategy, so I think that's a big piece of it.

Carl Smith: Is there anything ... I've heard of shops that they don't call it ABM. They just find a client they think would be awesome to have and they go after them. It's kind of ABM, right? They always- [crosstalk 00:15:17]

Travis Caldwell: I guess, I disagree. I think that that's sales at that point, to me, and that is where we shifted to.

Carl Smith: Okay. 

Travis Caldwell: We shifted to, "Oh, such-and-such account would be really cool. Hey, let have our SDR pull a list of the 20 people that work there that are our target persona and see if she can get an in, and start to work that account." 

Carl Smith: With ABM, how would you have done it? 

Travis Caldwell: The way that we had structured it was much more marketing to them, be generating white papers specifically to their industry that they would resonate with. Really diving in and understanding their need state and maybe their pain points, getting advertising in front of them, well before we ever even picked up a phone and talked to them. Trying to establish some credibility with them first, and trying to establish ... Really understand where they're at in their buying cycle so you could come in and market to them versus just coming in and direct selling to them. 

Greg Bear: One of the experiments that was pretty cool though is we were able to do marketing targeted at that level. You could target marketing to one particular company as far as ad space goes, or particular user accounts, and so it wasn't this broad-based effort, it was like incredibly highly targeted advertising programs that we could do. That was actually a great learning, I think, and something that I'm sure we'll carry forward. 

Carl Smith: Did you ever hire the private detective like I told you to? 

Travis Caldwell: [crosstalk 00:16:54] The applicant for our SDR role might have been private detective. 

Greg Bear: The SDR role was really interesting as a hire. That was the one person that we brought on full-time, essentially, to prospect and dig in and make these connections. It did require ... I mean, and they were busy. It required such a high volume of communication. She was very super nimble. Like she's calling the front desk and like going, "Hey, are they out to lunch? Okay, cool. I've got their sandwich. Can I ..." Trying to find these ways to get them on the phone to present little things.  

Travis Caldwell: Calling the person that sat next to them to write a post-it note to put it on their desk. I mean, wow, that's ... [crosstalk 00:17:39] 

Greg Bear: Oh, oh. That's how you get ... We got good feedback actually. Really good compliments from other ... Folks we did get through to, they're like, "Yeah, your salespeople are ..." 

Travis Caldwell: "I appreciate [crosstalk 00:17:54] through." 

Greg Bear: Yeah. like, "We called basically so you'll stop calling us." 

Carl Smith: What have you adopted from this experience into the rest of your sales or really into the DNA of the organization? What will you carry forward from this experiment?

Travis Caldwell: I don't know if it's a new adoption, but for me I think there's a reaffirmation around that this business is all about connections and relationships, and that's what we were trying to establish. In kind of a typical, inbound marketing, you're waiting for them to look for you and for them to kind of initiate the relationship. We flipped that and we tried to flip that, and I still really, that still really resonates with me. As we look at 2019 and our growth goals moving forward, kind of a reinvigoration around ... Again, whether that be networking events, whether that be sponsoring meet-ups or local organizations, really, how do we establish more connections and more relationships? Which, again, isn't necessarily a new thing for us but just that's what we were trying to do. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, I think it always comes back to that. I mean, it's the same for me. The more time that I get to spend with the community at the Bureau, the more I enjoy it, first of all. Because I get to understand like what's going on at the Bear Group and with other shops that I talk to. The more that I get into trying to be a thought leader or putting this out there to attract more ... It's like I've got plenty of friends, I just need to talk to them. I just need to find out what's going on. There are always these things that are going to lure us away a little bit, and hopefully, like you're saying, Travis, remind us that if we focus on the good stuff ... Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's almost always the stuff that feels better too, right? 

Travis Caldwell: I think so, yeah. I mean, the relationships and those connections are where ... I'll speak for myself, Greg. You might have a different opinion, but where we get to learn more about a business, where we get to learn more about how they're trying to leverage the web. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, exactly. 

Travis Caldwell: That's what we strive to do is to try to enable clients to leverage the web for their success, so if we don't get to that point where we get to have those meaningful conversations with them, then it is frustrating. It's hard to have ideas and to see opportunities for a person or a potential client, and that trust just isn't there, and so they're not willing to go there yet with you. Whereas, when you have those strong relationships or somebody comes in as a referral or you meet them at a networking event and you establish that credibility, and you get to open up, and you really get to start to explore the never ending vastness of the Internet and the web and marketing and whatnot, that's when it is more exciting and those are really fun conversations to have. 

Carl Smith: It's interesting, what you just said reminded me ... I was speaking with somebody who managed the entry of Uber into Southeast Asia. They had this problem where the drivers would always call the person requesting the ride before heading towards them. They would call them, introduce themselves, and basically, Uber saw this as an unnecessary step. It wasn't a call about, "Where are you going to be?" Or, "I can't find you." It was just, "Hey, I just want to let you know my name is Thomas and I'll be picking you up." 

What they found out though was that that introduction was really important in Southeast Asia. The person getting picked up wanted that call as much as the person picking them up. I think when we look at a company's marketing, the idea of being around somebody, like having them see your white paper or understand that you've accomplished something in their space or that they're trying to do, but they haven't actually said hello to you or they haven't really gotten to know you as an individual when what we build and what we work on is so personal, you're going to be together for a while, that there's a lot about that, that maybe that's part of where Account Based Marketing in our space doesn't really work. 

Travis Caldwell: Yeah. I think that's a really good insight. I would love it if the next time I flew into Sea-Tac if my driver would call me beforehand, that would be great. Yeah, it is a relationship business and when there's a lot at stake for the clients in terms of their professional success, they want to trust the person on the other end. That's why referral opportunities are always going to have a higher close rate than other sources because-

Carl Smith: Exactly. 

Travis Caldwell: ... If I say, "Hey Carl, call Greg," and you trust me ... If you don't trust me, then it's already a bit flawed but if you trust me as a colleague, you're already sold on Greg before you ever even pick up the phone. 

Carl Smith: Yeah, that's true. Well, gentlemen, thanks so much for coming back to share the experience. If anybody's listening who's done Account Based Marketing in the digital space, building products, building sites that sort of stuff and it's worked out, reach out and let me know because I'd really like to understand a little bit more about what might have been different. For now, Travis and Greg, thank you so much. 

Travis Caldwell: Thank you. 

Greg Bear: Thank you. Good to talk again. 

Carl Smith: Pleasure having you back on the show. For everybody listening, we'll be back soon. Good luck with your sales efforts. I hope everybody's doing great to round out 2018. We'll talk to you soon. Bye.