How do you gain more control over leads, and improve your chances of working with your ideal clients? For Bear Group in Seattle, the answer lies in Account-Based Marketing (ABM) and personalized campaigns—getting in front of the right people at the right times, in the right places.

Looking back at successful past client relationships, Bear Group realized their ideal clients share a common criteria. Ranking against that criteria, they hashed out a super short list of probable best-fits. Today, their marketing and sales efforts focus on a mere handful of targeted prospects. Instead of trying to help every marketer solve every marketing problem when it comes to web development, they’re out to solve a very defined set of challenges for only a few.

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

Can this approach work for you? Greg Bear, Systems Architect / President, and Travis Caldwall, Marketing Director at Bear Group, outline their process, drop resource hints such as Predictable Revenue and ZenProspect and discuss how they’ve found focus through ABM and personalized campaigns.


Carl: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and recently, I was in a conversation that took a turn to something called Account-Based Marketing. And I will let you know that I have been a skeptic of anything that can be abbreviated to three letters, mainly because I was a theater major and not a business major.

And so I have invited to be on the show today Greg Bear from the Bear Group. Greg and I got to know each other at Owner Camp in Scottsdale, I think. Is that right, Greg?

Greg: That's right.

Carl: Cool. So he runs the Bear Group out of Seattle. Been around for about 10 years? You guys had your 10-year anniversary last year, didn't you?

Greg: That's right, yeah. So 11 this year.

Carl: Cool. And with him is Travis Caldwell, their marketing director who's probably the person trying to bring this ABM stuff in the door, if I'm not mistaken.

Travis: Hi.

Carl: Greg, say “hey” and explain a little bit about the Bear Group and how you and Travis got to this point on Account-Based Marketing.

Greg: Yeah, awesome. Thanks Carl. Well, let's see. So we're a web development company up here in Seattle, and it's been interesting. So one of the business challenges that sort of vexed me and probably most agencies I've ever spoken with over, certainly the first decade, is this idea of controlling the throttle. So, being able to add sales and grow when we want to grow, perhaps pulling back when we don't. That's always been kind of elusive.

And in general, we have a nice pipeline that's filled with great referral business. We count on our design partners, and they bring in lots of good leads for us. We have a really strong, particularly when Travis joined us about three years ago, really brought forward our content ad inbound strategies. So we just have this nice steady stream of leads, if steady is the word. Maybe not the exact right word.

So the trouble with both of those is you just don't control when they come in. So last year, we actually sat down with Tom from Navigate the Journey who we met at Owner Camp-

Carl: Yeah.

Greg: So he came and did a [inaudible 00:02:19] with us in October of last year, and really to lay down ... partly to lay down a three year growth plan. We're just like, let's ... It's always felt like we're driving the bus and don't exactly have the map. So came out the other side of that with a really great plan.

And in addition, we looked at our top 30 accounts over the past year, what distinguished them, what made them really great accounts. And then Travis also brought forward this book called Predictable Revenue.

Carl: Okay.

Greg: And I don't know if you've read that, but it's a really, a pretty good read. At least the first few chapters, then it gets a little ... kind of like all business books. But it brought forth this idea, sort of the three-legged stool, like marketing and referrals and sales, and really accentuated that we were just totally missing sales. So we had no strong direct program, no prospecting program, anything like that. And that that is what would give us a little bit of throttle control, ideally. So we started out on this experiment, kind of did the planning in Q4 last year, and then sort of setting forward with this ... trying to find solutions for introducing sales into the mix.

And so, yeah, that led to prospecting and playing around with broad scale approaches, and kind of found that really broad prospecting wasn't very effective for us. It can only ... It just didn't, even with market automation tools and all the tools that are available to find good prospects, that didn't quite ... We just weren't getting great response rates, really not the 10% kind of response rates that folks were advertising.

Carl: Right.

Greg: So then, yeah, Travis, you'll have to jump in. Where you first encountered account based ... It's not new, so it's sort of a rebirth of enterprise sales. But the tool has definitely changed.

Carl: Travis, give kind of an overview on account based marketing, because as anybody listening will know, I did not prepare at all for this. So what is Account-Based Marketing? What makes it special?

Travis: So in my opinion, what makes Account-Based Marketing special is the focus. So you're essential identifying accounts that you want to target, and then you're combining your sales and marketing efforts to focus on them. One of the keys to this from an inbound perspective is, you're not just scrapping everything you were doing and starting with a completely new marketing strategy. It really to me is that matter of focus, and there's a process which you need go through where you're going to identify and select accounts that you want to target.

And like Greg mentioned, we did a lot of research last year on dissecting, essentially, our top 30 ever clients, and really, what did those accounts look like? What were the teams like? What was the initial project? It's this massive spreadsheet, as I seem to like to create. And from there, it starts to develop, essentially, an account persona. Just like in marketing, where we've got all of our target audience personas.

So now we're starting to see these two pictures come together. What that allows us to do, with those two things together, is really take a look and say, okay, at this particular account, who should I be talking to? Who owns the budget, who's the decision maker, where are they at in the process? Do they have an internal IT team? For us, our considerations may be a little bit different than a different company. We're selling web development. Well, if they have a huge in house web development team, it's going to be a pretty tough [sledding 00:06:23].

So we try to pick those things all out. And that's when we're looking at kind of a ranking strategy, and so we're pulling those into yet another massive spreadsheet that then allows us to ... has color coding and all the really fun stuff of, okay, out of these 50, really, there's 8 that fit this profile of somebody or an account that's going to drive our growth for the next couple years, or whatever number that ends up being. And then allows us to say, okay, well, these ones are ones we should go after first, these are ones we should go after next. Who do we want to, internally, is there somebody that ... Oh, I'd really like to work at this company, or actually, I know somebody that works there.

So you start to think about all the different marketing things that you could do, and essentially what we've done is created marketing strategies for each of these. And that's really your fourth step, that's really the generating anything that's relevant. A lot of folks will focus at this point heavily on content. And it's where they're really thinking about personalization on their website. Maybe they're using personalization tools and they're going to try to drive people from X company and when they hit that page, it's going to say, hey, so and so from X company, we're not quite going that direction, but even with ad copy. It's like, hey, you're a [crosstalk 00:08:03]-

Carl: That's creepy, man. Like, if you say you know who I am when I show up on your website, that's just creepy.

Travis: It gets better.

Carl: I'm glad you're not going that far.

Travis: Not for that, no. For personalization in that regard. But we are using that, so we generate white papers as part of our inbound strategy. So it allows, it informs our landing page strategy for that. And if we know that people from industrial, mechanical, B2B enterprise companies that all have revenue over this, that are publicly owned, that are publicly traded, rather, that have these more tech platforms on the backend, are more likely to read this white paper or more likely to have this same problem set, then we can market to that, and we can generate the content and the messaging that will resonate with them for that.

And so then it really goes into delivery. You create your marketing strategy for each one of these, and the content you need and the assets you need. The sales strategy, what's the outreach piece going to be, and the direct element. And then it's a matter of executing.

Greg: That struck me as kind of the big difference between ... So it's not like sales was on one side, doing a bunch of prospecting and looking for leads, and marketing on the other side is creating really interesting content strategies. It blends those two, so it throws all that into the blender and say, here's one client, or one target account that we want to go after. Let's put that amount of focus on one organization. Let's put all of our efforts from the sales side and the marketing side together and after that single target. That changes, it's just so focusing, it's really a great ... It's interesting to pull those worlds together.

Carl: Well, see, Greg ... Okay, so when I started [Engine 00:10:01], it was 2003. You start the Bear Group in 2007. I think we're kind of in the same generation-

Greg: [crosstalk 00:10:06]

Carl: -where ... Well, no, in terms of a shop where sales, which is this awkward thing that we never thought we'd need because we were doing great work.

Travis: When I first came on to Bear Group, actually, Greg and I would have conversations about how sales felt very off-brand for us. [crosstalk 00:10:24]

Carl: Right! No, that's it, that's exactly it.

Travis: [crosstalk 00:10:28] and we get the web. I don't want sales.

Greg: But if we can call it something else ...

Carl: This is fascinating, and I appreciate the overview. And for everybody listening, Bear Group is just at the beginning of this. You started doing the research at the end of last quarter, you're kind of moving into it now, at the end of the first quarter here. So you're moving into it. So a few questions. You kind of skimmed it, but what are the top three criteria, or however ... Whatever top criteria you want to share when you're identifying those awesome prospects.

Travis: Yeah.

Carl: [crosstalk 00:11:13]

Travis: It does, I think it did initially. So there are certain things that are primary for us. Region is one. We're Seattle-centric, Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound. That's where we're based, and that's what we, the clients we want to target first. From there, because of the research that we did, we were able to determine that people who needed not just a content management system but also e-commerce were really great accounts for us, because they leveraged more of our skill set and our developers.

From there, it's size. We have a couple different sweet spots where they're either 11-50 employees, or they're 500+. And for whatever reason, the ones in between haven't been as great of fits for us, or haven't been as longevity clients. That's one of the things we really-

Greg: Yeah, yeah. There's probably turmoil in the middle there.

Travis: Once they get bigger, they've definitely got more established routines and marketing departments and roadmaps. And I think they've probably already made the decision to not have development in house, or what they're going to outsource in those scenarios.

And then for us, it also ended up coming back to being things like B2B, and this is all based off the research of clients that we've worked really with over the years. So not trying to generate something new and not trying to be like, oh, well, if we had our best case scenario, what would it be, but really historically, what have we had the best long term relationship with, which is on average, almost six years for us, for client retention.

And so that's pretty incredible, at least from my perspective. So B2B, public, and there's kind of some debate there in public or private. There's been positives and really great relationships with each. But it's this combination of B2B, where we found our sweet spot was B2B e-commerce that has strong content strategies, because they needed the most of the service that we provide, and ... or was the type of work that we really enjoyed as well.

Greg: And regionally-

Travis: Greg, I don't know if you had anything else-

Greg: Yeah, that gets us down to ... That still gets you down to maybe 100 accounts, or 100 companies in the region. So it's still too big of a list, and so from there, then there was sort of this ranking. We can share some of this with you, like just spreadsheets. It has ... [crosstalk 00:14:04] ranking criteria.

Travis: Yeah.

Greg: And we used a tool, so two tools we used. So one was ... And Travis mentioned this. One was internal, just what companies we know ... I've been living here 35 years, I kind of know a lot of organizations. But I was really surprised by ... And a more fun one for me personally, we used a tool called ZenProspect, which is sort of like using LinkedIn, but it has a little stronger set of filtering available. And they have their own pool of contacts and lists, and so we would build our profiles up in there.

So you could basically say, here's a company profile that really is like the ones Travis just described. Here's five companies that we want to target. And it would pull similar style companies together, so sort of that predictive style lookup. And from that, we found a lot of companies that actually I had never heard of, and I feel like I lived here long enough, I should know everything. But ... which was great, and then we could ... It has little bios on each company and it talks about them a little bit. So we were using some of those online tools to essentially get at a smaller subset.

And from there, basically had a ranking criteria that would go through and say, here's ... And the ones that bubbled up to the top. And that got us down to about 20, maybe? Is that right, Travis, something like that?

Travis: Yeah, it was like 20-30.

Greg: And then we just kept dialing it back. Like, here's ...

Travis: Yeah.

Greg: [crosstalk 00:15:27]

Carl: So explain that. So first of all, all the criteria you list, I love, because they're real. It's easy to see them. A lot of times you'll hear about techniques, you'll hear about things. You're like, yeah, but how am I going to find that out? Whereas with this, there's nothing about ... What makes up their service? Is it e-commerce, is that part of it? Where are they based, what's their market, are they B2B, what's their size? All of these things are easy to find out with public facing information that's all over the place.

So I'm curious, you're talking about dialing it back. What is the number that you're trying to get to?

Travis: That's a good question. So what we're trying to activate over the next six months is identifying 10 new accounts a month to start into our ABM strategy. And that identification, we've just listed all of the criteria. That's for the very prospecting, the ones that we're looking for. Our is sort of a hybrid approach, where we're still doing inbound marketing, so we're still generating leads through our white papers, and we're taking those same leads that we're generating and we're saying, okay, do they fit? Should they go into our ABM strategy, should they go into a different marketing strategy?

And one of the things that's been interesting with that, as we've found, is the leads that we've generated, while some of them, on the surface, we're like, that's not a great lead, the account would be great. And so it's then a matter of, okay, now we can pass that to sales with this modeling and say, can you track down who we should be talking to there?

So we've got kind of a gated content adding to that list, and then we're also doing some identification of site traffic. So one of our big frustrations over the last couple years has been, we can identify that marketing's working because it's driving people to the site that are really relevant, but they're not converting. They're not contacting us, they're not downloading the white paper. And it's been ... We're not ESPN. You don't just go to to peruse on your lunch break.

Carl: Yeah.

Travis: So you probably needed our service.

Carl: I thought I was [inaudible 00:17:45] photos! Expensive time [inaudible 00:17:47] photos, I'm just going to say.

Travis: It's, yeah.

Carl: It's a good looking bunch over there, I see.

Travis: A great view over the water, but it's not your average, spend time on site. So with the people who hit there, our conversion rate has always been a frustration for me, because clearly there's an intent. So we're using some of that IP matching as well to figure out, okay, well, you hit our site. Was that because you did have a need and just got distracted, or something else?

Carl: Right. So you go through, you're not quitting any of the other models that you've been doing. You're not quitting inbound, that sort of stuff. You're maybe getting a little more particular, or you're finding out ... If it's obvious that the wrong person made the engagement, you're spending time to find out about the company to see if you can get to the right person. How have you changed the overall content and what you're projecting from Bear Group, or have you yet, based on this new focus on a certain type of account.

Greg: We did. Really good question, and that is the intention. So the intention, just starting, and to be honest, it's like, we started with 10 and we got it down to five, and now we're like, okay, let's just do one. Let's figure this out for one company, and we picked this company out here that's near us, and that's been our ... We're writing new material for, or we're crafting, here's a series, a marketing sequence, set of emails that will go out to this group of 17 people that we've identified at that organization that would be good contacts for us.

We're hitting them with Facebook ads, we're hitting that group with LinkedIn direct messaging. So coming at it from all sorts of angles, just to build some awareness around it. So there's ad delivery, a lot of content delivery around that that gets created, messages that are kind of specific but general-ish. And then actually the white papers themselves, we've been talking a little bit of ... Should we pull, let's grab the segments of this that are going to be super relevant for their industry, and deliver that to them in a package, or put their name on the cover of the white paper, or something like that, just so it feels a little bit like it's been a little more targeted.

So we're not writing custom blog posts specifically to company X, which I almost said their name about four times now. Can't let them know yet, in case they're listening.

Carl: Oh, oh. Oh!

Greg: But then, just sort of how we ... So we'll customize it to some degree. But we're still trying to figure that out, and certainly six months from now, we'll have that a little more dialed in, as far as here's the package [crosstalk 00:20:33]-

Travis: And I think for ...

Carl: Okay.

Travis: And one of the other elements with that, in terms of just the pure messaging, it allows for us to get more in their need state, and really understand what their pain points are. And then it's a matter of positioning ourselves to champion them along in their process and help them figure out their solution.

And so when we're writing a new white paper, one that's coming out tomorrow on our Agile methodology, we can think, really step back, and how is this, the person in this company, going to find this relevant? And that does inform everything. It does inform the ad copy, it does inform the call that might go out to them. Et cetera. So it's been a really ... Again, we mentioned it earlier at the beginning, focusing for our marketing, where you're not trying to solve ... You're not trying to help every marketer solve every marketing problem when it comes to web development. We're trying to help-

Carl: Right.

Travis: -two companies solve their problems. And help them along in that process. So I think from that regard, it's just so much more targeted to what they're probably experiencing at this exact moment. And that theory is that that's what will resonate with them, and when they need to, they'll come to us. And I think there's always been this leaky roof analogy of, you don't need a roof until you need a roof. But we can identify, hey, if you haven't had a roof replaced in 15 years, it's probably coming up pretty soon. And focusing there and focusing our efforts around that, because it just seems to be more efficient.

Carl: That makes a lot of sense. So one question, when we start looking at the white papers, and you determine that there is a challenge they're facing or a solution they're looking for, you don't necessarily have ... I don't know everybody at Bear Group, but when you start to look at these, there may be somebody else who's better suited to write these white papers, or what do you do when suddenly the marketing is pushing your capabilities?

Travis: Run and hide? No, yeah.

Carl: No, let me rephrase that. Let me rephrase that. Do you start to look at your service offering down the line based on what you're finding these ideal clients want?

Greg: That would be an interesting bridge to cross. We cross that bridge a lot, and it's like someone comes in, like hey, do you guys need ... It's like, we're working on ... Like, not really, but maybe we should.

Carl: We all do, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Greg: So those opportunities present themselves, and you're kind of like, okay, should we jump on that? Yeah, I think that would probably be one of those things where it's like, okay, do we feel like they could at least fit our platforms and our core service offerings? Otherwise they might fall off the list because of that. If we go in and they're purely ... got NetBase, they've got that big IT team inside, it's just not going to be the right ... It's going to be such an uphill-

Carl: Oh, yeah.

Greg: We're never going to get past the wall there. We're not going to change out their entire infrastructure. So that might be one of those things that is a criteria for us, 'cause technology definitely was on the list of, what are their core technologies? So those might be some, so we try and eliminate them before they bring business confusion. Exactly.

Carl: Before they eliminate you.

Travis: I think, that, to me, again, is one of the nice things about this strategy, is when you're just doing pure inbound, you don't have any control over those kinds of leads that come in, so you actually get, I think, more exposure to distractions and noise through pure inbound, whereas we're saying, okay, again, as long as you fit this criteria, we've already determined that our product offering is a good solution for you, that there's a symbiotic relationship there, instead of going after people who ... we're trying to convince them to convert or change platforms, or maybe a much harder selling point.

Carl: Right. Yeah. So do you do anything offline? If you're identifying this small subset of a prospect and maybe you can identify what their sources of learning are, are you trying to do anything to get in a magazine or [crosstalk 00:25:33]-

Travis: Yes. So one of the research things we're doing right now is of these eight companies, what meetups are they going to in Seattle? Can we sponsor those meetups, can we present there?

Carl: There you go. There you go.

Travis: Can we buy pizza for that meetup? What are ways that we can get engaged with these folks offline, and we've always kind of shied away from event marketing. We'll be at MarTech here in April, which is a big one, but we're trying to, again, we're trying to identify, hey, are you going to be at that conference? Can we meet then?

And identifying some of those different ways, print and stuff, that would maybe before have been discredited or shied away from because it wasn't digital, it wasn't as measurable, to now having more justification to the pure awareness that's going on in that scenario, because it's focused on these five accounts.

Greg: And just to add to that on the sales side, pure sales, the more traditional sales side. So we've just recently hired our first sales development rep, so an SDR role. One of the things that this does is it generates a lot of different contacts in different states. So suddenly I have 100 contacts that are at different points. So someone that's really unlike myself, not afraid to pick up the phone ... So just really wants to engage and talk and have this conversation and get people into that first scoping meeting and that sort of thing. So that's a key element for us for sure, is those really offline strategies, and I always joke about ... We have all their home addresses, we just go park a car with our brights on in front of their house and ... they answer the door, and then, like, hey, we just wanted to talk. You can find out whether their kids play T-ball, and there's always [crosstalk 00:27:35].

Carl: Yeah. How is Jason, is he still sick? I saw on Facebook that he wasn't ...

Greg: [crosstalk 00:27:44] and they're like, "Oh, it looks like you just got a new car!" That's kind of awesome. Like, wow, that's good. It wasn't too personal though.

Travis: You're really good at what you do.

Carl: So I'm going to give you fellows a tip. So this is now ... Now realize, I had an advertising agency career before starting my shop, and I was a media director for a while. And when we had a specific account we wanted to go after, and I mentioned something being creepy earlier. I'm about to creep everybody out.

Greg: Wow, okay.

Carl: I would actually hire a private detective. I would have the private detective figure out our prospect's route to and from home.

Travis: [crosstalk 00:28:27]

Carl: And ... Exactly. And that's what we would do. We would buy the out door only going to and from that house.

Greg: Wow, that's awesome.

Carl: And they thought we were everywhere.

Greg: Yeah ...

Carl: Yeah, it really worked more than it didn't, but it's also kind of creepy.

Travis: See, it was early stages ABM. You just were on to something that you didn't ... yeah.

Carl: I didn't know. I didn't know. I just didn't want to lose my job. So I thought, I better figure this out. Well, fellows, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the Briefing today, and I look forward to checking back in in six months, and see how it's going. Hopefully you've landed one of those premier clients.

Greg: [crosstalk 00:29:11] great to be here, and we're definitely looking for that first win, so it'll be fun to prove out ... just the whole strategy. Talk to you soon.

Travis: Yeah, I appreciate you having us on.

Carl: Sounds great. I'll follow up, and everybody listening, thanks so much, and we'll catch up with you soon. All the best.