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Lay of the Brand Podcast Episode 17: B2G ABM Prospecting with Mark Amtower

by | May 18, 2021

Mark Amtower talking into microphone

 

Much of the account-based marketing (ABM) program’s success is dependent on knowing who the decision-makers, contributors, and influencers are but how can marketing and capture teams identify and categorize these targets? And once you’ve found them, how do you apply that knowledge to a campaign cycle that can last up to two years? 

Get insight into how to identify the right targets for government account-based marketing in our latest Lay of the Brand podcast with Mark Amtower of Amtower & Company.  To learn more about account-based marketing for the federal government, check out Merritt Group’s B2G Marketing Hub.

Here are the highlights of our conversation. Click below to listen to the podcast or visit layofthebrand.com.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: ABM really is the essence of government marketing —it’s really how contracts have been won all along.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: It really is. Somebody must have written a book about five years ago for B2B people and didn’t know it existed, but in GovCon, you have to do it this way because you have account-based contracts, account-based executives, and they all need support. Especially if you have a contract that focuses on transportation, VA, whatever agency it might be. If it’s a single agency vehicle, you have to develop a program to exploit that thing.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Absolutely, and it’s really about relationships and getting to know that agency’s needs inside and out, isn’t it?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Yep. You have to know not only the players, but you also have to memorize the mission. It has to be part of your mantra. You have to know the budget cycle that they’re under. You have to know the OMB 53s and 300s inside out. You need to know their preferred contract vehicles. If they go after a business or award business through one of the best in class GWACs or IDIQs, you have to know a lot of things.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: It starts with knowing who you want to talk with and what’s motivating them. Of course, government contractors have their own first-party data that the BD teams have captured over time, but that needs to be fleshed out with third-party data. So when it comes to ABM targeting, what roles do channels like LinkedIn and social media play?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: I do a census of feds on LinkedIn every year. There are a little more than 2.28 million feds, so not an inconsiderable amount. I identified 305 distinct federal departments, agencies, and offices listed as companies on LinkedIn. This way, I can get very granular when I’m looking at the information. 

Once you’re on a company page for a federal agency, and you view their employees, you can filter by job title, location, and a whole bunch of other stuff. So finding the right people is a matter of exploring the job title area and plugging in things like “program manager” or, if it’s for a specific technology, you could plug in “cloud”, and at any agency, you’re going to get results. So you’ll find out which people are responsible for specific areas, they may be at different parts of the food chain, but

 

…the more of them that you know, and who know you, the more likely it is that you’re going to get better information.

 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: It sounds like there’s a lot of information there that’s available to federally focused marketers. Are marketers taking advantage of all this information?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: I don’t think enough of them really are. They’ll play with posting content, running ads on LinkedIn, or doing what they think is a profile modification. I look at hundreds of profiles every week and would rate a vast majority of people in GovCon at about a D-level, very few of them have exemplary profiles. Obviously, the ones that I teach do, or most of them do, not all of them. 

 

You’re starting with that profile. You really have to explain who you are, what you do, and where you fit.

 

If you’re targeting specific agencies, you can do it right there. I did a lot of work with Brocade several years ago and one guy used to have his two client agencies in his headline. Not just “sales guy for NASA DoE,” but “supplying data analytics, something or other to NASA and DOE.” So he said what he did and who he did it for in his headline, right under his picture. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: That’s making perfect use of a social platform.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Yeah, and if you look at it, most people have their default job title. If a fed sees one more sales rep from “X,” they’re going to shoot their screen or something. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Do you feel that LinkedIn is the best platform for this sort of usage, as opposed to the other social platforms that are out there?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: The presence of feds on LinkedIn started back in late 2010 when GSA was finally able to negotiate with what were then the major social networking platforms and how they would use federal employee data. That was the sticking point because the social networks used the data for all kinds of targeting and sold data to make money. Once GSA got that agreement in place with LinkedIn, Facebook, back then MySpace, and whoever else was around, the feds weren’t encouraged to but were allowed to participate as representatives of their agency. They could be on the platforms before, but they weren’t supposed to talk about what they did and who they did it for. 

I’ve been on LinkedIn for 17 years. I joined in early 2004, but I didn’t start using it until ‘07. I didn’t start coaching people until ‘09, but ever since then,

 

…I have viewed it as a cornerstone of marketing because there are just so many things that you can do, and you can do them for free.

 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Have COVID times made a difference in how people are using the platform?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: I’d say there’s obviously increased usage of all social platforms since COVID. One year parked at home, and too much TV is going to bore even the Kardashians. Social networking for business has probably gained about 50 – 60% usage over the previous year and it’s because people are working from home. It is a primary method for vetting anyone in our market. Tell me another venue where you can check out virtually anybody in GovCon. You’re going to look them up in Federal Computer Week or Government Executive. Well, you might be able to for about a half percent of the population in the market, but most of us aren’t there. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: So, once you’ve obtained and cleaned up your prospect data, how can you then determine where you start to build these relationships?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: You have to know, number one, where you fit. Are you involved in current ongoing programs with the agency? Are you looking at starting new programs with the agency? Or perhaps both? If you’re starting a new program or anticipate being part of a new program, there’s a number of players that you have to be involved with, like the programming manager, programming office, and contracting officer. There’s not one contracting officer per agency, so you have to do some digging to see who the program offices used for previous contracts because most likely they’ll go back to them. 

So you’ve got the PM, KO, contractor’s rep, contracting officer’s rep, or technical rep, and you need to know people at the finance office. All of these people are going to need different types of information about what your company does, products or services, where it fits, cost-effectiveness – all of the compliance issues. 

You have to help them queue up all of these things because when a program office is close to the contracting office, they have to have a big bundle of stuff done and ready to hand over. The contracting office verifies this data and starts forming what will likely turn out to be an RFP. So there’s a lot of different people, and you can find them on LinkedIn. I love when that happens.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: The question is then, can you have too much information? Put another way, how do you narrow it down to be most effective?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: I don’t know that too much information is possible. There’s going to be peripheral information, tangential information, and then the crux of the matter type of stuff. 

 

I operate with the premise of, the more you know, the more likely it is that you’ll see the nuances that may come into play.

 

Will this program move ahead if there’s a bunch of crises? So you’re anticipating the CR to end sometime. Well, sometimes it doesn’t. If a CR doesn’t end, will your program be funded? No, of course not. It’s a new program. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to some time down the line, but it may be put on the backburner depending on the new CR. 

There are so many variables here, but it is important to understand why the program office is starting this ball rolling, directly or indirectly. Directly meeting with them, giving them stuff or, indirectly, social, the trade pub route, email, providing them all of the information they need about your solutions without making its sales materials. You and I have discussed content a lot of times, real content should not have that sales message. You’re educating the buyer or the buying team on each stage of the process. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: That’s where I want to go next, Mark. Realizing your campaign will last 18 – 24 months. How do you use this data effectively to plan each of those stages?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Well, I use a lot of stuff from an occasional Merritt partner, Market Connections. They have their Federal Media and Marketing Study and their Federal Content Marketing Review. I think it was the first or second Content Marketing Review where they came up with this chart where across the top, there were the stages of the procurement process, identification for a need, allocation of budget, determination of requirements and specs, drafting the RFP, identifying potential bidders, evaluation of the bids, and then the award. So those stages were across the top. Down the side were the types of content that were important in each one of those stages. So you had webinars, case studies, e-newsletters, eBooks, marketing collateral, which is your sales material. That was the fourth or fifth item down the line, and then there were others like infographics, podcasts, and blogs. The slide that I referred to is old, it doesn’t have a video on it, but we all know that video is huge now in GovCon. Most of the major contractors and OEMs have tons of video out there. 

Make sure your content is aligned with the identification of a need for a product or service.

 


If you know generally what the problem is if your BD people or salespeople have been savvy enough to ferret out that information, you’ll know whether your product or service is a fit. If it is, you can skew any content you have or develop new content to address that specific problem associated with a specific mission in a specific department.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: And at the same time, you need to tailor that content to the specific person or role that you want to understand what it is you’re trying to say. You’re not going to talk the same way to a technical person as you will to a program manager or the person who’s signing the check.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: When you get to the allocation of the funds, and someone is verifying that the program fits the parameters of the mission and the allocated budget, you want to be talking about finance, not “my widget does this.”

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Along the way, you’re going to be picking up new bits of information, and you’re going to be fleshing out the profile of different personas and people that you’ve actually talked to. So, how do you incorporate that into what you’re doing next in your campaigns since everything you do needs to lead to a next step?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: You mentioned personas, so that’s very important. Each of these stages has at least one, probably multiple personas that need to be addressed. For instance, if a program manager has an IT-related issue, he’ll have a technical staff that’s filling him in on whatever he needs to know about how this stuff works. You’ve got to address each persona differently. The program manager is more of a big picture, mission-oriented person, the technical staff will want different types of information. So the budget dollars, the determination of requirements, drafting the RFP, the contracting officer, contracting officer’s rep, all have different personas here and you have to address their needs accordingly. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: The complexity of the ABM approach means that you are literally creating, recreating, and expanding relationships at every step. That sometimes gets lost when you’ve got a marketing organization working with business development or capture organization. Somewhere in between, there’s a chasm and marketing can help make sure that the sales organization can actually have the information they need to build those relationships.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Yeah, but it’s an interrelated community on our side too. If BD, sales, and marketing aren’t working together smoothly, then things are going to fall through the cracks and drop into that chasm. This is and always has been a relationship-driven market, and for years my mantra, especially for small businesses, has been to sell where you’re known and focus on one or two agencies. The more you know about the processes in that agency, the more people you know in those agencies, the more you understand the preferences for buying, which contractual vehicles are they likely to use, the more likely it is that you can develop more business with that agency. It’s easier to sell where you’re known and hopefully liked, than to branch out into “the government”. 

So making sure you’ve institutionalized the knowledge, not only about the personnel but about their pain points, their budgeting process, how they prioritize which programs get funded… all of these things come into play and for me. The linchpin is LinkedIn because you can connect with the key people there. Most feds are open to connecting, and that’s my experience. In the last week, I’ve had two invitation requests come into me, one from a staffer at the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other from someone in the US Digital Service. So I get requests to connect from feds on a fairly regular basis, and I’m just a marketing guy.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: It’s unexpected, but I can also understand that they’re as interested in relationships as we are as marketers because they need information in order to do their jobs.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Right. I asked one of them, “I’ll take any connection I can get in your particular office,” and they said “why?” and I responded, “Well, you write some interesting stuff about the market.” 

Content is what attracts people here.

 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: It’s got to be content that’s relevant, not just trying to sell, but trying to educate.

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Yeah. If you’re putting out kumbaya stuff or patting yourself on the back for winning a Gartner spot, go away.

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Something that occurred to me is that over on the commercial side of things, on the GovCon side of things, you’ll get people moving around. So you’ll get marketers, you’ll get salespeople moving from GovCon to GovCon. Does the same thing happen on the government side?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: Actually it does. Especially after an election year. I haven’t monitored this for several years, but usually, senior feds, SES people, for instance, have to technically migrate every couple of years. You’re in the Senior Executive Service for one of two reasons. You either have an extraordinary technical capability or an extraordinary management capability and the government wants these capabilities to migrate from agency to agency on a regular basis. So of that, that 8,000 member corps of SES, the migration is pretty decent. 

After an election year, I also used to see a fair amount of migration among the other senior levels, GS-14s and 15s in particular, because if your agency is not going to have as much funding under a new administration, as it did under a previous administration, you may want to go somewhere where there’s more activity. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: Mark, I want to throw this open to you now. Is there any last bit of advice you’d like to offer marketers at GovCons?

Mark Amtower, Amtower & Company: I was retained to write a four-session, 90 minutes per session program for a significant contractor on GovCon 101. As I’m writing this thing, I’m reminding myself of stuff that I haven’t thought of for years, I’m picking up some new stuff along the way, so it’s a continuous learning process. On the ABM side especially, learn as much as you can about the agency. Use your Bloomberg Government account or your GovOne account or whatever you do. Or if you just go into FPDS or Beta SAM, go to that agency and see what their buying history is, who are the winners? What kinds of contracts do they have? Who are the top contracting officers most likely to be in that food chain? Match that with information that you can glean off of LinkedIn and start fleshing out your connections there. 

If you reach out to somebody at a federal agency and they look at your profile before saying yes or no, and they see that you share with them 20, 30, 50, a hundred connections, there’s going to be a comfort level knowing that you share these connections. If you share no connections, your comfort level is just dropped to about zero. So you’ve got to be perceived as being known in the market, having a value in the market, the best way you can do that is to participate on LinkedIn and add value and avoid the kumbaya stuff. 

Peter Jacobs, Lay of the Brand: It’s all about building trust, and in a relationship kind of business, that’s the most important thing you can do. 

Want to learn more about government account-based marketing? Listen to this podcast and other episodes at layofthebrand.com or your favorite streaming platform and check out our B2B Marketing Hub.

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