Behavioural science in ABM with David van Schaick, CMO at The Marketing Practice and Doug Hutton, SVP, Products at Corporate Visions

On this episode of the FINITE Podcast, you’ll learn what makes your target accounts tick when it comes to cold outreach emails. Whether that’s keeping things emotional or employing ultra-rationality, or keeping things detailed and lengthy rather than short and snappy. 

You’ll hear from David van Schaick, CMO at The Marketing Practice and Doug Hutton, Senior Vice President, Products at Corporate Visions, who recently held research to test conditions of emails and their engagement rates in ABM. 

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Full Transcript

Alex (00:06):

Hi everyone and welcome back to the FINITE Podcast. Today’s episode I’m very excited for because we’re joined by David van Schaik, Chief Marketing Officer at The Marketing Practice and Doug Hutton, Senior Vice President at Corporate Visions and Decision Labs. 

You might recognise The Marketing Practice as a leading B2B marketing agency that do a lot of work in the account-based marketing space. And they’ve teamed up with Decision Labs to produce new research on behavioural science within account-based marketing. 

Today, we’re going to dive into that research, what it has uncovered and how B2B tech marketers can use the findings to make the ABM programs even more effective by taking a research driven approach to perfecting messaging and content. There’s a lot of insights here. I hope you enjoy.


FINITE (00:51):

The FINITE community is kindly supported by The Marketing Practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account-based marketing, demand generation, channel and customer marketing programs. Head to to learn more.


Alex (01:11):

Hello, David and Doug, and welcome to the FINITE podcast.


Doug (01:15):

Hi Alex,


David (01:16):

Hey Alex, thanks for having us.


Alex (01:18):

Looking forward to talking. We have, I was thinking actually, just before we started recording that we’ve recently recorded a research driven piece of content around a piece of research done by the B2B Institute on LinkedIn too. I felt like I’m in a scientific mode at the moment, which is great because I think evidence and research-based stuff we need more of in the B2B marketing world. 

And so I’m particularly excited about this one because behavioural science, I think is a bit of a hobby, maybe that’s not the right word, but an interest area of mine. So I’m interested in the research you’ve been doing in the B2B marketing and account-based marketing space specifically. 

Before we dive into that, I will start as we always do with a quick round of introductions. And David, I’ll hand over to yourself first and you can tell us a little bit about yourself and your role.


About David and his role at The Marketing Practice 

David (02:03):

Thanks Alex. Yeah, I’m really excited too, I think we’re going to bring together the fields of behavioural science and ABM in really interesting ways and maybe challenge a couple of the conventional ideas about emotional and rational messaging in B2B or inspired by a bit of research. 

So yeah, I’m David van Schaick, CMO at The Marketing Practice. We are a B2B agency working mainly for large and fast growing tech companies and some business services companies. We’re focused on really the complex, relatively high value sale. What we do for those companies is we help them to grow firstly, by helping them to identify and win new customers. 

So we might call demand generation and then a lot of ABM, where we’re helping to retain and grow those top customers. And we’ve spent 20 years at the sharp end of trying to understand how marketing and communications and psychology all play a role in influencing prospects to listen to your message, to engage with your message. And that’s kind of what inspired us to also be big, big fans of Decision Labs and reach out to them to a piece of research.


Alex (03:26):

Cool. And Doug, I’ll let you tell us a little bit about yourself and Decision Labs.


Doug (03:30):

Absolutely. And David congrats on the acquisition as well recently by The Marketing Practice. Well done.


David (03:35):

Thanks. Yeah. Very exciting.


About Doug and his role at Corporate Visions 

Doug (03:36):

So Alex, thanks for having us on here today. Again, my name is Doug Hutton. I lead the products team, both at Decision Labs, which is a division of Corporate Visions. And Decision Labs is where we house all of our research. So Corporate Visions at large is a sales marketing and customer success training and consulting organisation. 

But like The Marketing Practice here at decision labs, we are grounded in that behavioural science. Our mantra is if you’re not testing, you’re guessing and too many B2B marketing sales customer success organisations are guessing. And so we try to bring that discipline to them through behavioural research, neuroscience research and field trials. 

And so for this particular piece of research, leveraging that behavioural science aspect to really focus in on how do those B2B prospects actually make decisions not on what they say they think they will do, but if you actually test it, what do they actually do? 

And then getting that information into the hands of marketers and sellers and customer success professionals. So they can be better in their customer conversations, whether those conversations are digital, virtual email, in-person, that’s where we want to play. I’m so excited to share a bit of that with you guys here today.


David (05:06):

Awesome. Sounds good. I will maybe hand over to David to set the scene a bit and tell us a bit about why you decided to embark on this piece of research in particular.


Why the research was done 

David (05:16):

Yeah. I mean a lot of the work that we do for our customers we’re talking about how are we creating new sales opportunities for them. And that extends quite a long way up the funnel, but really what’s important for us first and foremost is does the bottom end of the funnel work? And are we able to unlock productive sales conversations for our customers? 

We’d been finding a lot of success historically in the last 10 years, but particularly in the last 18 months with content that’s very business case driven, often based on previous successes, often with hard numbers in there. So it’s quantified and it’s perhaps more towards that sort of justification for the end of the customer journey. And we wanted to explore what’s behind the success there. 

Is it the quantification that’s important? What else is it about how we’re presenting the information? Talking that through with decision labs, that also brought us into this big debate in B2B. One of the big debates in B2B is rational versus emotional. And you might label some of that content superficially as rational, not emotional, which is perhaps the trend. And I think actually we’ve oversimplified that and we’ll probably come onto that, but we wanted to explore, is it the quantification?

What’s the opportunity in terms of using emotive language with maybe some of that more substantive business case content? And then there were a couple of other interesting conditions that we added with with Decision Labs. But that was the motivation really, to find out and unlock those sales conversations, what is it that is making the difference with the messaging.


Alex (07:00):

And Doug, do you want to tell us a bit about how you went about doing the research, then maybe we can move on to talk about some of the main findings and then the headline results.


Doug (07:08):

Absolutely. So I’d add to David’s point that what intrigued us about this topic was the fact that as more B2B customer buying has gone digital, that has put increased emphasis on what marketing is bringing to the table – ABM and otherwise. Especially in those early stage customer conversations. And I’m using customer conversation very broadly here to include a cold email, a cold LinkedIn message, whatever it might be. 

And so we worked with David and the team at The Marketing Practice to identify different test conditions to test out there. Again, we wanted to test, not guess. And what we did was we said, okay, where does this customer journey start? And it often starts at the very beginning with that cold initial outreach. 

And so we effectively created five cold emails, five cold emails that each had a slightly different twist on a common theme. And those twists were the very variables that David was talking about a moment ago. So some of those emails had a more rational bent to them in the sense of, it was sort of just the facts, if you will. Some had a more emotional pitch. And again, David made an important point. 

We’re not talking about the superficial superlatives, rainbows and unicorns emotion here. Very much using let’s call it telling details in the words that are used, to really attach to a prospect’s brain. And then the thing that we added here from Decision Labs was the notion of contrast in this marketing outreach, not only quantified results for what the prospect might receive after implementing or purchasing the solution. But also sharing what the before state looks like, what are they missing today from a quantified perspective? 

And so ultimately that led us to five different test conditions with a variety of those variables where perhaps one cold email that we were testing was very specifically based rooted in emotion, with quantification, with contrast before and after. While on the other hand, another cold email might have had just the quantification positioned rationally with no contrast. 

And so our goal was to find out, again, think of this early stage marketing outreach, how should marketers be tailoring that outreach and using those variables in the right way? In the tested way, to maximise how much those prospects thought they had a problem, how interested those prospects were into learning more about the problem and potentially solving that problem. 

And ultimately, would they remember what that problem was and take action on it in the future? So that gets to a little bit of how we set up that research, but I’d say the overarching hypothesis was, one to David’s point, does quantification matter in that early stage demand gen? Emotion versus rational, what matters more? Again, the research is a little little hazy right now. And then does adding contrast matter? not just looking at that quantified end state, but comparing that to a before state as well.


David (10:36):

And I think as well, one of the questions that we get asked a lot by customers at the moment is can you tell us what type of content is working now? And they make changes to digital, et cetera. What is it that’s working? And I think they’re almost expecting a tactical answer. Like here’s a silver bullet type of tactic. And actually what the research hopefully digs into is, regardless of the channel, the media that you’re using, there are some important rules that you can use to your advantage in how you connect with people in their brain. And that’s the type of content that’s working at the moment.


Alex (11:11):

Makes sense. We can dive into a little bit more of how we create content and messaging as part of ABM campaigns. Should we touch on some of the headline results in a bit more detail?


The headline results of the research 

Doug (11:23):

Sure. I’ll give a couple and David can chime in. I think there are two big results from the findings. The first, let’s go with three. One: quantification does matter. So everything that David was talking about that The Marketing Practice is seeing with our clients absolutely matters. 

But here’s the second finding: contrast matters more in the sense of, merely presenting quantified results that might happen is not nearly as powerful as presenting a contrast between the results a prospect is missing today, and the results they may attain in the future. And we can talk to why we think that is psychologically. But then the third is that an emotional pitch does beat a rational pitch, emotional beats rational. 

And in fact, if you looked at the five conditions, and it’s funny, we’re not on camera, but I’m literally holding up five on my fingers. Every emotional condition beat every rational condition and every condition with contrast beats the conditions without contrast. So where does that leave us in terms of the overarching result? The overarching result was that outreach that had quantified results that had contrast in those results between the before and after and talked about those quantified results in an emotional way telling details with those words was the winning condition in the study. 

And here’s the final nugget that I’ll just land on. I think we certainly hear from our clients at Decision Labs, often that shorter is better. People have short attention spans so you’ve got to get in there quickly. That winning condition with quantified before and after emotional results was actually the longest written condition. And so it length doesn’t seems to be as big a variable than what you are delivering. 

And again, remember we were going for how urgent does a prospect believe the problem to be? How likely are they going to go pursue solutions to that problem? And again, how much are they going to remember about that problem so they can act on it later? And that was where that quantified emotional condition with contrast really won the day.


FINITE (13:51):

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Alex (14:10):

I think the bit about length is fascinating because so often we have all around us that the shorter, more succinct things are the more effective, the better. But that’s not the case, at least for the kind of research that you’ve been doing in the ABM space.


If shorter content performs better 

David (14:27):

I think it is key to understanding the whole piece for me and the lessons that we should be taking from it. Because what I think it’s telling us is pretty specific. And when we look at the difference in the language that we’re using in the test conditions, the emotional versus rational, it’s not, as Doug said, it’s not about making big, bold statements or trying to make people cry or laugh. 

It’s just about adding some specific details that connect with people and perhaps allow them to paint a bit of a picture in their head, making it more of an imaginative exercise. And that’s really the difference. And that’s also true of the contrast and the quantification that both add specificity. And that’s really important in how you start to create a picture. 

And I think I connect with some of those decision making processes happening very rapidly in people’s brains. And you know, there has been a trend to shorten everything. If that means taking out details and making it generic, then you’ve lost something. I think that’s probably the big thing that I’ve taken away from this research.


Doug (15:40):

I was going to say, Alex, I think I pulled up on my screen here, just the difference in that specificity. Because I agree with David when we say emotion, we’re talking about specificity, we’re talking about bringing it to life in a unique way. And I think it would be helpful for the audience to just hear what that sounds like from a written one. 

So this first one that I’ll read here was the worst. It lost almost across the board on every variable we tested. And it was solely a rational appeal with no contrast. And just listen to these first couple paragraphs here. 

“Companies like yours are often looking to improve customer support functions, to retain revenue while also lowering costs. Opportunities can be found by finding and fixing customer service, inefficiencies, reducing incident management, bottlenecks, and improving below average customer engagement experiences.”

That was just the first two paragraphs. So pretty straightforward, pretty rational, appealing to the buyer. No data there though. But compare that then to how those first paragraph sounded in the winning condition with contrast with more emotion, and again think of emotion here as specificity in telling detail. 

“Companies like yours are typically losing 15% more customer revenue than you should each year, and most are spending 18% more than you should on administrative and technology each year. And most don’t even know how or why this is happening. Imagine finding those hidden customer service, inefficiencies, or uncovering frustrating incident management, bottlenecks, or learning you have below industry average customer engagement experiences.” 

So slightly longer, but those minor distinctions of one, having that quantified before, giving them a little bit of pain with what they have right now, and even just those slightly different adjectives between hidden customer service inefficiencies, and not just service inefficiencies or uncovering incident management bottlenecks versus simply reducing incident management bottlenecks.


Doug (17:55):

What we found was that that detail matters. And what was really fun for us at Decision Labs, and I think equally important, we had recently done a study around later stage messaging. So later in the funnel, when a seller is actually having a conversation and when a seller is trying to differentiate and we actually found the same thing. So it was cool to see that finding repeated that specificity matters that the sort of that we call telling detail matters. 

And it speaks to, I think the fact that B2B buyers are not just these rational only creatures, they do respond to that mix of emotion and rational. But I think it’s critical for marketers when thinking about their ABM to really think about what are those drivers of both, because the numbers are certainly quantified, that’s fairly rational, but as you can hear in those distinctions, there’s still an emotional way to tell that story.


How B2B tech messaging can be made emotional

Alex (18:54):

Absolutely. And I think that’s the key thing for me when we talk about emotion in B2B. I think to your point earlier, David, we often think that can mean pulling on heartstrings in some kind of story that people are either in tears or laughing or that kind of emotion, but actually in this case, it’s more painting a picture of what’s possible or telling a story or making people feel like they can go on a journey to some extent is the emotion. Is that a fair summary?


David (19:19):

Yeah, I think so. I think a risk of losing some listeners, I’d say, pause the podcast if you haven’t seen this go and put into YouTube, generic brand video, it’s a great piece of marketing in its own, right? It’s just a classic example of a B2B organisation trying and failing to do something, to use emotion, to connect with their audience and ending up with something incredibly generic and glib. 

And I think that that is the danger that we see the headlines emotion is more powerful than rational, but actually you really connect to that imaginative part of the brain. And therefore you improve the salience, you improve people’s ability to remember and respond to it. And you’re doing it through the tricks. 

It’s the same as writing great friction without perhaps overplaying our hand as marketers, but characterisation proceeds through being specific, adding, telling details, giving people the facts in a way that allows their imagination to get hold of it. And that’s really what we’re talking about.


Alex (20:29):

And any practical tips from across your work with clients, in terms of way you can start to find those nuggets to build that story? Because I think a challenge for marketing teams can be. Where do we find that before and after type contrast and how do we get our hands on that kind of data and information?


David (20:46):

So one of the things that we had done a lot recently is spending more time looking at previous successes, diving into spending time with pre-sales, with bid teams, looking at bid reviews, win-loss reviews, really looking for specific telling detail. 

Maybe there’s an implementation plan or timing plan that can be a payback time frame, that can be pulled out and genericised, or can give you some of the clues about what those telling details are. So get to the specific by spending more time, perhaps in marketing you typically would, diving into previous successes and speaking as we always should do with salespeople, and understanding what’s working on the front line.


Doug (21:33):

And where I’d add to that, David, we find in our work both Decision Labs and Corporate Visions is that marketing is typically quite fantastic at developing those after case studies where they paint the picture of what that fantastic future was for a particular client. 

And the struggle that we find in working with those organisations is that the ‘before data’ is harder to come by principally because that’s a responsibility that might fall to sales or customer success when they are first working with a new client, actually documenting for that client, what the before is, what is it? And then actually partnering up with marketing to get that information back to marketing so it can funnel into future ABM. 

So often it’s, and I challenge any marketer listening to the podcast today, just check your website and read your customer case studies. And you’ll probably notice that those ‘after’ results are very prominent, but there’s often fairly generic ‘before’ in those results. And again, that winning condition, having both the quantified before and after combined. 

I think if you were to partner up with some of your sales counterparts at the beginning of a net new customer relationship, to define that before, that will help give you as a marketer, more ammunition for outreach like this, where you will be able to better describe not only that fantastic after, but also that before as well. 

And frankly keep marketing involved in ABM, not just when acquiring a new customer, but then expanding that customer relationship as well. Because that for us is a bit of the next frontier of ABM is really staying through with that customer through acquisition all the way through expansion as well.


David (23:25):

That’s where it sort of touches on ABM. I think when ABM really comes into it, tech marketers particularly are very good at talking about digital transformation and the opportunities from technology as if it’s new for a customer as if they’re at the start of their cloud transformation journey, digital transformation journey. Whereas actually that’s almost never the case. 

There are different levels of maturity. It’s what someone described to me recently as a brownfield site. In most cases marketers aren’t very good actually at creating the right messaging and salespeople can find it more difficult to create the right messaging for that type of environment. And that’s where you’ve got the opportunity with ABM to make it specific to the customer to say that you are at this stage in your journey. And this is about how we can put some specific before and after as to how we progress at that stage.


How personalisation affects ABM messaging

Alex (24:19):

And I think we can’t talk about ABM without talking about personalisation and maybe digging into that a little bit more. I mean, we’ve talked about specificity and length of content, but I assume that with length comes personalisation to some extent, because generic length of messaging is probably not as valuable. 

I think that that balance, and obviously I think it depends on the scale of ABM programs that you’re running, whether that’s one-to-one one-to-many one-to-a-few or whatever the kind of flavour is. But how do you view the personalisation side of things? And I guess, is there a point at which there’s too much personalisation maybe being worked into ABM?


David (24:54):

Well, I think you’ve done a bit of study on this haven’t you Doug? So maybe do you want to start?


Doug (25:00):

Happy to. So we’ve done a little bit of research on this topic and what we found is that B2B buyers are incredibly voyeuristic. They love to know what their peers are doing. They love to know where they might be able to get an edge on the industry. And so we actually studied what degree of personalisation is most valuable industry level, company level, all the way down to the individual. 

Like Alex, I find you on LinkedIn, I find that you like rugby on weekends. And so I’m going to tailor it to that degree. What we found was that the max lift was actually at the industry level, in terms of open rates for an email like this, for actually converting to an MQL and ultimately through to a sales accepted lead, that industry was best. And it actually tailed off a bit the more personal you got. That’s not to say that deeper into an ABM campaign, there’s the opportunity for greater personalisation. 

We were studying again, front end where it would almost seem awkward if a marketer or a sales professional actually knew something super relevant about that company or about that individual. At that stage, it would almost seem like too personal. Like where did you find that information? But that industry level is key. And I think even if you look at the study that we just completed and I’ll ask David to weigh in here as well, we didn’t really have any personalisation in any of the conditions, but we did have that before and after that mimic the industry. 

And in that again, that winning condition was actually 25% more impactful at getting the prospect to identify with the problem and say, they have an urgent need to solve it. And so if a marketer can generate a 25% higher response, simply in how they frame a problem, that is more important at the industry level than really getting down to knowing that Alex likes rugby on weekends.


David (27:06):

There’s a lot of debate about personalisation and ABM. I’m going to take on your friends at the LinkedIn Institute a bit. And I think they’re great and they’re doing great things. You spoke to them recently and they wrote an article about ABM recently and they defined it broadly speaking as personalisation and that’s wrong. I think they’ve probably Googled it rather than speaking to ABM practitioners a bit more length. 

ABM is not about personalisation, it’s about relevance and effectiveness, and it’s about matching the opportunity, your investment to the opportunities in the right way. So, the goal of ABM is not to decide how much personalisation is important or even to personalise. It’s about understanding what level of relevance you need to get to in order to effectively unlock what is often growth in customers that represent 70, 80% of your revenue for the next two, three years. 

And I totally agree with you David, because ultimately, what is the goal of all of this? Why do we study things like this? It’s ultimately because marketers and sellers need buyers to make decisions in their favour. They need to beat their competition and be sure that they are guiding their buyers to make the right decisions. 

And ultimately that is a matter of relevance, of specificity, of guiding the right decision-making process within the buyer organisation. And so to some degree, excessive personalisation might hurt that effort in a world where, as Gartner continues to call out, there’s 10 plus different people involved in a buying decision. 

And so excessive personalisation may actually hinder that consensus decision-making and landing on that industry level with the specificity and relevance that’s going to speak to a multitude of buyers within an organisation. That’s ultimately the goal. The goal is ultimately to drive that buyer to purchase and to purchase your services and goods over anyone else’s.


Alex (29:25):

We’ve covered a lot there. I think it might be time for a wrap up. Maybe we can just cover off four or five takeaways that we think kind of summarise everything we’ve talked through. And maybe we can just touch on how people can get their hands on the research. 

We can obviously drop some links under the description of the podcast when it goes out. So scroll down wherever you are, and you should find some links. I don’t know who wants to go, David, whether you want to wrap things up?


David (29:48):

Sure. I’ll give it a go. There’s a top takeaway which is test and explore. That’s what we’re trying to do here, and that’s what Decision Labs are all about. And that’s a big part of our ethos as an agency. The way we take our programs to market is to test and explore and try and learn and develop through the programs through the insight you’re generating. I think what this particular test is pointing us towards, it’s not emotional versus rational, it’s both used in the right way. 

You can use the tricks. The point of using emotion is to connect with the right processes in the brain to drive salience, to create positive associations, to improve memorability. And some of the rational tricks of persuasion, reciprocity and so on are also important. So it’s about using both in the right way and understanding your medium and applying it. If there’s one truth that seems to apply consistently, I think specificity is important. Avoid the generic, go for the specific.


Doug (30:53):

And I’d add two on top of that. One: length, especially in these early stage campaigns. And we’ve now tested it twice, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of the message. And in this particular task, the content of the message that was winning was one that had that quantification that contrasted a before state with an after state and played on that quantification with emotion, with that sort of specificity and telling detail. 

And ultimately I think it’s incumbent upon marketers to understand their industries and their accounts for ABM with that level of specificity and relevance. So they can produce great messages and produce great content that will have that lift. And that will have that prospect thinking that they’ve got a big problem that they need to go solve and that they need to solve it with you over anybody else.


Alex (31:50):

Awesome. Thank you guys. I think there is some fascinating results that we will make sure everything is linked to and people can easily get their hands on all the research. I appreciate you both taking the time to talk through it. I think it’s a great study and super valuable for anyone wherever they are in their ABM journey. So thank you Doug. And thank you David, for talking through everything.


David (32:09):

Great. Thank you Alex, it’s been a pleasure.


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