Strategy & Lead Gen

What is a Qualified Lead? That's the Wrong Question

When you understand the difference between a marketing qualified lead and a sales qualified lead, you create a smoother and quicker path to a sale.

sales-funnel.pngIdentifying a great lead is one of the most important things you can do for your sales process.

But too many marketers ask the wrong question: Is my lead qualified?

The better question you should ask is, Which kind of qualified lead am I dealing with?

When you understand the difference between a marketing qualified lead and a sales qualified lead, you can carve a smoother, quicker path to a sale.

Gleanster Research estimates that only 25% of leads are ready to advance to sales — learn the difference between MQL and SQL so you don't strike too soon.

Recapping the buyer's journey

Before you hit the ground running, you should understand exactly why you need to classify leads in the first place.

According to MarketingSherpa, a whopping 68% of B2B organizations have not identified their funnel, and 79% have not established lead scoring.

Simply put, they don't know when to approach leads in their funnel, and which messaging will resonate.

Is the lead seriously considering your brand? Are they ready for a sales call — or will that scare them off?

When you can confidently answer these questions, you create the right experience... but when you don't, you could run leads straight to your more tactful competitors.

Efficient marketing could be summed up as this: Sending the right message, to the right person, at the right time.

But to do so, you need to get in the mind of your customer and understand the buyer's journey.

RELATED ARTICLE: "Buyer's Journey vs. Customer Lifecycle: What's the Difference?"

Think of how you buy products and services now. Where do you look first?

If you're like 81% of shoppers, you start your purchase online. You're researching problems to understand them better.

"My house is so cold in the winter, and my bills are so expensive."

We call this the "Awareness" stage.

People gather information, wander through Google searches, read articles. They're curious, but not buying yet.

When you've gathered enough information and you start realizing possible solutions, you're in "Consideration" stage —

"Wow, looks like there are a few ways I can lower my heating costs. There are some DIY tips on preventing heat loss... but there are also some products I could use to be more efficient."

After considering solutions, you'll finally land on one.

But there are tons of providers out there... so now you're in the crucial "Decision" stage: Who do you buy from or work with?

"Looks like I could buy a Nest smart thermostat, but there might be some cheaper options out there. Where will I get the most bang for my buck?"

At this stage, a company needs to really prove its value and build a brand relationship with a buyer.

Moving through this journey can take minutes or months. If you're a B2C business, you can probably make the sale more quickly. If you're in the B2B space or selling something more like an investment, you might need to nurture and educate leads over the course of 3-4 months or more.

RELATED ARTICLE: "How to Create a Digital Marketing Funnel (And Why it Matters)"

While getting new business leads in the Awareness stage is important for filling your sales funnel, we'll save that topic for another day.

Understanding the crucial point between "Consideration" and "Decision" is the same thing as understanding an MQL vs. SQL... and it's the key to a high-performing sales process.

So, what is a marketing qualified lead?

An MQL is someone who is both a good fit and interested in your brand. In terms of the buyer's journey, we'll say they're in the Consideration stage.


You can gauge fit and interest for an MQL by asking:

  • Has the lead downloaded an offer (like an eBook, guide, or tool) on your website?
  • Does the person share similar characteristics with your "ideal" lead?
  • Is the person revisiting your website and engaging with emails?
  • Has the lead given you valid contact information, with a correct name and email address?

If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, the person is likely marketing qualified.

Use historical customer data to define an MQL, too

You should also look back on historical data to see what your customers did before they reached out to a sales person. How many emails did they open before requesting a demo, for example? Which pages did they visit?

You should bake this data into your definition of an MQL, too. (This is often called "closed loop analytics.")

For example, we found out that customers generally opened 7-10 emails before taking a sales action.

So, we added "people who opened 7-10 emails" into our MQL criteria.

As you might have guessed, it's helpful to use a CRM like HubSpot to track customer data. While you can pull together piecemeal tools for lead generation, you're missing out on some important "bigger picture" data and analysis.


HubSpot tip: With the HubSpot CRM, you can easily set up your criteria to "filter" people into lists of MQLs and SQLs. You can even set up automatic "next steps" for people who meet the criteria — like a customized series of emails. With the right finessing, you can create a completely automated digital marketing funnel.

What do I do with an MQL?

The goal with any MQL is to convert them into an SQL — or, get them to a place where they are comfortable either talking to a sales person or taking a sales action, like requesting a demo or consultation online.

You can nurture an MQL by gradually introducing your business and solution — but in a helpful, not sales-driven way.

Experts estimate that around 50-90% of the buyer's journey is complete before someone ever talks to a sales person... so save the sales pitch for later.

For now, let your content, emails, and automation do the talking.

In your emails to MQLs, you should do several things:

  • Present case studies for download
  • Continue offering helpful resources for download that are bottom-of-funnel offers, like "how-to" guides or actionable eBooks
  • Occasionally incorporate a testimonial or a customer success story/video
  • Dish up blog posts that clearly discuss the benefits of your product or service

hubspot-workflow.pngHubSpot tip: Automated workflows in HubSpot make email nurturing a breeze. You can write your emails, plan out the time in between them, and automatically enroll leads when they meet the starting criteria. Make sure to set goals for your MQL to SQL workflows, so you can monitor performance.

Don't let MQLs wait around for the next step — and don't expect them to find it on their own.

By dishing up these relevant opportunities, you give buyers the decision to take the next bite.

When is my lead sales qualified?

You've done all this work to classify and engage your marketing qualified leads. Now you're definitely wondering: When can I make the sale?

With the right criteria set for an SQL, you can hand off pre-approved leads who are already warmed up for the pitch.

To set criteria for an SQL, you should ask:

  • Is the lead reading Decision-stage content?
  • Has the lead viewed your pricing, testimonial, or services pages?
  • Is the person engaging with bottom-of-funnel offers?
  • Are they opening a high percentage of MQL emails?
  • Has the lead reconverted on another downloadable offer?
  • Have I already labeled the lead an MQL?

In sum, you're looking for actions that say "I'm deciding on a solution and wondering if you could be a good fit."

According to DemandGen, 52% of buyers viewed 8 or more pieces of content from the winning vendor.

Your SQLs will be the most engaged leads in your database... And a well-timed sales email or phone call will hit the deal home.

You might be wondering: How can I find these people in my database? With dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of leads, it can be tricky to pull out your SQLs.

With a marketing CRM like HubSpot, you can set up lead scoring to automatically see the most engaged leads, and prioritize them for sales.

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