Dominick Sorrentino

Every year, humanity collectively spends hundreds of billions of dollars or more on this thing called marketing. We toil for hours on end over ad copy, blog posts, video scripts, data and needlessly complicated marketing automation tools.

What’s it all for?

The marketing qualified lead – aka, the MQL.

What is an MQL?

A marketing qualified lead is a lead that the marketing team has decided is ready to be brought to sales’ attention – on the basis that the lead is more likely to convert at the point of sale than other leads.

This is an admittedly vague definition, especially considering the marketing world revolves around MQLs.

But that’s because each individual marketing team is responsible for distinguishing a regular old lead from a marketing qualified lead (preferably with input from sales).

This isn’t like bird watching, where you look for tell-tale signs of a distinct species. A marketing department must create its own indicators. And if they don’t, they won’t always know an MQL when they see one.

Some possible indicators of an MQL include:

  • A lead has signed up for a free trial or software demo.
  • A lead has filled out an online form.
  • A lead has reached out directly to ask for additional information.
  • A lead has downloaded a pricing guide.
  • A lead has favorited a particular product or added it to their shopping cart.

These actions imply awareness, interest and even consideration of a brand or a particular product or service, but not necessarily intent to buy.

By the way, your determination of MQL is at the mercy of the leads you have in your pipeline at any one time. MQL is a somewhat relative concept. The goalposts move, so to speak, based on what you have to work with at a particular point in time. In the slow season or during a slump, you might find yourself a little more generous in who you choose to call an MQL.

How is this different from a sales qualified lead (SQL)?

An SQL, sometimes called a “prospect,” is a lead that has been vetted by sales for intent to purchase. Many SQLs start as MQLs that have been brought to sales’ attention. Sales then decides if the lead is in fact sales-ready, or if they still need further nurturing before having a real conversation about buying.

Some indicators of an SQL might include:

  • A lead asks to see sales material.
  • A lead requests a live demo.
  • A lead has reached out to ask you to help them solve a specific problem.
  • A lead flat-out tells you they want to buy something.

If the sales team decides that a lead is not ready to buy, they could either pass the lead back to marketing for further nurturing, or they can go through the process of “warming” that lead with help from a Business Development Representative (BDR).

Traditionally, BDRs have been tasked primarily with outbound marketing (e.g., cold calling). However, the role has evolved in recent years, with more BDRs targeting inbound leads directly with the intent of nurturing them into prospects who are ready to speak with a Sales Development Representative (SDR).

How do you qualify MQLs?

In other words, how do you go about deciding when a regular lead becomes an MQL? This process is known as lead qualification.

To make this distinction, you first have to establish a lead definition. The term “lead” is thrown around a lot in inbound marketing, and it can mean something different depending on your particular sales funnel. Every company’s buying cycle is a little different (try as we might to create models and templates that encompass all of them).

The key here is to try to think of a plain old lead as a marketing target, meaning they are a good candidate for further marketing. They are at this point an unqualified lead, meaning they still need further lead nurturing before you can rightly call them an MQL.

Some common indicators that you have an unqualified lead on your hands include:

  • The lead has recently signed up to receive your newsletter.
  • The lead has downloaded an informational content marketing asset such as an eBook or infographic.

You might call these micro-conversions. They have awareness and some level of interest in your content but are not necessarily considering a purchase.

Once you have a clear idea of what you would consider to be a lead, you can decide at what point a lead becomes an MQL.

We’ve already highlighted some of the most common indicators of an MQL, but those might not necessarily apply to your company depending on your customer lifecycle.

So, instead, let’s focus on a few best practices for lead qualification:

3 best practices for lead qualification

1. Involve sales

To minimize friction in your marketing funnel, it’s crucial that your marketing and sales teams are on the same page about lead quality. The last thing you want as a marketer is to repeatedly feed sales leads that they are unable or unwilling to work with. As you flesh out your MQL criteria, make sure sales has a seat at the table.

2. Develop an MQL lead scoring system

Customer relationship management software makes it relatively easy for you to compile lead intelligence and distill that information into a concrete lead score. But you will have to spend some time with historical data to try to identify the indicators that a lead is a strong potential fit for your product or service.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Develop buyer personas to become more familiar with your target customer and really understand some of the common attributes of your quality leads.
  • Pay close attention to leads’ history of online engagement, including on email and on social media, to identify trends in what types of leads have the highest conversion rate at the point of sale.
  • Conduct similar exercises to identify unqualified leads that end up wasting time; for instance, if you’re a B2B marketer, it might be worth downgrading or deprioritizing leads who don’t have a business email address or who don’t include a business website when they fill out on an online form (also, this exercise will help you create forms that strategically weed out spam).
  • For your lead score, a scale of 1-5 is better than 1-10; you want to leave as little room for interpretation as possible.

As you fine-tune your lead scoring, pay attention to metrics such as your MQL to SQL conversion rate. In other words, how many of your MQLs become SQLs? Take that a step further and see how many SQLs convert. Try to find as many commonalities as you can among those leads that do convert. This will help gradually improve the accuracy of your lead scoring over time.

3. Revisit your MQL definition often

This is possibly the single-most overlooked step in marketing, but also one of the most important. Markets change, demand changes, your own company changes and that means your definition of the perfect MQL can evolve. As painful as it may sound to have to do this work more than once, it’s essential for the ongoing validity of your marketing efforts and sales process. Make sure you’re revisiting your MQL – and your SQL – definition on an annual if not quarterly basis (if for no other reason than to improve your definitions of both over time).

Remember to keep your lead generation engine running strong

I’m tempted to say that MQLs are more about quality than quantity in the sense that every MQL should have a stronger chance of converting than your unqualified leads.

But really, you want a lot of good leads.

I won’t go too deeply into how to use content marketing to serve your marketing and sales funnel (we’ve already done that here). Instead, I’ll just leave you with a crucial reminder that your lead generation tactics will directly influence both the quantity and quality of leads.

Issues you encounter with MQLs downstream could be the result of how you target your audience upstream, for instance, based on the type content you’re creating, what keywords you’re targeting and what marketing channels you’re investing in.

As you diagnose issues pertaining to SQL conversion rate and other activities that happen later in the marketing and sales cycle, don’t just look at lead qualification. Focus on your entire lead manufacturing system, so to speak.

Marketing really is a sophisticated endeavor.

But if you’re hypervigilant of its many facets and you know what key indicators to look out for, you’ll be able to spot revenue opportunities from a mile away, time and time again.