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Whether you’re a start-up or an established company operating B2B or B2C, you are marketing to an audience and collecting information from potential buyers. This information can lead to a sale and a better understanding of your target audiences. 

In both outbound and inbound marketing, leads can be organized and used for different purposes. If you’re new to marketing, you may or may not have seen the terms marketing qualified or sales qualified being thrown around. 

There are distinctions between the two, and understanding what they mean will give you a better idea of how your marketing strategy works. It will also be an effective tool as part of your marketing strategy, allowing your team to bring in stronger leads and improve ROI. 

Understanding Leads and Lead Generation

Businesses of all shapes and sizes need to acquire leads, or potential customers, before making a sale. While this process isn’t always straightforward or black-and-white, it is true in most cases. 

These are just a few examples of how leads are collected. In content marketing efforts, leads typically come through a marketing avenue, whether it is social media, the company’s newsletter, or a visitor asking a question on the landing page live chat. If you provide your web visitors with the option to download a free eBook, you might require that users exchange their email to download the PDF. This can also be a lead. 

Leads vary based on:

  • Where they are collected
  • How they are collected
  • The lead’s interest or intent around your product or service (are they ready to buy or are they just looking?)
  • Their stage of the funnel (which relates to the previous bullet point)
  • Their demographics
  • The problems your product or service solves

Since there are many different types of leads, and leads can be hard to come by, it’s important to organize them and use them strategically.

Operationalizing Your Leads

As mentioned, there are a number of ways in which you can collect and classify your leads. Categorizing or operationalizing your leads is important mainly for this reason:

Leads can actually be hard to come by. So if you try to sell too hard to an uninterested buyer, then you lose out on a potential long-term lead.

As your business grows, you are likely to experience a higher volume of interested buyers. Whether you are selling a product or service, organizing and keeping track of these leads can pay off in the long run. For the most part, it’s crucial to track and organize your leads so that they can be used for future marketing campaigns. 

By categorizing your leads, you understand those who are new to your funnel or those who have been around for a while. You can begin to tailor your marketing efforts to their interests, rather than treating them the same. They will appreciate this more, and businesses are in turn rewarded with sales or long-term customers who value the B2C relationship.

There are three main stages of leads: leads, marketing qualified lead (MQL), and sales qualified lead (SQL). Each qualification fits into a buyer journey stage as well. Read on to learn more:

What is a Lead? 

Even if you don’t call it a lead, an interested potential customer is considered a lead

In general, leads can be collected in a number of ways both online and offline:

  • Collecting names, email addresses, and phone numbers using pen and paper at a trade show
  • Email address sign-ups for your business newsletter
  • Digital sign-ups for an online event
  • Collecting the IP addresses of digital visitors to a website
  • An in-store employee collecting demographic information about a customer after a purchase (either phone number or address)
  • Public databases of customer information
  • Referrals
  • Vendors and third-party partners

This category of leads is still in the awareness phase of the marketing funnel, which means they are still getting to know your brand. They might have connected with your brand through free resources (like a free whitepaper, free guide, free ebooks, free newsletter, free video, etc).

What is a Marketing Qualified Lead?

A marketing qualified lead (or MQL) is a lead that has expressed a qualifying amount of interest to the marketing team and has been determined ready to be evaluated by the sales team for sales-readiness.

An MQL is someone who is more invested in your brand than a general lead but is not yet ready to make a purchase. The MQL is extremely important because it signifies that they have progressed from the awareness stage to the consideration stage, and here they are making crucial decisions about your brand. They are weighing your brand against their values and considering whether or not your business is worth going the extra mile. 

These individuals may be involved in a webinar, they may read your case studies, take free samples, look at product spec sheets, and browse catalogs.

What is a Sales Qualified Lead?

A sales-qualified lead (or SQL) is a prospective client that has been thoroughly evaluated, both by the marketing team and the sales team, and has been determined to be ready for the next stage in the sales process.

Sales qualified refers to what they are: qualified and positioned to make a sale. This does not indicate that they will make a sale or that they will be forced to, but they are in virtually the best position to do so. 

These leads are further down the marketing funnel than leads that may have just visited your website. They have moved from the consideration stage and into the decision stage, and from here, they are lined up to make a purchase. There are barriers that can keep them from making that purchase, but, for the most part, they are “sold” on the idea of your company, brand, service, or product.

These potential buyers are in the decision stage and might be involved with free trials, demos, free consultations, coupons, estimates, and quotes. 

Sales Qualified Lead vs. Marketing Qualified Lead

When considering the difference between SQLs vs. MQLs (and also leads), it really has to do with the stage of decision-making that they are in. 

The difference between an SQL and an MQL is the lead’s anticipated willingness to move forward with a sale. MQLs can turn into SQLs or they can walk away from your company. 

In general, you want an SQL because that means they are ready to buy. However, MQLs can be wooed more, and they can turn into long-turn customers, especially if they sit in the MQL category for longer. Sometimes SQLs might make a purchase and then walk away. This is because they have not generated enough emotional or mental attachment to your brand and really just considered the sale to be utilitarian rather than informative or helpful. 

Lead Generation for Both MQL and SQL

Lead generation is the first step for both MQLs and SQLs. 

MQL is a prospect that has not been converted to a SQL through the sales funnel yet. Lead nurturing is what transforms an MQL into an SQL. But before a lead can be nurtured, it needs to be generated.

Depending on your business, there are a few ways to perform lead generation. Generally speaking, these examples are a good way to target and secure potential customers:

  • Social Media: Social media is a free and useful tool for marketing in any industry. Whether you’re marketing a product or service or selling B2B vs. B2C, you can find potential customers through social media platforms. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even TikTok are great outlets to run marketing campaigns. These platforms amplify your brand’s voice and expand your audience.
  • Paid Advertisements (PPC) and Contact Forms: You can pay for advertisements on websites, search engines (Google), or social media (Facebook) to promote your website, however, these can be extremely expensive and not worth the effort. PPC requires that a lead clicks on the ad (and these have notoriously low click-through rates) and then submit their information on your website through a contact form. 

Lead Nurturing

Once you have leads, it is implied that they are interested. How much they are interested can often be hard to gauge. But, unfortunately, you don’t have a heck of a lot of time to decipher this information. 

Experts use a lead scoring system in order to understand a buyer’s interest seen here:

Marketing ChannelBehaviorScore
EmailOpened EmailInfluencer factor (+1)
Click within EmailMost important factor (+5)
Forwarded EmailInfluencing factor (+3)
UnsubscribedNegative factor (-5)
WebsiteRequested a DemoMost important factor (+50)
Visited Pricing PageImportant factor (+20)
Visited Multiple PagesInfluencing factor (+10)
Visited Careers PageNegative factor (-5)
WebinarRegistered for WebinarInfluencing factor (+10)
Attended WebinarImportant factor (+2)
EventAttended EventInfluencing factor (+3)
Had a good conversationInfluencing factor (+10)
Had an amazing conversationImportant factor (+30)
ContentDownloaded White PaperInfluencing factor (+10)
Downloaded Specific White PaperImportant factor (+30)
Completed a piece of interactive contentInfluencing factor (+10)

Once a lead has passed a decided threshold, they can be considered marketing qualified lead or sales qualified lead (depending on how the thresholds are set up). 

You might then nurture your lead or MQL using email marketing. You can then determine the lead/MQL’s interest-based on whether they open the email, click within the email, or sign up for more events.

Once an MQL has attended a webinar or asked for sample content, then that lead is an SQL and should be in contact with your sales team. 

While this is the ideal chain of events for a sales cycle, it isn’t always the reality. Communication between the marketing team and sales team is crucial to make the conversion from MQL to SQL. It’s important for your customer to feel like they’ve been listened to and are being taken care of. To ensure your customer is satisfied, communicate with your sales team before they contact your customer so that they are going in with as much information as possible and won’t be asking repeated questions.

It’s also important to move quickly once you’ve established a relationship with your lead. Once the interest is made clear, the lead should be set up to speak to a sales rep so that they can convince the lead and finalize the sale before they lose interest.

If your marketing team and your sales team have clear communication and the same end goal in mind, the process from marketing qualified leads to sales qualified leads should make sense for your customers!

Setting Up Your Sales Pipeline

The success of your company depends on communication between your marketing and sales team and the efficacy of your sales pipeline. Tools can streamline this process and marketing and sales software than help each of your teams understand the lead interest and needs. 

Set up your sales pipeline so that it reflects lead categorization and lead nurturing. From here, you can see the number of people ready to buy from your brand and those areas of your marketing campaign that need to improve nurturing. 

Each brand is different, so test and retest! See what makes your unique customers tick, and soon you will have better conversations with your leads and higher conversions!


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