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Why Identifying a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) is So Tough

By Callie HinmanAug 3, 2017

For most companies, defining a lead is generally a straightforward process. To become a lead, a buyer must interact with your business—for example, by downloading a whitepaper or eBook or talking to a rep at a conference. The buyer has voluntarily handed over their contact information and boom: They’re now in your database.

In other words, it takes into account a single factor. Where things get tricky is determining when a lead has entered the second lifecycle stage: marketing qualified lead (MQL).

Inbound-Sales-Funnel

Inbound-Sales-Funnel

Defining an MQL is subjective. It requires not only the evaluation of multiple variables but also a consensus between both the sales and marketing teams on the relative importance of those variables. This means the process of deciding on the properties of an MQL is more easily influenced by individual biases.

So how do you reduce the effects of these biases? You have to take a more systematic, almost scientific approach to lead management. Your sales and marketing teams need to replace the subjectiveness of personal experience with independently confirmable data.

To identify the leads who are more likely to become customers (aka, MQLs), sales and marketing must put their own opinions aside and make objective decisions based on lead intelligence and closed-loop analytics, according to HubSpot. They must recognize that how they choose to define an MQL affects all future steps in the sales cycle.

If you’ve decided it’s time to clearly define marketing qualified leads (or update your existing definition) in your organization, here’s what you need to do.

Step 1: Align the Sales and Marketing Teams

Establishing the criteria for when a lead becomes an MQL will be different for every company and can get complicated. What makes it challenging is that in order for this process to be useful, both the sales and marketing teams have to agree upon the attributes a lead needs to have and the actions the lead must take to become an MQL. And getting the sales and marketing teams to agree on anything can be an uphill battle.

Alas, without alignment between the sales and marketing departments, converting leads into customers will be substantially more difficult. If the sales and marketing teams aren’t on the same page, an organization runs the risk of each department using its own criteria to determine a lead’s lifecycle stage, which (spoiler alert) likely aren’t the same.

Pro Tip: Alignment isn’t limited to communication across departments—marketing team members must have an agreement among themselves about what defines an MQL before even approaching the sales team.

Before sales and marketing begin discussing what a marketing qualified lead looks like to your specific company, they must first review the general features of an MQL. An MQL is a person in your audience who completes an action (or series of actions) and possesses certain characteristics that demonstrate they are likely to move on to the next step in the buyer’s journey.

When it’s time to define what these actions and characteristics are for your audience, sales and marketing need to start by looking at current customers. They must identify which traits your customers have in common and what actions they completed at each stage of the buyer’s journey, starting from when they became a customer and working backward.

The teams should ask questions like ...

  • What are the job titles of the stakeholders?
  • For what type of companies do your customers work?
  • What is the size of their companies—for example, number of employees or annual revenue?
  • In which industry do these companies operate?
  • Where are the businesses located?

From there, they must review what actions customers took as they progressed through each stage of the buyer’s journey, from Awareness to Consideration to Decision.

  • How often did they visit your site?
  • Where did they spend the most time on your website?
  • Which types of content did they consume?
  • Did they subscribe to your blog or follow your social media pages?

Take advantage of HubSpot’s Contact Records tool since it allows the sales and marketing teams to see a detailed history of a customer’s interactions with the company (screenshot below). Contact Records makes the process of defining an MQL (as well as other lead stages) more precise since the teams are leveraging real data and not relying on assumptions.

HubSpot-Contact-Record

Step 2: Create a Lead Scoring System

As part of the process of defining MQLs, sales and marketing should establish a lead scoring system. With lead scoring, your sales and marketing teams assign numeric values to certain user characteristics and behaviors based on how important they perceive those traits and actions to be.

The weight of each demographic detail and buyer interaction will be different for every business. Maybe the greatest indicator of a lead’s potential is whether the size of their company is above a certain threshold and they hold a certain job title. Or perhaps the leads who consistently download a particular eBook and view certain blog articles always become customers. Above all else, the combination of characteristics and interactions deemed most valuable must be based on historical data, not simply anecdotal evidence.

Lead scoring lets the teams monitor a lead’s engagement and interest levels as well as the lead’s progress toward sales readiness. One of the most obvious signs a lead should be transferred to the sales team is whether they signed up for a bottom-funnel, sales-ready activity, such as requesting a consultation or demonstration.

When an MQL has reached a certain lead score, it should be passed on to the sales team to determine whether the lead should be pursued further. (Learn more about lead scoring in this blog post.)

Step 3: Analyze Performance and Commit to Continuous Improvement

The analysis of sales and marketing performance data shows the sales and marketing teams where the lead management process can be improved. For example, one action or property may have been assigned too high of a value in the lead scoring system and, as a result, leads are being assigned to reps before they’re actually ready to speak with someone. Or maybe an industry your company thought was a good vertical to target hasn’t performed as well as you would like. Regularly analyzing the data helps your teams continuously improve the process and better optimize their lead management strategies.

It’s important to remember the sales and marketing teams should continue to monitor a customer’s engagement even after the contract is signed. Observing the customer’s interactions with the business (such as how they respond to company emails or if they follow your social media accounts) allows the teams to maximize retention and identify upsell opportunities.

One final note: Try not to get bogged down by the hundreds of resources that claim, “When a lead completes XYZ action, they’ve officially moved from a lead to an MQL.” Industry best practices are a great jumping-off point when discussing your organization’s definition of a marketing qualified lead, but you shouldn’t take them as gospel. Develop the definition that makes sense for your company, not anyone else’s.

Want to make your lead generation and lead management process even better? Download our free eBook, A Strategy for Effective Lead Generation and Lead Management.

Effective Lead Generation and Lead Management Strategy eBook

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The Author

Callie Hinman

Callie's passion for writing started when she began drafting short stories in elementary school. That adoration led her to earn a B.A. in English from the University of Texas. Prior to joining Kuno, she oversaw the retail marketing compliance team for a global auto manufacturer. She then managed the digital marketing efforts of several enterprise SaaS companies across the U.S. There was no denying her first love, though, and when Callie started at Kuno, she knew the world of inbound marketing was where she belonged. When she's not creating thoughtful and strategic marketing content, Callie can be found playing soccer and kickball or cheering on the Horns.
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