December 11, 2019

What is a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)?

6 min read

Written by: Guido Bartolacci  |  Share:

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Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) is the third of six lifecycle stages in the buyer’s journey. MQLs indicate the number of visitors you’ve converted who are good fits for your organization. Tracking your MQLs can help you look down the funnel. If your MQLs are not converting to later stages of the customer lifecycle and not ultimately becoming customers, you might have issues with your marketing and sales alignment or with your MQL definition.

Before we dive any deeper, it’s useful to develop an understanding of each of the other customer lifecycle stages to see what exactly MQLs are and where they fit in. Let’s take a look.

Where MQLs Fit into the Customer Lifecycle

The customer lifecycle stages include: 

Visitor

The definition of a site visitor is self-explanatory — a visitor is anyone who stops by your website. From a digital marketing perspective, understanding how many people are coming to your site is an important first step. 

Lead

Leads are formed when a visitor has expressed interest in your company by providing their information. At that point, you’ve given them something of value through a gated piece of content or related offer such that they’re willing to provide details about themselves.

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

When a company confirms a lead is a good fit and demonstrates return interest by marketing to them, that lead becomes an MQL. Once a lead becomes an MQL, the company continues to explore the contact and nurture them down the funnel. 

Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)

An MQL is characterized as a sales qualified lead (SQL) when sales agrees with marketing that the contact has enough interest and is a good enough fit for a discovery call to initiate a sales conversation. 

Opportunity

An SQL becomes an opportunity when they confirm your company could provide a viable solution to their problem and decide to continue the sales process by exploring your products and services in greater detail.

Customer

Opportunities become customers when they sign a deal.

How to Evaluate Fit

We provided the definition of an MQL above, “When a company confirms a lead is a good fit and demonstrates return interest by marketing to them, that lead becomes an MQL.”

In order to use the MQL stage effectively, you must decide what type of contacts warrant the most effort from your marketing team. You should target high-fit individuals that will benefit the most from your offering and provide your company with the highest customer lifetime value

Of course, determining which people or contacts are the best fit isn’t the most simple process. For one, the process differs depending on if you work for a B2B or B2C company.

B2C vs. B2B

If you’re from a B2C company, then it’s normally best to use buyer personas to help you judge fit. Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of your ideal customers. Using personas, you can dig into which customer traits are best. When you build your personas, they can be based on each contact’s role, how they’re measured, what they care about and the challenges they face in their day-to-day routines. 

On the other hand, if you’re from a B2B company, you probably want to leverage both buyer personas and ideal customer profiles to help you judge fit. An ideal customer profile is a hypothetical description of the type of company that would reap the most benefit from your product or solution. These companies tend to have the most successful sales cycles, the greatest retention rates and the highest number of evangelists for your brand. Ideal customer profiles are often based on attributes like industry, company size and revenue.

While buyer personas are also important at B2B companies, you should evaluate each contact based on the company that they work for when you’re initially determining fit.

Consider a scenario where an intern from a company downloads a content offer, becoming a lead. If you were to judge the fit of this contact based solely on your buyer personas, the individual would likely be unqualified because they wouldn’t have the authority to make a purchase decision. 

If instead you looked into the company and evaluated them with an ideal customer profile, you might find that they were worth marking as an MQL and continuing to market to. Ultimately, for B2B businesses, evaluating companies is what matters. Of course, that is not to say that buyer personas are not important. 

While your B2B product or service needs to help both companies and individual contacts, at the end of the day, you need to solve for each person involved in the purchase decision. Additionally, if in the scenario presented above you failed to evaluate the intern against your buyer personas after confirming the company was a good fit, you might waste effort marketing to an individual that can’t progress the conversation. Just because you don’t initially evaluate the fit of individuals in a B2B situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at some point. 

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New companies vs. existing companies

There are also different processes for determining fit depending on if you are from a new company or an existing one. 

If you’re from a new company, a lot of your initial processes will be hypothetical. You’re not going to have historical data on the types of people or companies that you’ve sold to in the past, but while formulating your go-to-market strategy, you probably identified what challenges you are attempting to solve and what people or companies might be looking for your solutions. 

From there, you can model your personas or ideal customer profiles after the people or companies that you believe will work best with your organization. As you begin to gather more data, you can refine these to best account for your organization’s needs.

Of course, you may need to scrap your original efforts and start again or create additional personas or profiles for customers you hadn’t previously accounted for. Overall, treat your personas and profiles like hypotheses and use the feedback you collect to improve them over time.

Alternatively, if you’re from an existing business, then you should examine the companies that you have been most successful with in the past. That includes the customers with the highest lifetime value, largest average deal and lowest churn. Ask yourself: What sets them apart from everyone else?

From there, you can craft your personas and profiles around the characteristics of your best customers.

It’s worth noting that, while it’s important you determine which people and companies tend to represent top tier accounts, you should probably expand your reach slightly. You don’t want to narrow your scope too much unless you have a massive pool of high-fit contacts. By accepting contacts that are on the fringe of your personas and profiles, you can expand your pool of MQLs and potentially close more customers. Beyond your ideal customers, there are likely other people who could benefit from your product.

Why the MQL Stage is Important

Revisiting the importance of MQLs that we touched on in the introduction, MQLs are vital because they can help you identify how contacts are progressing through your funnel. 

Looking up the funnel from the MQL stage, if you are creating plenty of MQLs, you know that you’re attracting plenty of high-fit visitors to your website. Conversely, if you are having a difficult time converting leads into MQLs, you need to try to produce leads with better fit. Ask yourself: Is there an issue with the way we are bringing people in? Is the content we are producing not attracting the right visitors? Are we failing to promote the right offers?

Looking down the funnel from the MQL stage can give you more insights. If you notice contacts who become MQLs aren’t progressing to subsequent lifecycle stages or ultimately closing, you might have a different set of problems. Ask yourself: Are we marking contacts as MQLs when they don’t fit our ideal personas or profiles? Are we generating enough trust with our content and marketing outreach? Are we positioning our company’s product or service as a solution to our contacts’ problems?

Another thing to keep in mind is that the MQL stage is typically the last stage at which marketing is still primarily responsible for moving leads forward. After this stage, when MQLs become SQLs, sales will be involved. Of course, that doesn’t mean marketing’s responsibility is over, but it means that sales help progress leads down the funnel after the MQL stage. 

Sometimes, problems with the MQL-to-SQL conversion rate can relate to issues with the marketing-to-sales handoff. If you notice potential issues in this area, you should ask yourself: Are we handing off MQLs to sales appropriately? Are we providing them with enough information and sales enablement materials (like case studies), so they can advance conversations? Is sales following up with leads effectively and in a timely manner? 

Key Takeaway

Before contacts get to the MQL stage, you need them to initially convert on an offer and become leads. The best way we’ve found to generate high-fit leads is with inbound marketing.

The beauty of inbound marketing is if you do it correctly and provide value to your contacts at every stage of the customer lifecycle, you won’t just produce plenty of leads and MQLs but also generate happy customers and brand evangelists down the line.

To learn more about how to provide value for your contacts at each stage of the customer lifecycle and leverage inbound marketing for your organization, check out our inbound marketing guide.

The Ultimate Guide to Inbound Marketing - Free Download

Topics: Inbound Sales, Inbound Marketing, Reporting & ROI

About The Author

Guido is a Demand Generation Marketer for New Breed. He specializes in running in-depth demand generation programs internally while assisting account managers in running them for our clients.

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