MQL vs SQL: How to bridge the gap between sales and marketing

Nov 7, 2022

Lead generation is vital for any business, but we need to differentiate our prime contacts from the less relevant ones. Not every lead will be a happy (or profitable) prospective customer, regardless of their classification. 

Your sales and marketing teams might handle leads at different sales cycle stages, but a common thread must bind their scoring and qualifying efforts. 

Marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs) are the two main classifications for individuals and accounts with buying potential. 

Identifying an MQL, converting them into an SQL, and then closing takes a fair amount of time and effort. Let’s unpack each lead type, learn how they fit into each other, and how to get the most ROI

Your marketing and sales teams generally handle the identification and nurturing of both lead types, respectively. We believe this disconnect only harms your sales productivity

Instead, we propose a unified perspective and approach to scoring MQLs and SQLs, for the most efficient and rewarding sales cycles possible. 

First, let’s get a clearer picture of MQLs and SQLs.

What is an MQL? 

Your marketing teams strive to attract members of your ideal customer profile (ICP). They do this mostly through inbound marketing.

This is the creation of value-driven content that’s tailored to your buyer persona

There are two major tasks for your inbound marketing team:

  1. Researching and appreciating which pain points and jobs-to-be-done your customers are facing.
  2. Turning your marketing efforts toward creating valuable resources for these issues. 

For example, a relevant white paper or guide

It’s important you not only answer the questions your target audience is asking but also answer them on their preferred platforms.

Este Pretorious, LinkedIn lead generation specialist

Your marketers score prospects that interact with your inbound marketing content and, once they hit a satisfactory engagement level, are branded as MQLs. 

It’s important to note that MQLs aren’t sales-ready, hence the differentiation between MQLs and SQLs.

What is an SQL?

An SQL is a lead your sales team has deemed worthy of their focus and efforts. 

MQLs will convert into SQLs once they display enough buying signals, moving down from the marketing funnel and into the sales pipeline.

A sales rep will then engage this SQL, offering demos, free trials, or product tours while establishing their needs.

There are three essential criteria for an SQL:

  1. You’ve confirmed that the lead is a decision-maker. 
  2. They have the budget needed for your subscription. 
  3. They’re the ideal fit for your ICP. 

These details can be verified by your sales reps’ good judgment through a background search. It helps to have as much customer data as possible so you don’t misjudge the lead. 

However, we’d recommend hard verification over implicit signals. Specific forms and qualification calls are an assured green light. 

If you don’t have a proper qualification procedure in place, your lead scoring criteria for SQLs could be arbitrary or subjective. 

You might find that your marketing department sends MQLs over to your sales representatives, only to find that their values don’t convert into sales opportunities

Not every SQL contributes to your conversion count

According to LinkedIn lead generation expert Este Pretorious, there’s often a disconnect between marketing and sales strategies. 

As a marketer, if you don’t understand what the sales process is and what moves somebody through that sales process, you will never be able to support sales if you do not understand what makes a qualified lead in terms of picking up the blind signals, and understanding the problem statements. 

Este Pretorious, LinkedIn lead generation specialist

Let’s look at the stats. 

Salesforce found that only 13% of MQLs convert into SQLs. Out of that small pool of SQLs, sales departments generally only close 6%. We also found an incredibly insightful Plezi investigation that revealed the most effective MQL to SQL conversion channels within a marketing strategy.

MQL to SQL conversion by channel, according to an analysis by Plezi

So, what actually works?

B2B companies’ websites are the most effective channel (surprise, surprise), with a conversion rate of 31.30%, closely followed by customer and employee referrals: 24.70%.

Conversely, Plezi found email marketing campaigns to be the least productive type of conversion channel, with a 0.90% success rate. 

From our own research, we found that many salespeople were only qualifying high-quality leads as opportunities too late into the sales process. Sales’ lack of confidence in anything but the most obvious opportunities means numerous hot leads are falling through the cracks.

Your qualification spectrum might be too broad

It’s not just salespeople selling themselves short. Your marketers could be trigger-happy with their qualifying. 

Our interview with B2B sales expert and consultant Elor Pruvli revealed the biggest lead qualification mistake: marketing flooding sales with too many MQLs

According to Pruvli, a lead attending your webinar or downloading a resource from your website doesn’t imply they want anything more from you.  

But what causes this opportunity void? We believe it’s a lack of cooperation between sales and marketing throughout the qualification process. 

Disconnected teams are a disservice to your potential customers

Marketing and sales often have different opinions on what constitutes a hot lead. There’s a chance your marketing team is sending their idea of qualified leads to sales, who simply reject them as too far up the sales funnel to engage. 

One of the greatest productivity wasters in any sales-based company is the disconnect between marketing and sales. 

Siloed teams work in vacuums

Our 2022 Revenue Marketing Report revealed that just 42% of our respondents felt their marketing and sales teams enjoyed “Very Good or Excellent” alignment. 

The other 58% saw their team alignment as “Poor, Fair, or Good.” 

Revenue Marketing Report 2022

Siloed teams can’t communicate their qualifying preferences or work together across the sales funnel. This disconnection is caused by marketing being too focused on their idea of a hot MQL

We’re not saying that your marketing team’s MQL scoring framework isn’t practical, but it needs to be aligned with sales’ SQL signals.

Marketing, meet sales 

Open a discussion between your sales and marketing teams. Sales can then reveal to marketing which KPIs and metrics constitute an actionable lead. 

A tight qualification range swaps numerous, often irrelevant MQLs for a smaller pool with far higher success potential

Your marketing team’s morale will soar when they see the fruits of their labor as sales convert a far higher percentage of MQLs. 

Inter-team relations are improved, and there’s a highly efficient and productive synergy between sales and marketing. 

None of this is possible unless sales and marketing work together on the same platform, with a collective view of the sales funnel, but more on that later. 

How do you convert an MQL into an SQL?

Marketing scoring leads according to sales’ needs is a good start, but what are you actually looking for regarding SQL-friendly MQLs?

Keep your ICP close to your heart 

Let’s start with firmographics. 

A prospect enthusiastically engaging with your lead generation content might not match your ICP. 

Remember that sales is looking for the juiciest accounts possible, and marketing needs this value-driven mindset when scoring and qualifying leads. 

Ensure that any prospect you deem worthy of the MQL title has the predefined revenue, company size, industry, and job title parameters sales looks for.

You can gain all this data by gating your most valuable resources behind qualifying forms.  

So, what are we?

Take a human approach to qualifying leads. 

Your lead generation content and surveys should elicit potential customer’s pain points and jobs-to-be-done that your product and professionals can solve. 

Now, sales are handling MQLs that are the right customer fit, with an empathetic understanding of their needs. Qualifying SQLs just became a far more straightforward process. 

A hypothetical example of lead generation and nurturing 

Let’s imagine you’re the Head of Sales at a company that sells a sales process automation tool called “GoodRep.”  

Your main lead generation channel is your blog, which focuses on empathizing with and guiding sales reps and leaders on their most common pain points. 

Let’s review your sales process from an MQL and SQL perspective:

  1. Prospect: A prospect confirms they want your blog’s newsletter delivered weekly. They happily click on your subscription CTA when they reach the end of a beneficial article. 
  2. Lead: You notice they’ve read a few articles and completed a survey, one attached to a piece on the most significant pain points for sales leaders. 
  3. MQL: Your new lead downloaded enough of your blog resources like white papers and case studies, submitting a form with the user data needed to be qualified as an MQL. 
  4. SQL: A few days pass, and you continue recording your MQL’s enriched activity on your website. They’ve checked out your pricing plans page and finally requested a demo. 
  5. Opportunity: It’s full steam ahead for your sales team. They’ve provided enough value to their SQL through calls and the provision of personalized resources to consider them a hot opportunity. 
  6. Customer: You’ve made it to the purchasing decision stage. You’re discussing pricing, the number of seats, and tailoring your product to the SQL’s larger account. It’s onboarding time! 

How your teams can find shared value in MQLs and SQLs

Tracking and appreciating the right leads comes down to tight cooperation between sales and marketing.

This collaboration is only possible when you have a single viewpoint of your sales and marketing data

Bridge the gap between marketing and CRM

That’s where Outfunnel comes in. Our tool was developed by sales and marketing professionals to unite your departments

We’re focused on streamlining your CRM and marketing tools relationship, so all your marketing engagement is recorded in a neat and insightful source. 

Accurately defined MQLs and opportunities

Your MQL definitions need to be exact. Outfunnel lets you hone your ideal MQL categorization by scanning your previous closed deals and opportunities. 

This insight shows you which lead sources and marketing touches are the most valuable and truly indicate quality. 

Lead scoring with Outfunnel

But how does one even attain this clarity from so much data? Use these predictive lead scoring lessons to refine your MQL and SQL definitions. 

We did our homework using our trusty machine learning resources. Our dataset consisted of:

We then started gathering a ton of data from sales activities, email opens and clickthrough rates, industry tags, and web visits hoarded across more than half a year’s worth of investigation. 

Of course, we made sure to timestamp each touch so that we could create correlations between marketing engagements and sales opportunities.

To summarize our thorough research, we discovered that:

1. The higher your marketing email open count, the better your conversion probability. Email opens = good signals, and email clicks = strong signals. 

2. Active website visitors are more likely to convert, particularly those exploring your pricing or product pages. 

3. People that attend a webinar during the free trial period are 3X more likely to convert to a paid subscription.
4. Our working model translates to about half the companies we sampled.

We also found that free trial signups stemming from our marketplaces channel were far more likely to convert to paid advertising leads. 

The more straightforward method 

If you don’t have the time to conduct in-depth research, you can simply rely on Outfunnel to do the legwork

You’ll activate a powerful deal forensics capacity by syncing your marketing engagements with your CRM. 

Outfunnel ensures that all your essential scoring events are fed into your CRM. From email opens to granular website engagement details. 

You can then easily analyze which marketing engagements and lead sources correlate with won deals.

How to boost your MQL to SQL conversions

Phenomenal… your sales and marketing tools are correctly integrated, and all the vital user data and events are at your fingertips.

Now, let’s explore a few MQL to SQL conversion strategies. 

Sure, there’s no magic formula for converting MQLs. But you might find your buying cycle is clogged with unnecessary leads

When your marketing process doesn’t get results, your marketers pull leads in from everywhere, and you waste sales’ valuable time. 

Este Pretorious, LinkedIn lead generation specialist

You’re trapped sending out countless marketing messages to investigate and convince yourself this segment is part of your potential buyer bracket. All while pumping the relevant content to your iffy email list.

In this case, your marketing channels engage the wrong leads, and your sales efforts could be more balanced. 

On a more positive note, remember that bad leads aren’t a complete waste of time. You’ll know the critical differentiators between potential buyers and poor fits and can better hone your ideal buyer persona. 

1. Isolate why your MQL to SQL conversion rate is low

This first step involves a fair amount of detective work. You might have to dig deep into your funnel and smoother over the hiccups. 

Take a long, good, hard look at your product, price, and the general quality of your leads, and ask:

  • Is my product actually relevant to our leads
  • Are my marketers and sales reps presenting the right features and solutions for specific lead pain points and needs?
  • Are my current price points out of my MQLs’ range?
  • Or, are my teams qualifying the wrong lead type, to begin with?

We know this process might cause several headaches. It’s all worth it when the blocks in your funnel are removed, and the conversion process flows smoothly. 

This is also a perfect opportunity to improve your product by locating and tweaking features that are potential lead pleasers. 

Finally, review your previous campaigns and their strengths and conversion KPIs. 

Remember that the MQL to SQL conversion process takes time. A fresh marketing campaign could take months to generate SQLs.  

2. Analyze what’s working with your existing customers

Now that you’ve stopped wasting your time, energy, and special offers on the wrong marketing tactic, let’s take a closer look at which inbound leads converted

Zoom in on a previous customer journey and examine which marketing material and funnel content impacted the buying process. 

Just don’t get too authoritative on your customer lifecycle. Customer feedback is the best way to understand your current customer segments. 

Your customer success team is another superb feedback resource. Beyond upselling, these customer specialists can get in-depth information and report which features and services are your top crowd-pleasers.  

3. Share your customer success stories with leads

This next point is critical. Customer success stories and testimonials are one of the most crucial things leads look for during the buying journey. 

Few people will even ask for product demos before being considered a sales-qualified lead. 

According to The Conversation Index Volume 8 from Bazaarvoice, customer success stories will:

  • Boost your conversion rate by 58%
  • Increase your revenue per website visit by 62%

So, add a healthy serving of happy customer testimonials to your sales enablement assets. Both marketing and sales leads will be more likely to engage, knowing big names in their industry are your customers. 

4. Create tailored nurturing campaigns

We’ve covered lead nurturing extensively, and it’s probably a substantial part of your business model. 

But what about tailored lead nurturing? We’re talking about a personalized strategy for high-value accounts that develops your agreed-upon criteria. 

This account-based marketing strategy starts with putting your eggs in separate baskets. 

First, start segmenting your leads

Tailored lead nurturing starts with segmentation. Review your leads and group them according to their firmographics, general pain points, and any other values that set everyone apart. 

Second, make value-driven content     

Now that you’ve put everyone in their place, you can employ your marketers to make engaging resources. Find out which mediums your leads prefer, and get busy writing white papers, recording podcasts, or putting guides together. 

If you have the time and resources, you can create content that ushers leads along every step of the buyer journey. 

Third, switch on marketing automation 

You shouldn’t have to waste a ton of time with this part of your campaign. Let us handle your automated email marketing. 

Outfunnel will ensure your CRM’s defined contacts receive the right emails at the right stage of the buyer journey. All we need is a once-off setup, and our tech will keep your email engagement flowing smoothly and tightly. 

Fourth, analyze the outcomes 

Outfunnel will also record your marketing engagement in your CRM. 

Keeping track of events like opens, clicks, and unsubscribes lets you know how effective your campaigns are. 

This enriched feedback loop lets you rework your strategies for maximum sales productivity

Fifth, don’t be a stranger

Last but not least, it’s essential to maintain your relationship post-sale

You’ve got a wealth of data on your customer, so you can easily personalize events like upsells and customer support. 

You know what your segmented customers like and can send them exclusive offers. It’s about remaining relevant and warming your customers toward the promoter level.  

Lead your leads, not the other way around

Lead qualification, nurturing, and the ensuing sales pipeline all combine into a rigorous, unending journey. 

If you plan on adding paths to this journey by testing new channels, you can expect this process to become all the more demanding. 

You must ensure your sales and marketing teams cooperate. There’s so much more to passing leads from marketing to sales. 

You can have the most impressive ICP in the world. But if the people responsible for its employment can’t agree on what it means to them, your quintessential customer will keep getting away. 

Speaking of ICPs, remember that it’s not a static standard. 

Every fresh account you land brings something new to the table, from pain points to customer success potentials. Your sales and marketing alignment must always be ready to pivot.  

The only thing that should be a given is the healthy relationship between your marketers and sales reps. Everything depends on their mutual trust, respect, and synergy.

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