What Is an MQL? Your Definition Will Determine Your Direction

I have a friend in sales who continuously argues with me over the definition of what a Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL). As a salesperson, he simply cannot understand how someone that’s not qualified, but demonstrates interest by clicking on a link or downloading a report, can be counted as a qualified lead by any means.

The issue is further highlighted in a March 2015 article by Shaish Chitnis called “The MQL is Dead" where he calls for different sales-defined metrics and the use of business development to qualify and nurture MQLs to turn them into Sales Accepted Leads (SALs). 

Chitnis says that most marketing organizations will commit to generating a number of MQLs, but they are essentially useless beyond the marketing department, and that if the sales team doesn’t believe that they have the right targets, they won’t follow up.

Absolutely true. Using total revenue versus what you spend to acquire a customer is definitely the metric you should be using. Click below for an infographic to help you figure it out.

But calling for a change in the definition of MQL or calling it dead doesn’t solve your larger problem, which is that you still have a dangerous disconnect between sales and marketing

It’s time to redefine marketing and sales—not the MQL.

Traditionally, sales and marketing have been considered two distinct departments with separate functions and budgets: marketing has always been responsible for branding and positioning—providing “air cover” for sales. 

Sales took it from there by finding prospects, nurturing them through the sales cycle, differentiating themselves from their competitors, and closing. Sales can usually tell you in an instant what percent of their appointments typically convert into opportunities, what their average deal size and cycle times are, and what percentage of those they’re going to win. 

However, the tide has turned. Salespeople need leads, and it’s marketing’s job to generate them. And yes, the leads must ultimately contribute to revenue—or you’re wasting money.

Many companies try to solve this problem by purchasing marketing automation systems and retrofitting their marketing departments to generate demand. They use the skill sets that they have, and do what they know, which is to measure their branding and positioning success as applied to current tools: the number of opens, click-throughs, conversions, and downloads. 

Start with a development strategy first. 

To put this in perspective, consider the difference between football and soccer. Marketing and sales used to operate like the offense and defense of a football team where the two are never on the field at the same time. Defense comes off the field, offense goes on. 

Today’s company needs to view marketing and sales like a soccer team where the ball gets passed back and forth between offense and defense until a goal is scored. 

Once you determine that you need to score goals and not touchdowns, you can evaluate what skill sets you already have and what will need to acquire. 

Marketing and sales as separate departments will quickly be considered an outdated paradigm, and here’s why:

A recent prospect of ours told us that they were generating lots of leads every month from their pay-per-click advertising, so they spent a majority of their marketing budget on it. When they looked at their conversation rates (a click into an article, in this case) their marketing department thought they were killing it! But very few of the leads were actually converting into SALs, so they were actually wasting $25K-$35K per month!

As a marketing and sales professional myself, I don’t know any other way to define an MQL other than digital behavior.

  • Is it a qualified lead? I don’t know. 
  • Does it need nurturing? Yes it does. 
  • Are salespeople going to follow up on it? Probably not to the extent that it requires in today’s buyer’s journey. 

But as marketers we must use this standard definition of MQL to make adjustments to our process. For example, if suddenly we’re getting a lot of students downloading our white papers, I want to know why.

  • How did they find us? 
  • How have they been classified in our database? 
  • Have I somehow attracted the wrong target in my content and need to change it, or are we getting qualified prospects anyway and not worry about it? 

The list goes on, but I think the larger point is that marketing and sales can no longer operate as two separate entities—regardless of the size of the company, and if the two departments are still arguing about what a qualified lead actually looks like, it’s time to get on the same page.

Ultimately, if we’re getting a lot of MQLs that aren’t converting into SALs, we’ve got a problem. But at least I can use the data to then test different assumptions. Over time, with consistent measurement and analysis WITH the sales team, we can accurately predict how many MQLs we need to generate to hit our revenue goals. 

Here’s what it should look like:

Someone demonstrates interest in your content by clicking on a link and downloading an article. A business development rep (BDR) gets an email alerting him or her that someone in their territory has demonstrated activity. The BDR pulls up the lead record in the CRM and researches their website, their activity history (have they looked at other pages/articles/graphics), and determines whether or not it should be disqualified (maybe it’s a student or a competitor), or be nurtured with follow up phone calls and emails. If the BDR makes contact and determines that the lead is qualified, an appointment is set for a sales person, who can now run sales process and either disqualify (Sales Rejected Lead -SRL) or turn it into an opportunity (Sales Qualified Lead - SQL). 

It’s really that simple—but then again, it’s not.