Leads. Everybody wants ’em, but not everyone knows what to do with them once they have them.

That’s where the inbound methodology comes in. Designed to help both marketing and sales teams nurture leads all the way through to a sale in the world of the modern, digital consumer,  the inbound sales process puts a huge focus on MQLs and SQLs.

But what are they, how are they different, and how do you deal with both MQLs and SQLs to boost the ROI of your inbound sales process?

Here’s a breakdown of the MQL vs. SQL question, complete with tips on how to define them and how to use those definitions to optimize your sales and marketing process to close more reliably and more efficiently. Let’s start with the basics.

What’s an MQL?

A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is a site visitor that your marketing team has deemed likely to eventually turn into a sale. MQLs are qualified prospects: they fit your buyer persona.

That said, they’re missing a few qualifications that would make them the perfect fit for your sales team.

Maybe they’re working on a seriously long buyer’s journey. Or, they’re in the right industry, and they have the decision making power, but they don’t have the right budget, or realistic budget expectations yet.

In short, an MQL is a reasonably qualified lead who matches one or more of your buyer personas, but who isn’t quite ready to buy yet.

What’s an SQL?

A sales qualified lead (SQL) is a lead who your sales team has decided is worth pursuing. They’re at the end of the consideration stage and are moving into the decision-making stage of their buyer’s journey where they’ll appreciate sales-focused content and support.

Typically, a sales qualified lead is confirmed after an initial outreach call with someone on your sales team, who can determine how serious the lead is about your product, and how motivated they are to buy.

An SQL is a lead who has intent to buy and who seems interested in your company as a contender to make that purchase.

MQL vs. SQL: What’s the Difference?

The most important difference between MQLs and SQLs is the intent to buy. While there are other factors that will affect whether a lead is categorized as marketing or sales-ready, the biggest tip-off for marketers when deciding whether or not to pass a lead on to sales is the intent to purchase. That’s a surefire sign that they’re ready to talk to sales and tells you that passing them onto sales is the best way to serve that lead.

Since MQLs and SQLs can look different for every industry, and even individual companies, let’s look at a couple of examples of what qualifies an MQL vs. SQL:

First-Time Site Visitor vs. Returning Visitor

A first time visitor is a good example of a potential MQL. They’re just starting the buyer’s journey, and are working on gathering the information that will ultimately help them make a purchasing decision down the road.

A returning visitor, on the other hand, who has been to your site a few times, and is browsing key pages and downloading bottom-of-funnel content offers, is an SQL. They like the information you’re putting out enough to keep coming back. And if they keep coming back, they’re probably ready to talk to your sales team.

Top of Funnel vs. Bottom of Funnel Content Offers

An MQL is a lead who is downloading and converting on top-of-funnel content offers. They’re interested in information that teaches and educates about the general product you sell.

Let’s say you sell cars. An MQL will be downloading content that offers information like, “How to Know When To Buy A New Car,” “Is it Better to Lease, Buy Used, or Buy New,” and “Safest  Sedans of 2019.”

An MQL is someone who is interested in your product — they are a qualified lead, after all — but they're not quite ready to buy yet. Click To Tweet

So, they’re asking those research questions that solve their beginning-of-the-buyer’s-cycle problems. They’re not ready to buy yet, but they’re definitely thinking about it, and they fit your target buyer persona well enough that your marketing team recognizes them as a great potential fit for your company in the future.

An SQL, on the other hand, is going to download bottom-of-the-funnel content offers. With that same car sales example in mind, an SQL will download content that sounds like this: “How to Finance a New Car Purchase,” “5 Steps to Buy A New Car,” and “5 Things to Know Before Purchasing a New Car.”

SQLs are at the bottom of the funnel — they’ve already done the research, they already know they want a car, and they know which car they want. Now, they just have to figure out how to make the purchase.

Just knowing which content offers a lead is downloading can give you great insight into whether they are marketing or sales qualified. And making that distinction is what puts you ahead of the competition in closing new sales efficiently.

Why Differentiating Between MQLs and SQLs is Important

It’s one thing to know the difference between an MQL and an SQL. It’s another thing to know why correctly categorizing each lead is so important.

The difference between an MQL and SQL is crucial in offering up the right content, and the right lead nurturing experience. If a lead has already made up their mind on what product is right for them, you don’t want to be sending them basic content that outlines all of your products — it’s not relevant to their buyer’s journey anymore.

In the same vein, if you have a lead who is still learning what your product does, how it works, and why they might need it, you don’t want to send them on a sales call.

They’re not ready to make a purchasing decision yet, and probably don’t have company approval to make the decision. At this point in their journey, a sales call would seem pushy, and would ultimately be a waste of your sales team’s time.

Correctly identifying whether a lead is marketing or sales qualified has a huge impact on the success of your overall inbound marketing and sales strategy. Knowing whether a lead is an MQL or an SQL tightens up your lead nurturing process to deliver the best possible results with the least amount of work.

When you have a foolproof way to correctly categorize leads, you know exactly what content to deliver, and when. That goes a long way in helping those leads convert, and it saves your marketing and sales teams a lot of wasted time delivering content that wasn’t relevant or reaching out to a lead who wasn’t ready to convert.

Correct qualification of every lead is a great way to increase the ROI of your marketing and sales process and grow your business overall. But to do it, your sales and marketing teams must be aligned. More on that next:

Transitioning a Lead from MQL to SQL

The toughest part of the inbound marketing methodology is arguably the handoff of an MQL to the sales team for qualification as an SQL. Click To Tweet

The best way to handle it is first to get both the sales and marketing teams on the same page.

You have to have clear definitions that specify exactly what an MQL is and what an SQL is, and those definitions have to be the same across departments. For more information on defining your MQLs and SQLs, check out this blog on sales and marketing alignment.

Consistent definitions will make the MQL to SQL handoff a little easier, but there’s still a little work that goes into it. Here are 5 general steps to guide you through the handoff process.

  1. Once your marketing department identifies an MQL, they should be entered into a few lead nurturing campaigns, whether that’s through targeted email marketing campaigns or a casual, helpful marketing outreach campaign.
  2. Ideally, that MQL will continue making qualifying actions — they will download more content offers, they might ask your marketing team a few questions, and they might subscribe for your newsletter.
  3. Once that MQL has taken enough actions that qualify them as an SQL, the marketing team should pass all of the information they have on that lead to the sales team. (A CRM makes this part easy. If you don’t have a CRM yet, this blog can help you figure out what to look for.)
  4. From there, the sales team can reach out, ideally within 24 hours of the lead’s last conversion action, to connect and qualify that lead as an SQL.
  5. It is possible that on their qualifying call, the sales team find the lead is not quite ready for the decision-making stage. At this point, your marketing team should have a set of steps in place to kick that lead back down to an MQL and continue nurturing them until they’re ready to convert again back up to an SQL.

With these five steps, and clear, identifiable definitions of MQLs and SQLs that both sales and marketing agree on, your handoff process should start to go a little more smoothly. It’s a tough process, no matter how you look at it, and the best way to make sure your handoffs are successful is to have regular meetings with both sales and marketing teams to identify any problem areas and implement solutions that fix those issues.

No Matter Your Industry, You Need MQLs and SQLs

It’s easy to get stuck in an MQL vs. SQL mindset. It’s easy to say, “oh, I’m not dealing with that lead, they’re for sales” and vice versa for marketing. And it’s true that for the most part, you want your sales team interacting with the sales leads, and your marketing team interacting with those marketing leads.

But the bottom line is, for any company both MQLS and SQLs are an integral part of the sales pipeline. You can’t have one without the other, so it’s important that your marketing and sales teams work together to develop content and lead nurturing strategies that benefit both MQLs and SQLs.

MQLs, when nurtured properly, become SQLs, who become customers and promoters of your brand.

So, when done right, all of the work you’ve done to develop a quality inbound marketing and sales plan comes full circle to help you close more sales and grow your company.

Identifying MQLs and SQLs isn’t always as easy as it sounds. If you’re struggling to nurture leads through the buyer’s journey, HA Digital Marketing can help. Inbound marketing and sales is what we do every day, and we’d love to help you troubleshoot your lead nurturing process to help grow your company. Get in touch to see how we can help, or click the link below to schedule time to chat about your challenges with our president, John Heritage.

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