MQLs Are Here To Stay: How To Make Them Work For Your Company

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The marketing qualified lead (MQL) is useless—at least that’s what some marketers will tell you. 

The issue is that many companies aren’t using them correctly. Somehow, MQLs became the gold standard of marketing success, but that’s not (and never was) their purpose. While MQLs are one indicator of success, it’s not the sales-ready lead that many marketers believe it to be.

For example: In a 4-year study, our client Dynamis found that MQLs turn into sales meetings at 3x the rate that a cold lead does, and marketing-driven sales close at twice the rate. That’s undoubtedly essential data to have — but are companies using MQLs the most effectively?

By redefining and repositioning the MQL’s role in the sales and marketing process, companies can bring new power to this classification to increase their sales success. 

 

What is a marketing qualified lead?

A quick Google search will show you that — put very simply — a marketing qualified lead is a lead who meets certain criteria that indicate they are more likely to become a customer compared to other leads. 

At my company, we found that definition far too broad to be of much use to our sales and marketing teams. So we decided to create our own definition of an MQL:

A marketing qualified lead is a prospect who is both the right fit demographically and has engaged in the company’s marketing to a degree that it’s clear there is buying intent, not just general interest. However, this individual has not (yet) raised their hand to request sales intervention. 

Many companies classify buying intent as poking around your website or reading a few blogs, but intent must go beyond the awareness or education stage of the buyer’s journey. For MQLs to work, buying intent means the lead is engaging in a way that signals consideration or decision-making.

 

How to identify a quality MQL

The key word in this updated definition is intent. Some marketers send leads to sales after a few engagements or even many engagements that don’t align with the buyer’s journey. These prospects aren’t truly ready to buy, which means sales is contacting unqualified or cool leads, wasting their own time and that of their audience. That’s a bad experience for everyone involved.

By aligning with the buying cycle, marketing can send sales hot leads who are giving off buying signals (e.g. looking at a pricing or results webpage, reading case studies, reviewing a sell sheet) versus sending leads who download or consume awareness-stage content and happen to fit the ideal prospect demographics but are nowhere near ready to buy. 

The only lead that is truly conversation-ready is a consultation request or booked demo and, in my opinion, these are the “gold standard” signals of buyer readiness that marketers should aim for. That doesn’t mean the MQL is a bad metric; it just means that marketing and sales teams have yet to agree on what an MQL is, what joint sales and marketing success looks like, and how to treat each type of lead.

 

How to achieve marketing and sales alignment on MQLs

Marketers are questioning the effectiveness of the MQL because of the years-long tension between sales and marketing. (Seriously, I’ve been having this exact conversation for 10 years. It’s maddening.) It’s the marketer’s job to send only the highest-quality MQLs to sales, but when both departments have different ideas about what makes a lead “marketing qualified,” it leads to wasted time, wasted opportunities and general distrust. 

Does this sound familiar? Marketing says, “See, look how many leads we’re generating!” Only for sales to reply, “Yes, but the leads are bad!” If that’s the case, your system isn’t working. Period.

Here’s how to gain sales and marketing alignment on MQLs:

Talk about what’s broken

When you know what isn’t working, you can identify the gaps and start aligning on what the handoff process should look like. Researching how other businesses with strong marketing strategies define qualified leads is helpful as well. 

Increase transparency

Once you’ve done the research and had those conversations, be incredibly transparent in your definition of an MQL and make sure both sales and marketing (at a minimum) agree. Then, build out the systems that support the definition. For example, you may use lead scoring and lead nurturing to shepherd leads through the buying cycle until they are ready for sales conversations. 

Work backward from your end goal

When discussing the sales handoff, start with your end goal first. It might be something like, “the ultimate goal of passing MQLs to sales is to provide warm leads that are an ideal fit and in the process of buying so our sales team can qualify them and move them further through the buying process to begin sales conversations.”

Identify sales needs

Discuss what the sales team needs to be successful when receiving a marketing qualified lead. 

  • How do they want to be notified (via a CRM task, an email, a text, a mix of these, other)?
  • Should an opportunity/deal be created automatically in your CRM to notify sales to give attention to the lead? 
  • How can you create a feedback loop so that sales can notify you of prospects that miss the mark? 

Teams should consider these questions when creating a sales handoff plan. 

Consider a service-level agreement

You may even want to build a service-level agreement (SLA) that includes the commitments the sales and marketing teams have to each other in terms of delivering leads, goals, how leads are handled, etc. Creating an internal SLA helps sales and marketing align on their shared goals, establishing responsibilities and expectations, and making both roles more effective.

Hold recurring sales and marketing check-ins

Once your handoff and systems are set, don’t stop there. A recurring conversation needs to be happening between sales and marketing regularly (monthly maximum to quarterly minimum). 

At each meeting, sales and marketing should:

  • Review MQLs that come in and confirm quality between sales and marketing;
  • Tweak the system or process as needed;
  • Continue to discuss any gaps; and
  • Identify what’s going well to bottle that magic.

 

How to successfully follow up with MQLs 

Here’s how my company Accelity’s sales team moves MQLs through our sales funnel. 

Accept (or disqualify) the lead

The moment we get an MQL, our team investigates their website and company LinkedIn profile, as well as the role and LinkedIn profile of the specific individual who became an MQL. We want to make sure that the company fits our ideal profile of companies we work best with. If it doesn’t, we immediately disqualify the lead.

Send a follow-up within 12 hours

Assuming the MQL is a good fit — which most are if your system is set up correctly — the next step is to strike while the iron is hot. Follow up with MQLs no later than 12 hours after you’ve received their information. The longer you wait, the less likely they are to convert. Try to reach out immediately, if possible.

Share relevant, useful information

Instead of “just following up,” make sure you’re sharing relevant information with your prospect during your first contact. This may require a little bit of due diligence.

  • What content did they interact with that led them to become an MQL? 
  • Is there a trend in the type of content they’re interacting with, such as a clear pain point? 
  • Is there another resource your company has created that they haven’t yet interacted with that might be useful? 
  • Do you have any relevant articles or stories you can share when you make contact? 
  • Is there something on their website or LinkedIn that gives you insight into the information they might need? 

Take your time (but not too long!) to be thoughtful about your follow-up.

Continue following up

For an MQL, our sales team reaches out every four business days. I find this schedule to not be too overbearing; it ends up being once per week with the occasional twice per week contact. This strategy is both persistent and allows you to experiment with outreach on different days of the week. In each message, tell them when they’re going to hear from you again if they don’t respond to you first. It gives the impression that you’re persistent and not going away (until they answer).

Rules for every outreach

Ideally, four things should happen with every outreach attempt:

  • They see your face.
  • They hear your voice.
  • They hear/see your name.
  • You add value to their day.

When you’re able to bring all four of these to your outreach, you significantly increase the chances of a memorable, productive conversation. 

 

Proven methods for following up with MQLs

There are several different ways to go about your first attempt at outreach. Try ALL of them right away and tie them all together. Mention in each channel the other channels you’ve reached out on and encourage them to respond wherever they prefer. For example: “I also just sent you an email and a LinkedIn message, please feel free to respond wherever you prefer.”

LinkedIn video

If you’re already connected on LinkedIn (this is a must; you can’t do it without being connected), I recommend turning your cellphone around and shooting a selfie video. Introduce yourself, mention why you’re reaching out, and offer them some useful information about what they’re interested in. Note: this is NOT the place to pitch them. You want to share helpful information while making it warm and personal.

If you’re uncomfortable with video (though I strongly encourage you to try it), one alternative is to make use of the voice message feature inside of LinkedIn’s app (note that this feature is only available on the mobile app, not on desktop). It’s certainly a unique approach that captures their attention more than a written message will.

If you’re NOT already connected on LinkedIn, send them a connection request. I recommend personalizing your note but, again, do NOT pitch them in your connection request. 

Phone call

That’s right: One of the most effective ways to follow up with MQLs is to pick up the phone like the good ol’ days. As with Linkedin video messages, make sure your message and goal are sharp (and not a sales pitch) before you make the call. 

If they don’t answer, voicemail is still fine. Keep your message light, helpful and under 30 seconds. Or, what we like to do instead is to hang up and send them a follow-up text message (think about it: what would you prefer?). If you find that video messages have resonated well, you can even text your video message. 

Email

When it comes to following up with MQLs via email, you know the drill. Here are a couple of best practices we’ve found improve our engagement rates:

  • Toss an emoji in the subject line so that something pops when they’re sifting through dozens of emails. 
  • Ditch the formal email writing and write emails like they’re text messages. You can test skipping the greeting altogether and jumping right into the message. 
  • You guessed it: Video is an option here, too. Upload your video to Vidyard and embed it directly into the email body. 

A true MQL shouldn’t take much follow up, as they’ll likely want to talk to you — assuming you’ve set up your scoring correctly. MQLs tend to be much more responsive to outreach, proactively responding and sharing details of what they want/need and how to sell them. Remember that above all, consistency is always the key to success, so work the whole outreach plan from beginning to end until you get a yes or a no.

 

The future of the MQL

The MQL isn’t dead — but we do need to think about the way we use it. While it is a useful tool for both marketing and sales, it isn’t the gold standard some companies treat it as. With marketing and sales alignment on the MQL’s purpose, and best practices specifically designed to usher MQLs through the buyer’s journey, companies can use MQLs to find greater sales and marketing success.


Jackie Hermes is the CEO of Accelity, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based agency that helps software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups get to revenue and grow faster, and a co-founder of Women’s Entrepreneurship Week. Very active on LinkedIn, she sparks discussions about the daily life and challenges of growing a bootstrapped company. Hermes mentors student startups via The Commons, is a co-organizer of Startup Milwaukee EMERGE, an adviser with Golden Angels Investors, and mentors numerous early-stage startups. In addition to her professional involvement, she is an adoptive foster parent and future pilot.