Analytics, B2B Marketing, B2B PPC, Closed-loop Reporting, Lead Generation, PPC Metrics

MQL vs. SQL: What's the Difference Between Marketing and Sales-Qualified Leads?

As marketers, we already know there are a ton of abbreviations used in our industry – PPC, CTR, BTC, KPIs – and so many more, it can have you feeling like WTH (that’s What The Hell, for those of you whose brains are already spinning!). So here are two more important lead gen abbreviations that are often used interchangeably, though incorrectly: MQL, or Marketing Qualified Leads, and SQL, or Sales Qualified Leads. Below, we’ll go over how they’re different; how they relate to each other and your business; and how to find, build, and pass on the strongest leads.

Information Qualified Lead (IQL)

Before we dive into MQLs, let’s take a step back to Information Qualified Leads, or IQLs. On a scale of leads weakest to strongest, an IQL would be on the weakest end. Some organizations just call these qualified leads. This lead is top-of-funnel and likely knows very little about your company and/or the solutions you provide, and is therefore not yet willing to take much action on their end. The level of conversion for an IQL is surface, usually in the form of giving an email address and nothing more. Obviously, to marketers, an email address is the holy grail gateway, and would then be used to marketing accordingly, offering free e-books, webinars, case studies, etc., to hopefully push the lead along the B2B funnel to become a Marketing Qualified Lead.

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

A Marketing Qualified Lead is the next stop in the funnel. This is the lead most marketers are probably familiar with, which makes sense given the label. An MQL is someone who takes you up on an offer by downloading an e-book or case study, joining a webinar, etc. He or she has shown another level of interest beyond just sharing an email address. Depending on your product and business, you may continue marketing to this lead with more information about your company, or you may jump to offers that would push this person along to becoming a Sales Qualified Lead. Example offers would be free product trials, consultations, or anything else that would allow them direct access to the product. If the MQL accepts the offer, then, and only then, would you pass him or her on to sales.

Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)

An SQL is someone who has all the information he or she could possibly need, but might require a little extra push, or tailored education, to say yes. SQLs are the hottest and strongest leads, and should be followed up with quickly to maintain the interest that developed during the IQL and MQL phases.

IQL → MQL → SQL Real World Example

Let’s say your company makes an improved to-do list management system. A brand new way to get all the things done faster, with integration in all aspects of life on every device possible. How could someone not want to use it, right? That’s where our job as marketers comes in – to get someone interested and using it, hook, line, and sinker.

Here’s the example—A prospective customer comes across an article on your blog via a search. He or she likes your productivity life hacks and decides they want more. They sign up for your email list. They’re now an IQL. They’ve given you, the marketer, a little piece of information about themselves that you can use to push them along the funnel. Now that they’re on the list, a triggered email is sent with more information about your super awesome new and improved to-do list thingamajig. Your email includes an invitation to download some case studies showing how past customers have used your product to become 10x more productive in their daily lives. The prospective customer downloads the case studies. They’re now an MQL. They’ve taken pointed action to learn more about your business and the solutions you offer. After the MQL has some time to digest the case studies, you follow up with another triggered email offering a 2-week free trial. The MQL is flattered and excited and initiates their free trial immediately. They are now an SQL, ready to receive messaging that encourages them to pull the trigger to buy.

Defining Lead Type

Your organization may already have a system for labeling lead types, possibly as part of your CRM. But if not, you can create something as simple as a checklist that each lead needs to satisfy before moving down the funnel, or you can go as in-depth as setting up closed-loop reporting. As we covered in this post, closed-loop reporting helps track customer journey metrics from first contact to purchase. Because customers are going through many different touch points as they transition from IQL to MQL to SQL, it’s important to understand where the process is working (and put more budget to it), and where improvements can be made.

Can You Skip The MQL Phase?

Yes and no. By that, I mean you shouldn’t build your marketing strategy around trying to shorten the timeline and usher prospective customers straight into the SQL bucket. It’s so important to make sure any lead you might label as an SQL is truly ready to be sold to. Otherwise, you risk a lot of turnover with potential customers who will be very difficult to rebuild interest and trust with (ultimately leading to wasted marketing budget and less incremental revenue for the business). However, it is entirely possible for a prospect to pop up who is coming in with a more robust understanding and interest in your product, whether through their own research, or word-of-mouth. In that case, as long as the lead satisfies all the requirements of already being an MQL, you can move them right along to sales. Think of it as a type of sequential advertising you might run on Facebook. You want to make sure you’re hitting your customer with the right message at the right time, never moving too quickly or bombarding him or her with repetitive messaging when they’re actually ready to commit.

As you can see, there’s quite a big difference between MQLs and SQLs, and developing and handing them off correctly is the make or break between making or losing a sale. Marketers should work closely with the sales team to determine the best way to bridge communication and hand off the relationship.

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Breanna Lambert

Breanna has 10+ years’ experience in marketing, though the tides & trends have pushed her almost exclusively into digital. She lives in the hills above Boulder, CO and spends her downtime outside exploring with her husband, son, and pup.