MQL vs. SQL: Understanding Marketing Qualified Leads

What is a marketing qualified lead (MQL)? Learn how to turn an MQL into a sales qualified lead (SQL) using sales and marketing tactics along with CRM and automation software.

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What happens when a website visitor visits your pricing page for the second time? Or downloads a whitepaper? Your next move affects customer experience and sales. Wait too long, and your leads move to a competitor. Swoop in too early, and you push them away.

Your timing and actions reflect the customer life cycle, sales funnel position, and qualification phases. Learn when to hand off a lead to sales by following the marketing qualified lead (MQL) process.

Overview: What is a marketing qualified lead (MQL)?

An MQL is a lead who's taken specific actions or several actions, depending on your criteria, but isn't ready to buy. They know they have a problem and engage with your brand. Your leads may turn into MQLs when they:

  • Sign up for your email list or a free coupon
  • Watch a video demonstration of your product online
  • Download a freebie, such as an e-book or trial software
  • Repeatedly visit your pricing page or leave items in their shopping cart
  • Interact with a chatbot
  • Take a quiz for product recommendations

A marketing qualified lead differs from a visitor who passively views your website or comes across your social feed but doesn't interact or enter your lead generation funnel.

Once a visitor engages with your brand, they begin the customer journey and turn into a contact in your MQL marketing automation software, such as Mailchimp or GetResponse.

MQL vs. SQL: What's the difference?

The difference between MQL and sales qualifying lead (SQL) is your visitor’s readiness to buy. An MQL is interested and engaged but firmly in the consideration phase of the funnel. Sales qualified leads demonstrate a desire to buy now and move towards conversion.

For instance, an MQL may search for software solutions using phrases like CRM vs. marketing automation. An SQL lead knows they need CRM software, so they're more likely to search for specific brands or request a demonstration.

Your lead marketing software may include a lead scoring system. Once an MQL meets the threshold, pass it on to sales. If your sales teams have plenty of leads and don't have access to an in-depth database of customer data, you may not use a lead scoring system. Instead, you work from your SQL and MQL definitions to identify and prioritize leads based on specific actions.

The stages of life cycle marketing compared to the sales funnel.

Combine lifecycle marketing with your sales funnel to see how user behavior changes and what they need from your brand for each stage. Source:

When should you hand off a lead to sales?

Although certain actions, such as requesting a sales call or live demonstration, instantly turn an MQL into an SQL, the actual definition and timing depend on your sales and marketing teams.

Your teams must define MQLs and SQLs using prospecting research, as creating clear definitions of each is essential to a smooth handoff and full pipeline of well-qualified leads.

You may use customer segmentation factors such as:

  • Demographic: Details about your prospect such as job title, company size, income, industry, and country.
  • Firmographic: Company-specific data such as number of employees, revenue, legal structure or status, and performance.
  • Behavioral: Insights into your prospect's actions with your content, such as number or type of engagement.
  • Technographic: Software companies may assess technology stacks and prioritize leads who use systems that integrate with the software company's solution.

Once you have a definition, list the actions that qualify a lead to a chat with sales. Companies with longer sales cycles may require leads to complete several high-interest activities before meeting SQL requirements versus short sales cycles, which may involve sales teams much earlier.

The 5 steps in the marketing qualified lead (MQL) process

Throughout the MQL process, your teams work their magic via lead nurturing activities. Each marketing tactic gives you information about your potential customer while providing a seamless digital experience.

Your teams and marketing automation software support the customer journey at each touchpoint while identifying actions that move MQLs to sales leads.

Examples of marketing automation platforms and activities.

Marketing automation helps move MQLs to SQLs. Source:

1. From visitor to contact

Your visitors are passive window shoppers. They start at the top of the funnel (TOFU) and may not know anything about your brand, product, or services. Heck, they may not even realize they have a problem to solve.

Instead, visitors are likely experiencing some friction in their life, leading them to search for how-to content and do-it-yourself solutions. Your goal is to turn visitors into contacts by providing:

  • How-to guides, videos, and blog posts
  • Checklists and tip sheets
  • Infographics
  • Educational webinars
  • Free templates
  • Email newsletters

Once visitors click into your funnel and provide their name, email address, and company name, they turn into a contact, also called an information qualified lead (IQL).

2. IQL to MQL

A contact is still in the TOFU awareness stage. However, they've actively engaged with your brand by submitting their email address for a download or further information. Yet, many IQLs will get your information and never take action. Others will continue to seek information using search terms such as these:

  • Troubleshoot
  • Increase
  • Improve
  • Transform
  • Optimize
  • Enhance
  • Upgrade
  • Prevent
  • Update
  • Diagnose
  • Resolve

At this stage, it's important to look at behavioral clues to see if they're moving into the middle of the funnel (MOFU), also called the evaluation, consideration, interest, and desire phase.

When a lead fits your target persona, shows brand recognition, and takes an interest in your products, it's time to move them into the marketing qualified lead position as warm leads.

3. MQL nurturing

An MQL realizes they have a problem, and they want to see how much it'll cost, both in time and money, to fix it. They aren't ready to buy, but they're searching for answers.

Whereas a lead uses search phrases like "improve dog behavior," an MQL searches for solutions such as "best training treats" or "dog training service." Other search terms include:

  • Tool
  • Provider
  • Vendor
  • Software
  • Supplier
  • Solution
  • Appliance
  • Choose
  • Location

Your MQLs may spend extra time on your website and check out buying guides, comparison sheets, or frequently asked question (FAQ) pages. MOFU marketing activities like offering free samples, on-demand demonstrations, or customer testimonials help MQLs take the next step.

4. MQL to SQL

Your SQL definition and predefined threshold determine when your MQL moves to sales. Depending on your criteria, your lead's actions may automatically pass them to your CRM software to start the SQL process.

As MQLs move closer to the bottom of the funnel (BOFU), their search terms may include:

  • Comparison or compare
  • Versus or vs.
  • Reviews
  • Test
  • Evaluate
  • Pros and cons
  • Benchmarks
  • Free trial
  • Brand name

Once your MQL is ready to take action, you shift from marketing activities to sales-focused tactics or SQL marketing. At this point, your SQL uses search terms like buy, purchase, or order, also called transactional queries.

5. A seamless handoff

After an MQL turns into an SQL, your sales team takes over. SQLs want more information before deciding to buy, so they may request a callback, price quote, or respond to emails as their free trial comes to an end.

Time is essential to your sales strategy. Once a lead implies intent to buy, you need to jump in and deliver what potential customers need to convert. Businesses rely on CRM software, such as Salesforce, during the SQL process to track conversations and follow-up efforts.

Align teams to convert MQLs to SQLs

With so many moving parts in the lead marketing process, your teams must be on the same page. Not only should they agree on MQL or SQL definitions, but they need integrated software systems, which helps move your leads through the funnel while providing all groups with the information needed to convert.

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