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Lead conversion is an art, and mastery of this skill begins with a nuanced understanding of marketing qualified leads (MQL) and sales qualified leads (SQLs). For account-based marketing in particular, sales and marketing alignment is required to nurture your leads and define qualification processes. In fact, 87% of sales and marketing professionals say collaboration between their departments results in critical business growth, according to LinkedIn. 

However, alignment is easier said than done, and there’s often a mismatch between lead generation, lead qualification and sales-ready prospects. With this in mind, let’s explore exactly what it means to be a MQL vs SQL, and the nuances behind leading these potential customers to a sale.  

What Is A Marketing Qualified Lead?

Marketing qualified leads (MQL) are leads that have shown interest in your product or service based on their interactions with your marketing efforts. These interactions could include downloading content, subscribing to newsletters, or visiting pricing pages.

Other examples of marketing qualified lead behavior:

  • Engaging with your brand on social media 
  • A first-time visitor on your site
  • Repeated website or landing page visits
  • Downloading e-books or whitepapers 
  • Completing contact forms or surveys
  • Attending webinars or events 

It’s important to note that a marketing qualified lead has yet to enter your sales funnel, but they have demonstrated some level of interest and engagement with your brand. MQLs are typically in the early stages of the customer journey, where they are exploring potential solutions to their pain points and needs. Marketing teams prepare MQLs for sales engagement through targeted content, email marketing, and educational resources.

What Is A Sales Qualified Lead?

A sales qualified lead is a prospective customer that is deemed ready for sales outreach. These leads have moved beyond interest and display a high-intent to purchase your products or services. SQLs are often vetted by your marketing department, ensuring alignment with your ideal customer profile prior to a hand-off with sales.

Common behaviors of sales qualified leads include:

  • Requesting product demos 
  • Frequent visits to your pricing page 
  • Expressed urgency or timelines 
  • Involving key-decision makers

These sales leads have likely interacted with your bottom-of-funnel content, such as free trial offers or product demo videos. SQLs are qualified by assessing a few crucial attributes: budget, authority, and timeline, also referred to as the BANT framework. This ensures all leads entering your sales funnel have a clear timeline for making a purchasing decision, and are empowered to evaluate options, negotiate terms, and drive the sales process forward. 

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MQL vs SQL: Key Differences

The primary difference between MQLs vs SQLs relates to their position in the buying cycle, also known as the buyer’s journey. Marketing qualified leads exist one step behind sales qualified leads on the customer journey.

MQLs are still evaluating and researching solutions, and are not yet ready for a sales call. Effective lead nurturing strategies are essential to aid their progression from MQL to SQL. This includes educational sales enablement content and resources such as whitepapers, ebooks and email drip campaigns.

After thorough nurturing, a qualifying lead undergoes a handoff process with sales, transitioning into a sales qualified lead. SQLs are nearing the end of the evaluation stage and are preparing for a purchase. This is a crucial period for sales reps, as they must engage to move them further into the sales funnel. 

Aspect Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)Sales Qualified Lead
Readiness for SalesNot yet ready for direct sales engagement; in the early stages of research and evaluation.Ready for direct sales engagement; actively considering a purchase decision.
Level of EngagementModerate to high interest in the company's offerings, but not yet ready to buy.High interest and intent to purchase. Demonstrated by active engagement with bottom-of-funnel content.
Qualification CriteriaInitial criteria focus on lead fit and interest level, such as demographic data and engagement metrics.Additional criteria include budget, authority, need, and timeline (BANT) to assess readiness for sales engagement.
Marketing RoleMarketing team focuses on nurturing MQLs through targeted content and educational resources.Marketing and sales teams collaborate to transition SQLs into opportunities and close deals.
Team CollaborationHandoff process involves transferring qualified MQLs to the sales team for further engagement and follow-up.Sales team takes over the lead management process, initiating direct contact and personalized interactions.
This table shows the key differences between marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads (MQL vs SQL) at a glance.

MQL vs SQL: Lead Generation Needs Both

A great ABM strategy and successful inbound marketing hinges on your ability to nurture leads towards a sale. Data from Marketo shows that on average, half of acquired leads are not ready to buy. Developing a lead management system to distinguish between marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs) is crucial for effective nurturing processes.

Creating a structured lead management system offers many benefits: 

  • Efficient resource allocation: Flagging leads as MQL or SQL improves resource allocation by ensuring your marketing campaigns and sales engagement is tailored to the specific needs of prospects.
  • Collaborative lead nurturing: MQLs serve as a bridge between marketing and sales. They highlight a need for further marketing efforts to become sales-ready. Identifying these prospects improves future conversion rates, and impacts long-term growth and profitability.
  • Streamlined sales strategies: Qualifying leads as either MQL or SQL ensures leads are never handed off to your sales team before they are ready. Focusing on SQLs minimizes wasted resources, improves sales efforts and accelerates the path to revenue growth.

By distinguishing between MQLs and SQLs, your company can implement a structured lead management process that spans the entire buyer's journey. This approach, combined with strategies like target account selling (TAS), allows for more personalized interactions with leads at each stage of the funnel, enhancing the overall customer experience.

Tips For Lead Qualification And Lead Scoring

Now that we understand the differences between MQLs vs SQLs, it’s time to develop an effective lead qualification process. For this step, it's helpful to utilize lead scoring. 

Lead scoring is an automated qualification method that evaluates and ranks leads based on their likelihood to convert into customers. It involves assigning numerical values, or scores, to leads based on various criteria such as demographics, firmographics, engagement level, and behavior. 

There are two common types of lead scoring: 

  • Predictive lead scoring uses advanced algorithms and machine learning to analyze historical data and predict future outcomes. It identifies patterns within lead data to prioritize leads accurately, making it ideal for organizations with complex sales processes.
  • Rule-based lead scoring follows predefined rules set by your business to evaluate and rank leads. Scores are based on criteria such as demographics, engagement, and behavior, offering simplicity and transparency.

Both types of lead scoring can be implemented within marketing CRM software solutions like HubSpot and Salesforce, streamlining your lead qualification process. Now, I'll cover the steps involved in exactly that.

Steps To Develop An Effective Lead Qualification Process

1. Create or review your ideal customer profile (ICP)

Begin by defining your ideal customer profile, including demographics, firmographic data, pain points, goals, and objections. Regularly review your ICP to ensure alignment with evolving market trends and customer needs.

2. Decide on lead scoring criteria

Define lead scoring criteria based on demographic and behavioral data, answering what makes a lead qualified for your business. Consider factors like:

  • Budget
  • Company size
  • Industry
  • Website activity

Utilize the BANT framework to evaluate their budget, urgency to purchase, authority to initiate deals, and need for your products and services.

3. Gather and research leads

Utilize various tactics such as downloadable resources, lead databases, contact forms, and social media engagement to gather leads. Marketing and sales efforts should work in tandem to capture inbound leads.

Move beyond basic lead information by using automated sales tools and leaning into customer intent data. Intent data can be collected through first-party sources, like content downloads or inquiries, or third-party sources, such as searches, page views and ad clicks. 

4. Score leads

Organize lead data in your marketing CRM software and implement lead scoring based on predefined criteria. Choose between software-based automated lead scoring or rule-based scoring within your CRM. Track ideal customer criteria, assign point values, and prioritize leads based on their scores.

5. Review lead data and refine

Regularly review key metrics such as conversion rates, MQL to SQL ratios, and customer acquisition costs (CAC). Use insights from performance metrics to refine your lead scoring process, qualification questions, and overall approach. 

Maximize Your Lead Generation Success

The ultimate goal of lead generation isn't just about accumulating leads, but converting them into loyal customers. This requires effective lead nurturing, which starts with a clear understanding of sales qualified leads (SQLs) and marketing qualified leads (MQLs).

Setting clear criteria and leveraging lead scoring to support qualification ensures your teams collaborate effectively to nurture leads and close deals.

Subscribe to The CMO Newsletter for more insights on lead generation strategies, sales alignment, and marketing best practices. Stay updated with the latest trends and tips to optimize your lead conversion efforts.

Michelle Leighton
By Michelle Leighton

Michelle Leighton is a seasoned content writer and social media specialist with a remarkable track record in building thriving online communities. Michelle excels at translating customer insights and market trends into compelling content strategies that spark engagement and foster meaningful discussions. Michelle's work has been featured by The Indie Media Club, The CMO, The Ecomm Manager, Narcity Canada, Input Magazine and more.