How to qualify marketing leads

Businesses live or die by the quality of their leads — it’s a fact. And if there aren’t enough qualified leads, sales just won’t happen. There’s nothing worse than Marketing believing they are delivering the best gift of all time – a sure sales – that doesn’t materialize. Sales loses confidence in Marketing. Marketing’s frustration grows.

This leads me to a critical question – “How do we qualify?” How do we build an engine that’s efficient and has the guardrails and governance to set a company up for success. The key to this endeavor is collaboration. A connected, integrated, healthy-kind-of-debate type of partnership. Not everyone will agree and it requires collaboration by both Marketing and Sales to create an effective engine that acquires leads, qualifies them, and passes them to sales ready to close.

I’ve seen this first hand at CallRail. Marketing will work diligently to generate demand, and Sales gets exhilarated by the thought of leads that are going to blow out this month’s goals. The sad part is, without the discipline to follow these mystical guardrails and governance that I mentioned, what seemed like a sure thing, results in: Nothing. Nada. Zilch. A big fat good egg. And the sad part is, both teams start to resent the other.

But the exciting news is – it doesn’t have to be this way. By coming together collectively and creating that partnership, all sides are saying, “Yeah, you’re right. We know that’s not really a qualified lead,” or “No, that does align with our scoring model, we should’ve been working harder on those engagement leads.” Accountability exists on both sides of the fence and it works. It’s so much easier to identify what went wrong where and why.

There’s no point in trying to sell to somebody who will never buy your products. That’s why lead qualification is such an important business practice. In fact, it’s a key component to having a successful revenue generating business.

You firstly need to make sure that you’re marketing to the right sort of person. Does this individual match the type of buyer for my business? Are they showing intent based on their behavior with my website or marketing assets? You need to think about your lead scoring methodology. Is it setup to flag high quality leads? Once it is, what is your process to get those leads to the finish line? When does Sales come into the conversation?

Once this has been identified, you’ve laid some of the ground work to qualify leads. But let’s get more granular into what they really means.

In this piece, we will cover every aspect of how to qualify marketing leads, including:

  1. What is lead classification?
  2. What is lead qualification?
  3. What are the different types of lead qualification?
  4. The difference between marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) and sales-qualified leads (SQLs)
  5. What are the best lead generation tools?
  6. What are the best resources for lead generation?

What is lead classification?

Lead classification is the name given to the general principle of categorizing leads. Leads are usually classified according to how close they are to purchasing one of your products. You’ve likely heard of “cold leads” and “hot leads” before — this is one very generalized form of lead classification.

Effective lead classification drastically improves an organization’s conversion rate. There’s little sense in trying to sell to a cold lead the same way you’d sell to a hot lead — by accurately categorizing each prospect, businesses can be more strategic in their marketing and sales efforts.

This goes back to the lead scoring methodology. If a prospect clicks on your website, goes to the pricing page, and engages with a case study, does that mean they’re a hot lead? You’ll have to define those behaviors and continually make adjustments to stay ahead of the curve.

What is lead qualification?

Whereas lead classification refers to the general principle of differentiating leads, lead qualification is a little more detailed. In short, it’s the process of confirming that a lead is a valid business prospect — and that they deserve your time and attention.

You see, not all leads are necessarily equal. You might have some people who are very interested in what your company’s up to because they’re a competitor, or because they’re interested in the industry — but they’re never actually going to buy from you.

When each new lead comes in, you need to first verify that they might actually buy from you. It might not be today, this week or this month, but you need to identify if they have a need that your company — and its products — can solve.

This is especially complex in B2B circles. The person you speak to might not, for instance, actually be able to purchase anything on the company’s behalf — there’s little likelihood that a junior executive will be making decisions regarding their company’s wider tech stack.

Or, alternatively, you might be a marketing attribution software provider whose technology requires a certain level of yearly advertising spend to generate valuable business insights.

In these events, you can’t spend time, money, and energy pitching to everybody who shows the slightest amount of interest in your company. When you have a clearly-defined target persona in mind, you should immediately disqualify any prospect who doesn’t meet these criteria.

To help out with this process, IBM devised the BANT (budget, authority, need, timing) system. You need to identify if your prospects/their organization have the money, the authority, and the need for your product — if the answer to all these questions is yes, then you need to work out roughly when they’ll want/need to purchase it. This is typically the function of the Sales team. They are required to have this information before they accept a lead into their pipeline.

B2C lead qualification generally isn’t as complex as this. You can be fairly sure that most people have the authority to make a purchase (unless of course you’re speaking to young children), and most global retailers will sell their goods to anyone, regardless of demographic criteria.

Why lead qualification is important

Lost sales result from sales reps not properly qualifying potential customers before taking them through the full sales process. This leads to an immense amount of frustration as well as wasted time, money, and effort.

Effective lead qualification is the backbone of any good sales process. Not only will it help you identify valid business prospects, but you’ll also discern where they are in their buyer journey and how best to market to them.

Cold leads require different marketing and sales strategies than hot leads. Likewise, recently-acquired leads, shouldn’t immediately be contacted by a sales representative. New leads should be warmed by marketing activities to get them to the point where they are ready for Sales interaction.

How are leads qualified?

In a nutshell, leads are initially qualified by successfully answering a number of questions which marks them out as a viable prospect. Once they’ve proven that they’re the right sort of lead, they’re further qualified — and move through the sales funnel — by showing ongoing interest in your company and engaging in a number of specific actions.

Lead scoring

Arguably the most important factor in qualifying leads is lead scoring. Regardless of the framework you use or the questions you ask when working out who’s ready to buy from you, every lead should have a quantifiable numerical score attached to them.

It’s all well and good thinking or feeling that a lead is qualifiable and will end up becoming a customer. However, it’s not as easy to work out precisely where they are in the funnel without a standardized scoring system.

Lead scoring provides you with a certifiable measurement to discern the lifecycle of a prospect. Who’s an NQL, an EQL, an MQL, and who’s an SQL. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of some of these acronyms before — we’ll touch on this in more depth later on.

Collaboration is the key to having a successful lead scoring process, marketing and sales teams need to come together to discuss what precise score — correlating to a certain level of activity/interest — makes an MQL and an SQL.

In general, there are two main factors that come into play with lead scoring (which each have their own subfactors).

1. Demographics

The first is demographic information. All buyers need to fit the correct profile to be qualified as a lead (think BANT). There may well be degrees to this. For instance, if the lead is a C-suite executive, then they’ll probably have a higher lead score than a manager.

Make sure to weave this into your lead generation process. For instance, if you have a piece of gated content, make sure you include question fields asking about this demographic information.

This way, you can easily discern who is — and who isn’t — a viable prospect as soon as they’ve downloaded the resource.

You might have to manually come up with definitions for MQLs and SQLs. However, once this has been worked out, you can then map this into your CRM system — which will automate this process for you going forward.

Plus, the best CRMs on the market will scrape the internet to find out any publicly-available data which may help with the qualification process. You shouldn’t spend your time scouring LinkedIn to find out more about your leads — instead use Lead Enrichment platforms to provide additional information you haven’t already acquired.

2. Engagement

The other key part of lead qualification is their engagement. What marketing resources have they engaged with? How often do they visit your website? How long do they spend on it?

Lead scoring should be an automatic process. For instance, our CallScore feature allows you to automatically score inbound leads according to our advanced machine-learning algorithm, while Call Transcriptions identifies keywords during your conversation and scores leads based on these.

What are the steps to qualifying marketing leads?

1. Analyze historical customer data

Your first step should be to analyze historic customer information when looking to qualify marketing and sales leads. Look for key trends that indicate potential buyers — what did your previous customers do prior to purchasing? At what rough stage do prospects go from being someone who’s vaguely interested in your organization to being incredibly interested?

2. Set MQL parameters

Once you have a good idea of what marks out a good lead, and the rough map of the buyer’s journey (or journeys), you can then begin to set specific MQL parameters. Sit down with the marketing team and work out what precisely you’re looking for. Are you going to split qualified leads into EQLs (those who have engaged on some level but haven’t shown ongoing interest) and MQLs (leads who have consistently engaged with your marketing materials and shown an ongoing interest in your brand)?

If you don’t have EQLs, then you need to work out the minimum threshold for an MQL. They will obviously have to meet the minimum criteria in order to be qualified in the first place (have the budget, authority, and need for your product), but what else?

You might well say that everybody who fits the right demographic criteria is a marketing-qualified lead. In order to know that they fit the bill, they’ve engaged with your brand before and have given you their information in one form or another. Therefore, this shows that they’re ready to learn more about your products or services.

Or maybe you’ve had difficulty before nurturing MQLs down the funnel. Someone might have signed up for a thought leadership webinar your company ran,q but they were only interested in the content itself and not how you could help solve their pain points. Alternatively, they might’ve exchanged their details in return for the chance to win a prize.

3. Sit down with the sales team

Marketing and sales need to come together when deciding what constitutes an MQL and what makes an SQL. Marketing needs to know when to hand over a prospect to sales or when more attention is needed before sales can close the deal. If they end up passing over poor quality leads, then that will lead to an erosion of trust between the two departments.

4. Refine as you go along

This process requires ongoing refinement. New technologies and products will significantly change the market — affecting how buyers see and purchase your goods. In fact, your products and services will probably change along with the market. Amidst all this change, it’s highly unlikely that your ideal customer’s profile or buying journey will stay the same.

Getting consistent feedback from your sales team is crucial if you’re to stay on top of all these changes and generate good-quality leads on an ongoing basis.

What are the differences between MQLs and SQLs

The main difference between an MQL and an SQL is how close the prospect is to purchasing. If they still need to learn more about your company and aren’t yet ready to purchase, then they’re an MQL. If they meet the BANT criteria, can’t wait to buy your product, and want to speak to a sales representative immediately, then they’re a SQL.

Once they’ve moved down the funnel and reached a pre-designated lead score, let’s say 100 points, they’ll then become MQLs and go into your sales team’s pipeline.

The average B2B buying cycle is twice as long as it was six years ago. This means that effectively working your leads from MQLs into SQLs is more important than ever.

So, in short, MQLs and SQLs are different in three main areas:

  1. Activity to-date
  2. Where they are in the funnel
  3. Who’s responsible for nurturing — or closing — them

What are the different types of lead qualification?

There are roughly five different stages to lead qualification, all based on the approach that the buyer’s journey is basically a funnel. Therefore, these leads all need to be treated with an approach that’s appropriate to their position in the funnel.

1. NQL (non-qualified lead)

Unfortunately, non-qualified leads are useless to your company — at least for now. Maybe you’ve thoroughly vetted them and they have neither the budget, authority, or need to purchase your product. In this case, it’s best to simply walk away with a smile and hope that they come back to you in the future if their situation changes.

Alternatively, maybe you simply don’t have enough information to classify them as qualified. You might’ve exchanged email addresses at an event but have no idea of their position or what their company does. In this instance, they’re not worth forgetting about, but you’ll need to have more information before you can qualify them as a viable lead.

2. EQL (engagement-qualified lead)

Engagement-qualified leads have demonstrated an interest in your company through a certain action (or actions). For instance, they might’ve downloaded a whitepaper or attended a talk given by someone at your organization.

Some organizations skip out EQLs entirely and would instead classify them as MQLs. Depending on the complexity of your customers’ buying journeys, the industry, and more, you can decide for yourselves whether or not you need EQLs.

On the one hand, it can be good to differentiate between qualified leads before they go off to sales. Someone who has attended one talk isn’t nearly as likely to purchase as someone who has engaged with multiple marketing materials and visited your website on many occasions. By classifying leads as EQLs, you can tailor your marketing outreach according to precisely how qualified each lead is.

On the other hand, many organizations find classifying EQLs an unnecessary complication. If a prospect has voluntarily engaged with your company, then they deserve to be treated as any other qualified lead — and so should receive the same sort of marketing materials as other MQLs.

3. MQL (marketing-qualified lead)

Marketing-qualified leads are well on their way to becoming customers. They’ve usually achieved a certain, pre-determined lead score — demonstrating ongoing interest in your brand by engaging with a number of marketing materials.

Marketing-qualified leads are middle-of-the-funnel. Once they’ve demonstrated enough sustained interest, they then become sales-qualified leads.

4.SQL (sales-qualified lead)

Sales-qualified leads should, in theory, be ready to purchase there and then. It’s not the sales team’s job to pique their interest in your brand or to convince them about the benefits of your products. In an ideal world, that would’ve already been completed due to the marketing team’s efforts.

This isn’t always the case, and sometimes salespeople need more time to close the deal. However, sales-qualified leads should still be handed over to the sales team as close to the point of purchase as possible. You want your sales team to provide leads with a welcome voice (or face) to your brand — a brand they already know and love.

What are the best lead generation tools?

Qualifying leads is irrelevant if you don’t have any — or enough — leads in the first place. This is where many businesses struggle.

Given their importance, you can understand why getting an ongoing supply of good quality leads is such a priority for organizations of all shapes and sizes. But what are the best tools to help you with this?

It may seem slightly obvious, but the best tools are usually your internal marketing practices. For most businesses, the bulk of your leads should come internally — if not, and you have to rely on external agencies or organizations, then you’re in a slightly precarious position, and might need to rethink your wider marketing strategy.

Here are some key ways in which your organization can generate ongoing leads:

1. Have a great reputation

If you’re an established player, then you can somewhat rely on your reputation to generate an ongoing series of leads. For example, whilst they do engage in advertising campaigns, companies like Apple and Nike would still receive a significant amount of leads due to their reputation even if for one year they stopped all marketing efforts.

Whilst not every organization will have this sort of global reputation, you can still generate ongoing interest from buyers by building a reputation for having great products, fantastic customer service, and a reasonable pricing model.

2. Be present at large-scale industry events

Events are another great way to showcase your organization’s offerings and brand message. Think about setting up a stand at every big industry event, and make the stand as visually eye-catching as possible.

You could also think about providing an incentive for people to visit your stand and speak to a sales representative — many companies offer freebies at their stand to attract attention. It may seem like a slightly cheap trick, but believe us, it works.

As well as having a physical stand, you can also arrange for a senior member of your organization to speak at an event. This is a great way to get a large number of industry professionals — many of whom will fit your ideal customer profile — in the same room as you. However, remember to not simply make it a sales pitch.

Instead, focus on providing an engaging thought leadership presentation that will inform and educate all attendees. Ideally, you’d have a few slides at the end explaining how your product solves the pain points that you raised, or makes the most out of the opportunities that you identified. However, make sure this is short, sweet, and relevant to the rest of the talk.

3. Engage in content marketing

The content marketing industry is due to be worth $412bn by 2021. Given its growing importance, content marketing simply cannot be ignored. Gone are the days when consumers will trust a brand because of a single advert — there’s too much competition, and consumers are more skeptical than they were in the past about trusting slogans. These days, consumers want to trust that brands actually know what they’re talking about.

Content marketing does all this and more. By explaining the nitty-gritty aspects of an industry, brands can highlight that they’re worth listening to — that they’re genuine experts — and, in turn, that their products are worth trusting. This is especially important in the B2B space as 47% of B2B buyers now consume three to five pieces of content before even engaging with a salesperson.

Content marketing works especially well on social media. Nobody from outside your company is necessarily that concerned about the ins-and-outs of your organization, but they’ll be far more interested in thought-leadership content which you create and share.

4. Advertising

That’s not to say that advertising is done and dusted. Creative, engaging adverts still definitely have a place within any company’s lead generation process. We’re now inundated with adverts wherever we go — when we watch television, when we’re on social media, when we travel on public transport, and when we’re driving along the highway. It’s inescapable.

This means that your adverts have to stand out. Think of the Superbowl adverts each year — because there are so many people watching, and it costs so much, the companies that do run adverts pull out all the stops.

Produce a memorable advert, and not only will you attract leads there and then, but your brand’s reputation will also grow as a result.

5. Partnerships with industry leaders

Of course, partnerships will also help increase your brand’s visibility — especially if you partner with an industry leader. When we partnered with HubSpot in 2018, our lead generation strengthened. Not only did we demonstrate that we were a key tool that could drastically help existing HubSpot users, but we also proved to the industry at large that we were an incredibly useful tool.

But our partnership wasn’t only useful in bringing us new leads. In fact, CallRail and HubSpot users were blown away by the impact it had. For example, Baker Labs saw a stunning 200% rise in their lead generation, as well as gaining deeper insight into the leads themselves.

What are the best resources for lead qualification?

However, once you’ve generated your leads, you then obviously need to qualify them. So what are the best tools for lead qualification?

It’s important that your entire end-to-end lead qualification system is mapped out on your CRM. If you don’t have this mapped — or you can’t map it — then this may highlight that you don’t actually have a set lead qualification process to begin with.

Your CRM should automatically take care of the lead scoring process, meaning that every touchpoint (or interaction your prospect has with your organization) is taken into account when qualifying a lead appropriately.

For instance, Hubspot’s automatic lead qualification uses predictive scoring — based on a machine-learning algorithm — to identify where individual leads are in their buyer’s journey. Likewise, we use machine-learning models to auto-qualify leads using CallScore.

Our conversation intelligence features, Transcriptions and Keyword Spotting, automatically classify and score leads whilst they come in. As you’re speaking, these features will automatically apply a lead score based on your organization’s criteria.