MQL to SQL: What's the Difference and Why Marketers Should Care

By Derek Kinzer on August 19, 2019

For a while, lead generation and conversion have been the big talking point in digital marketing. Discovering your leads, tracking your leads, and building an online experience that helped to create conversions. But today, an important direction is aligning marketing and sales. A key component of that is done by converting your MQLs to SQLs, and of course, knowing the difference between them.

The difference between MQLs and SQLs is a demonstration of our constant refining of the selling process. Selling is no longer a single arc, it is no longer the purview of one team or the other. Marketing and Sales come together at the critical transition of MQL to SQL and both marketing teams and sales teams need to have their heads in the game to turn every possible lead in their sales funnel into a buying customer. But wait, what exactly is an MQL, and SQL, what is the difference and why the heck should your business care?

That is exactly what we're here to unpack today.

Unpacking the Acronyms: MQL vs. SQL

Let's get started by unpacking this acronym cluster. Marketing has a notorious habit of picking up an acronym and running with it, whether or not the reader understands. So let's break that habit here.

MQL stands for Marketing Qualified Lead (see how Hubspot defines it). In other words, someone who has responded to inbound marketing in a way that indicates they are a potentially interested buyer.

SQL stands for Sales Qualified Lead, and has nothing to do with database entries in this case. A sales-qualified lead is someone who has stepped voluntarily into the buyer's journey and begun moving toward a sale.

New call-to-action

What is the Difference Between an MQL and SQL?

Okay, so knowing the acronyms doesn't necessarily tell you what the real difference is, or where you draw the line between MQLs and SQLs. In the simplest possible terms, an MQL is a lead who is interested and an SQL is a lead who is actively engaged and/or buying.

How MQLs are Qualified

An MQL may have read a few blogs, engaged on social media,  signed up for the newsletter or even downloaded an email-gated eBook or white paper. In other words, marketing can tell that they are interested in the brand and in the content on your website. But they haven't yet done anything to suggest that they're interested in actually entering the buying cycle let alone talk to a sales rep.

How SQLs are Qualified

An SQL, on the other hand, is a lead who has gone beyond just reading and sharing their contact information. They have reached out and done something that indicates a direct interest in buying the product. They may have signed up for a demo of the product, or even put an item into their virtual cart. They may have even spoken with a sales rep through your live chat interface and expressed a direct interest in buying your product or something similar. In other words, sales can legitimately say they are on the path to purchasing though have not made the critical conversion yet.

How MQLs are Converted Into SQLs

Now let's talk about the conversion. It's true that some leads will happily walk themselves all the way down the funnel, even if your sales process is more complex than e-Commerce shopping. Some buyers waltz right in, open up the live chat and say "Give me your small business package, please" but for most leads, it takes a little more lead nurturing effort on the team's part to get them through the customer journey.

When the Conversion Happens

When a lead arrives on your website, they are neither an MQL nor an SQL. Marketing qualifies the lead through a variety of marketing efforts. Some of these marekting strategies may include lead scoring, marketing automation and follow up, email marketing, and modern SEO tactics to generate website visitors.  At this point, marketing flags the visitor as someone who might become an interested buyer. But the conversion from MQL to SQL doesn't happen until the lead voluntarily commits to something more concrete than reading content.

Conversion via Marketing or Sales

Marketing strategies might try to make the conversion with an on-site pop-up offering a discount or a landing page form requesting a demo. If the lead accepts, they become an SQL with very little intervention. Or marketing might send the email address on to sales to send a carefully calibrated email asking if the lead might be interested in a demo, a guided tour of the products, or just to fill out a survey on their interest. If the lead accepts, then sales has achieved the next stage of lead qualification.

Leads can, of course, also convert themselves by seeking out demos or direct contact with sales.

Why the Handoff Matters

The handoff from MQL to SQL sounds simple, but it is actually one of the most delicate moments in the conversion process which is why the two stages have been differentiated from each other. A far greater number of people will qualify by marketing standards compared to sales standards. And each MQL will convert at their own pace, even with nudging toward the SQL path.

Some do not have the power to make decisions on their own, but they may be doing research to make a recommendation to their decision-makers. Some buyer personas are investigating months before they will be ready to buy or even commit to a sales call. And some will take their own sweet time reading every blog and service page on the site before they are ready to become a new customer. It's up to marketing to tell the difference, to know who should be handed off to sales and who should be given time in the MQL phase. And it's up to sales to accept the hand-off gracefully and sometimes even bounce someone back down to an MQL when they're not ready to convert, but also not disqualified from an eventual conversion.

Note: It's imperative that the conversations between marketing and sales teams have agreed-up guidelines for what constitutes as an MQL and SQL in order for this to be successful. 

Schedule a Free Strategy Session

Are you converting your MQLs to SQLs effectively? Even if you are not handling this process intentionally, it is happening on your site and you can identify that exact moment when the hand-off takes place where your teams could be taking a more (or less) active role. The transition from MQL to SQL is critical for a company to understand where their marketing ROI is going and how effectively sales is making use of the leads generated by marketing. When you're ready to schedule a free strategy session on your marketing and sales conversion success, contact us today!

New call-to-action

Derek Kinzer
Derek Kinzer
Sr. Strategist | Think Tank Operative

Related Post

What we learned from the Pros at INBOUND17
Inbound Marketing , Sales , Blog | 4 min read
Derek Kinzer
By Derek Kinzer on October 3, 2017
What is Inbound Marketing?
Inbound Marketing , Blog | 8 min read
Ashlee Rolkowski
By Ashlee Rolkowski on February 18, 2021

Make More Things Happen

If you are a brand looking to improve your brand awareness, create predictable revenue streams, expand profit, etc. — we’ll do it. Get in touch.