From The Editor | September 18, 2020

The New Definition Of Leads For B2B Marketers

Abby Sorensen July 2017 Headshot

By Abby Sorensen, Editor


“Marketing isn’t giving me enough good leads.” – Every salesperson at every B2B company in the world.

B2B marketers, we know you can relate to sales team clamoring for more and better leads. And you probably wish your sales team did a better job with the leads you do pass along. Bridging that gap between your marketing delivering leads and your sales team closing leads starts with redefining a “lead.” Once you do that, it’ll be less painful to communicate with your sales team, easier to measure your success as a marketer, and better for the overall revenue health at your company.

Before you can begin to identify a good lead, first you need to rethink the definition of a lead.

Defining Marketing Qualified Leads

HubSpot defines MQLs as, “a lead who has been deemed more likely to become a customer compared to other leads.” 

Act-On considers a lead an MQL when, “The prospect has demonstrated some level of interest or engagement that tells marketing this is a genuine lead.” 

Tableau’s definition offers a little more clarity, saying these are leads “who are curious and considering you, but they haven’t quite made the step into a sales conversation yet. However, they’re more likely to be receptive to a sales pitch than a normal lead.”

Every company/industry can and should define marketing qualified leads differently. We insist that MQLs, at a very minimum, should be the right title at the right company.

Regardless of the criteria you use, MQLs by definition are missing a key ingredient: differentiating interest from purchase intent. A prospect might enter your funnel after expressing interest in your brand because you have cool swag at your booth. Or because you’re publishing content based on popular industry trends.

If you’re passing interested leads to your sales team, then chances are your sales team will blame their dry pipeline on marketing’s “bad leads.”

Defining Sales Qualified Leads

Common definitions of a sales qualified lead include mentions of moving prospects to the “next stage.”

  • “A prospective customer that has been researched and vetted -- first by an organization's marketing department and then by its sales team – and is deemed ready for the next stage in the sales process.” (TechTarget)
  • “SQLs are prospects that have been vetted to determine if there’s an interest to connect them to the next stage in the buying cycle.” (Salesfusion)

Again, it’s hard to prove intent instead of interest at this stage. And if we’re being honest, your sales team likely won’t want to spend time to investigate whether or not those leads have purchase intent. They’ll assume SQLs are just that – qualified – and they’ll start treating them as if all SQLs are at the same stage in their buyer’s journey.

That’s why many companies define a sales qualified lead as one that has an active project and is likely to request a quote. In simple terms, sales reps want SQLs that can turn into a sale.

Defining Sales-Ready Leads

One of the challenges with SQLs is that sales teams struggle to understand what the “next step” is. Either they don’t know, or they assume the “next step” is the same for every lead. Sales reps will send a constant barrage of spammy emails that fail to offer any insight and instead only focus on trying to sell. All the work marketing did to cultivate an MQL with helpful, educational content goes out the window, and prospects quickly get turned off by sales reps trying to force their way to an RFP.

What your sales team really wants is a sales-ready lead. We define this as the right titles at the right companies that are in the midst of an active buyer’s journey and have intent to purchase. Another definition is, “A lead who comes to your business ready to buy. They have gone through their buyer’s journey … and are ready for you to solve their problem” (Primitive Social). And some definitions sound interchangeable with SQLs: “A sales ready lead is defined as one that is pre-qualified and scored by the marketing team for the sales department using qualifying criteria. Once a lead becomes sales-ready, sales assumes the primary responsibility for managing that relationship” (Klood Digital).

Of course, sales-ready leads are far and few between. Here’s what research cited in Selling To The C-Suite says about active buyers: “According to Vorsight, at any given time only 4 percent of your market is actively buying, 40 percent are ready to start looking at options, and 56 percent aren’t ready or don’t have a current need.”

Defining Sales Winnable Leads

It’s a mistake to only focus on those 4 percent of active buyers and to assume those are the sales-ready leads. The problem is, by the time a lead is actively in the process of making a purchase, it’s typically too late for your sales team to win.

Sure, you might get lucky and come in as the lowest price out of a pile of RFPs. Or even worse, your price might be used to wedge a competitor to undercut your price. But discounting your way to low-margin contracts isn’t smart or scalable. By the time a prospect agrees to a demo or asks for a quote, they are already toward the end of their buyer’s journey, and you’ve missed the chance to influence them when it matters most.

If you can align your content with a prospect’s buyer’s journey and follow them along their path to purchase, then your marketing and sales activities will create a sales winnable lead. This is a new and smarter way to define leads.

Sales winnable leads are target prospects early in their buyer’s journey that you build trust with over a long period of time so that you are the vendor they compare all other solutions to when they start their active purchase process. These are the leads your sales team has a real chance to close. Creating sales winnable leads involves nurturing and helping the 40 percent of buyers starting their buyer’s journey and the 56 percent who aren’t actively looking to buy.

It takes the right combination of truly educational content, patience, data, and discipline to produce sales winnable leads. The process to define, create, and measure MQLs or SQLs is much easier than the process of cultivating sales winnable leads. The most innovative modern marketing teams work hand in hand with their sales colleagues to ensure that only the highest quality, winnable leads are being worked. Identifying sales winnable leads requires hard work, but it will ensure that valuable marketing and sales resources are being used to grow your business (not just to feed your funnel).