MQL, SQL or…Plain Old Crap? How to Define Your Lead Stages

MQL, SQL or…Plain Old Crap? How to Define Your Lead Stages

As a marketer, one of the most important things you can do is clarify the stages of your marketing funnel. We’ll get into what that means, but first, let me back that statement up. Without defined stages, you won’t know which leads are ready for sales outreach. You’ll end up stirring them around with no clear path to conversion, like some great big lead stew. No one wants lead stew. It’s time to sit down and determine what’s an MQL, what’s an SQL, and what’s, well…just plain old crap. 

Step 1: A few basic definitions

I get it. Dictionaries are boring. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the political climate of the last few years, it’s that words have meaning, and when we can’t all agree on the same meanings, things can get messy. So I’ll start with some standard definitions.

I’m using the HubSpot funnel stages, which tie to their Lifecycle Stage field, because I like them, and I’m writing this.


Kinda just what it sounds like, this is someone who has decided to subscribe to your communications. They might have joined your newsletter list via a handy-dandy “subscribe now” call to action. They’re interested, but they’re not considered a lead that you want to market to just yet – and they may never be. For example, it could be a partner who wants to stay updated, or even a competitor that’s spying on you. It happens.


This is someone who has converted on an offer on your website that’s further down the funnel. A lead is someone you do want to market to, but they haven’t been qualified yet and are definitely not ready for sales outreach. It might be someone who downloaded a content offer. Leads might also be created offline, perhaps through a trade show. Your subscribers can eventually grow into leads if you nurture them well (water, feed, weed, etc.).

Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL)

This is someone that you consider qualified, well, by marketing. This qualification is typically automated. That could mean that they’ve converted on a qualifying offer, like a consultation or demo request, or that they’ve reached a certain lead score, as measured by their engagement with your website and marketing assets.

Sales Qualified Lead (SQL)

It probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is someone who has been designated as qualified by the sales team. Your MQLs get sent to your sales team, who then do their own assessments (typically manual) to determine if the fit exists to pursue an opportunity. And if so…


Congrats, your lead has reached the Opportunity stage! A Deal record (in HubSpot lingo) or an Opportunity record (in Salesforce terminology) has been opened, meaning that there’s a confirmed need and budget (and timeline) for an actual sale.


Again, not the hardest to figure out. A customer is someone who has purchased your product or service (duh). In CRM terms, it means that the Deal or Opportunity record has been Closed Won. IRL, it means you made a sale. Yay.

Step 2: Getting alignment (or, where things get tricky)

You might be thinking, this isn’t so hard. All the definitions are there for me already! Before you go prop your feet up and pop open a cold one, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What specific actions will qualify an MQL for your organization? Start with a good look at your customers – what attributes do they have in common? What patterns can you identify in their behaviors? Learn what you can to determine your starting point in defining lead stages.
  2. Will lead scoring be part of your MQL criteria?
  3. Did you define the lead scoring methodology you’ll use (meaning: how many points for visiting a webpage, or clicking an email, or downloading a content offer)?
  4. What specific qualifiers will your sales team use to determine whether an MQL can graduate to an SQL?
  5. Is there a way to track when MQLs are handed off, and what happens to them after that?
  6. Is there a way for your sales team to capture their feedback on leads they reject?
  7. If you asked anyone else on your sales and marketing teams these questions, are you 100% sure that their answers will match yours?

That last question isn’t to make you laugh. It’s critical. Unless you’re a freelancer working for a company of one, make sure you aren’t answering these questions all on your own. You need the input of your sales team to ensure that this will work. They have key insights into your customers, and they need to be on board with the methods you’re going to use to qualify leads.

Step 3: Automate it all

This type of a systematic inbound marketing process just will not scale without technology to help automate it. You’re going to need a marketing automation platform integrated with a CRM to capture data and share it in real time with your sales team. 

At a minimum, you’ll want to use martech to:

  1. Quickly identify leads who take qualifying actions. You’ll want to make sure that leads are flagged, automatically assigned to the right person, and that their status and/or lifecycle stage field is updated.
  2. Track all lead behaviors. You’re going to need to capture which marketing assets and webpages your leads are interacting with. It gives you insight into the topics or products that they’re most interested in, as well as a sense of how engaged they are with your brand.
  3. Score activities. You need to go beyond monitoring and proactively assign points for high-value activities. The goal is to encourage your leads to grow their lead score to a certain threshold, which will designate them as MQL. Then, they’ll have to pass through your identification workflows to be flagged and assigned for sales follow up.
  4. Track who is unqualified. You’re going to get leads who will be rejected at one stage or another in your funnel. I usually design two pathways to track this: an “unqualified” stage to mean that the lead isn’t qualified right now, but could still be a potential fit in the future and should continue to be nurtured, or “disqualified” to mean that the person will never be a good lead and should be removed from the database at the next purge. You can then use filters to repress these leads from your reporting.
  5. Measure conversion rates. Without tracking your conversion rates from stage to stage, you’ll never know where or how to optimize your funnel for better performance. If you’re generating tons of MQLs but sales is rejecting them all, you need to sit down with your sales team to understand why. You might need to adjust your scoring methods or your MQL point threshold. If you’ve got tons of leads but they’re not growing into MQLs, you need to rethink your nurture streams and offers. I could go on for days here, but I think you get the point.


Step 4: Don’t forget to document!

Once you’ve hashed all out and gotten agreement from the right people, make sure you document everything, and keep it up to date as things change (and they will). This stuff is tricky and very easy to forget or mix up just a few busy months later. 

I like to create some simple slides to capture the definitions, the agreed-upon triggers to graduate a lead from one stage to the next, and a basic flowchart of the automations that make it all work. Trust me, future you will appreciate it. And never forget, at the end of the day, it’s all about sales and marketing alignment, baby!

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