It’s Time to Turn Off the MQLs

By Jason Garoutte

January 22, 2016

Over the last few years, B2B marketers have embraced the “MQL” concept from the Sirius Decisions waterfall. For some marketers, this “Marketing Qualified Lead” is even the primary metric of success. But right off the bat, Sales refuses to accept 50% of these leads, and less than 10% ever turn into wins. At some companies, it’s less than 5%. One wonders if the demand generation team is actually generating demand.

Ask anyone in Sales how they feel about MQLs and you’ll see smirks of frustration.They’ll tell you that leads are not in the right role, not in the market, or simply not ready to talk. With the rise of content marketing, many MQLs are just contacts who downloaded content. When Sales reaches out, the response is, “No thanks, I just wanted the whitepaper.” Even companies who tried “predictive scoring” now realize that these predictions have little bearing on whether a contact will answer the phone.

The root of the problem is the funnel.

The MQL and its related acronyms (SQL, SAL) are formalizations of the funnel model used by nearly all B2B marketers. When marketers view their process as a funnel, they accept an implicit assumption of failure. Though each contact has the potential to “convert”, the funnel is a sequence of stages that act like sieves. At every stage of the funnel, failure is expected, tolerated, and budgeted. Every marketing department has a spreadsheet with the same math: start with a big enough number at the top so there’s something (anything?) left at the bottom. In the manufacturing world, leaders embrace Six Sigma, striving for elimination of defects. In the marketing world, leaders regularly plan on 90-95% defects.When the research group CEB asked 1,460 B2B organizations how they purchase, they noticed something important: buyers are educating themselves. In fact, buyers are typically 57% of the way through their due diligence before engaging with a supplier. They avoid sales reps until they’ve already decided what they need. This means the MQL is a Catch 22. If a contact isn’t ready to talk to Sales, then there’s no point in passing it to Sales. If a contact IS ready to talk to Sales, that account has already decided what it needs. It may be too late to win.

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Source: CEB End of Solution Sales

When qualifying an opportunity, sales teams often look for the BANT checklist: budget, authority, need, and timing. They would love marketers to pass leads with BANT. But the CEB research shows how hard it is for marketers to find BANT. If they do, it may be tougher to win or at least to differentiate and avoid discounting. It’s like RFPs – few account executives get excited about receiving a request for proposals. Some AE’s even refuse to participate. Like the folks in Sales know, it’s best to get in early. The best leads are not found—they’re built.

“The best leads are not found—they’re built.”

If MQLs are letting us down, what’s the alternative? Instead of filtering down MQLs, it’s time to build up MQAs. Marketing Qualified Accounts. Nicolas Draca, VP of Demand Generation at Twilio, has been advocating the MQA concept since he was doing demand gen for LinkedIn. For Nicolas, the key shift is to recognize the influence of multiple contacts inside an account. Whereas the MQL focused on individuals, the MQA acknowledges group decision-making. In 2012, Nicolas’s team calculated account scores (combining multiple contacts) and showed a dramatic correlation between score and win-rate. It wasn’t enough to see just one interested contact.

An MQA is more than just a roll-up of MQLs. The key to the MQA is the social dynamic. An average 5.4 buyers are involved in b2b decisions, and it’s clear that those decision-makers and influencers spend more time with each other than they do with suppliers. So it is essential that marketers inspire contacts to educate their colleagues. To create an MQA, marketing must identify a buying center, engage one or more of the influencers, and frame the discussion happening inside the account.

Framing the discussion is hard, especially when prospects are drowning in competitor ads and content. You can tell you’re controlling the frame by measuring things like content consumption, content sharing, responsiveness, and event attendance. Clicking on several emails is not enough. But if a contact in a junior role shares one of your whitepapers with his VP, and the VP actually reads it, that’s a good sign that you’re starting to control the frame. Different frames are always competing for mindshare, so it’s possible for an account to move in and out of MQA status over time.

Marketers often feel like their job is to get a foot in the door for Sales. It’s better than nothing, and I’ve done it myself. Throughout my years as a marketer, I’ve been part of creating and passing thousands of MQLs to Sales. But the game has clearly changed, and buyers are doing their own research in a sea of competitive content. We used to relegate the hard work of changing minds to Sales. But now it falls to marketing. Now, demand-gen means more than a foot in the door.