You’ve probably read statistics that B2B buyers are well into the buying journey before they engage a potential solution provider. The statistics vary by study and company sampling; however, what appears to be evident is that self-research before engaging with a salesperson is common. More than 42% of B2B buyers surveyed for the 2018 Buyer Preferences Study (CSO Insights) said they wait until they have identified the solution to meet their needs before engaging a seller. This means that they have been doing research and shortlisting companies based on the information they are finding online.

Inbound marketing, which involves drawing customers to your website using content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, and digital advertising, can be a successful tool for capturing prospects early in the buying cycle. However, in the same study mentioned above, it was reported that 70% of buyers are waiting until they have a clear understanding of their needs before engaging. It becomes imperative that the content you are sharing through various marketing channels addresses the specific end customers’ needs and the value your company will bring over the competition. This puts you in a position to help buyers evaluate and prioritize their needs.

‘Leads’ Are Coming In—Now What?

Many companies have engaged in what likely could be considered a successful inbound marketing campaign. People are coming to their website, they are filling out forms to get information or to download media, and the company now has a long list of “leads” to pursue. However, how qualified and successful are they if they don’t turn into sales—or even the right type of sales opportunity?

Once “leads” start flowing in through inbound efforts, they are usually handed off directly to the sales team. Some sales teams can become overwhelmed by the sheer volume, and therefore, many of the “leads” never go anywhere. It’s not the fault of the salesperson or team; they either don’t have time to follow up, or there isn’t a process in place to handle the flow. If the “leads” don’t convert, it hurts your ROI.

The word “leads” is in quotation marks because it is casually tossed around by many in sales and marketing circles as a metric for success. The problem is when they don’t differentiate between marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and sales qualified leads (SQLs). There is a big difference, so let us define each.

When discussing inbound marketing, MQLs are those leads that you have lured to your site who have taken the bait and filled out a form or requested contact. Some of these people may buy from you, and some will never buy from you—e.g., not a good fit, competitor, researcher, curious person, etc.

Conversely, SQLs are prospects that have raised their hands and are ready to engage in conversation. They have likely filled out a contact-us form or otherwise have asked to be contacted by a salesperson, they present specific needs your company can fulfill, they have the right volumes, they are a decision-maker, and they have shared a specific time frame to buy (so, qualified). The challenge is that most inbound leads arrive in the MQL stage and need to be converted into SQLs.

Here are three tips to help you turn more MQLs into SQLs.

Target Market Profiling Allows You to Focus

The appeal of inbound marketing programs is typically both the number of leads (volume) estimated and that people are coming to your site (so, the assumption that these leads are in the ready-to-buy stage). However, more isn’t always better, particularly if the leads fall into the not-the-right-fit bucket. They just become noise and can actually negatively impact sales productivity (salespeople spending time on following up with leads that don’t fit the defined qualified status).

While you can never eliminate them completely, you can minimize the number of companies that aren’t a good fit by developing a target market profile or buyer persona. You may need to create more than one if you are in different industries.

Look at your current best customers and decide what makes them great. Some attributes to include are:

  • Industries and applications in which you excel—and why you excel (e.g., solving a specific problem, issue, or need that is common to
    these segments).
  • Type of sale (commodity versus specialty).
  • Geography.
  • Company size.
  • Annual and lifetime spend (keep in mind a small startup today could turn into a large customer tomorrow).
  • Annual/month spend and volumes.
  • Contact titles—decision-makers and influencers.

All of your inbound marketing initiatives (website, SEO, blogs, white papers, social posts, etc.) should speak directly to the profiles you have created and should address their specific needs. This should help eliminate some companies that aren’t great fits from becoming MQLs. Having fewer targeted MQLs is better than having more ill-defined leads.

You can then whittle down the list of MQLs further by removing any that don’t fall within the parameters of your target market profile or buyer persona. You may have to invest in a resource who can prescreen the companies on the list to determine whether they are a good fit.

Follow Up and Nurture Remaining MQLs and SQLs

Following up and nurturing leads are essential steps in conversion. To do them efficiently and effectively, you need to have a process. We suggest following up immediately with any MQLs and SQLs you receive. Having a process in place will help you screen and manage opportunities to make sure they are fully qualified before hitting the sales team’s active pipeline.

Your process should include a way to monitor and track the progress. We recommend using a customer relationship management (CRM) system and marketing automation tools (MAT) that provide you with the technology, automation, and analytics required to measure the impact. Immediate follow-up (meaning within minutes of receiving the inquiry) will have a significant positive impact on your conversion rates. If the prospects are not followed up quickly, they will simply move on to the next provider, so speed of response is highly important to conversion.

MQLs that fit your target market profile should be placed in automated drip or nurturing programs. Email drip campaigns send out emails at specific intervals designed to educate MQLs, keep your brand in front of them, and provide news. An email nurture campaign is an automated campaign sent based on the MQL lead’s behavior, or because they responded as having interest at a future date and time (e.g., downloaded white paper, read case study, attended a specific webinar), and it is designed to guide the lead down the sales funnel to an SQL conversion.

In addition to the automated emails, the MQL should receive periodic follow-up within an agreed-upon time. This means someone will need to call them and find out what their needs are and when they might be ready to buy. Ask when you can call on them again. Check in periodically, but don’t be a nuisance. In the meantime, drip and nurture email campaigns will keep your company name in front of them.

Track, Measure, Monitor

You’ll never know your return on investment (ROI) if you aren’t tracking, measuring, and monitoring performance targets for your inbound marketing initiatives. If you have an inbound program, you are probably already measuring website visitors, bounce rates and time on site, website and landing page conversion rates, engagement, and possibly sales. It is very important prior to entering into an inbound program that your program implementor defines specific estimated goals for MQLs and SQLs. If your inbound provider does not define or will not define estimated goals, be very cautious in how you proceed, as we highly suggest these program estimates are a requirement for any inbound (or outbound) program.

To determine your true ROI, you will also need to track, measure, and monitor some sales elements. It is important to know how many MQLs will convert to SQLs and the move through your sales cycle and historical conversion rates in order to reach your desired sales goals. You can do this by identifying the stages in your sales cycle and associated conversion rates.

The stages in the sales cycle will depend on your business and may include MQL, SQL, initial meeting, site tour, RFP/RFQ/RFI, negotiate, and close. Knowing historical conversion rates specific to new account development will help you know what type of flow you need in order to achieve your sales goals. Work backward from how many closures you need in order to reach sales goals, and using conversion rates, you can calculate the number of leads you need at each stage.

If you haven’t measured these, you can start with an educated guess. See the table below for an example.

Stage Conversion
Step 1 MQL 15%
Step 2 SQL 75%
Step 3 Onsite meeting, webcast, or conference call 40%
Step 4 Scoping, proposed design solution 60%
Step 5 Formal proposal, RFP, or RFQ 50%
Step 6 Negotiate 95%
Step 7 Close


Inbound marketing is a great way to reach potential customers early in the buying cycle and puts you in an excellent position to help them evaluate their needs, hopefully converting them to a sale. However, without the right people and processes in place to follow up with MQLs and convert them to sales, you may be throwing your money away.

This article appeared in B xscore magazine November 2019.