Is an MQL a Lead? Does Intent Data Pixie Dust Change That?

Aug 27, 2020 | Author Ed Marsh

Tl;dr - Often MQLs are nothing more than opt-ins which can then be marketed to. That's essentially an intent signal. So what's the buzz around using intent data to optimize sales acceleration and syndicated content programs? Honestly, it's largely fluff. Purchased MQLs aren't all bad - but they're often not what's least if you try to push the lead-to-revenue dots close together.

In the Beginning...

Is it a lead or a signal? a duck or a rabit?Information Qualified Lead (IQL) ⇒ Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL) ⇒ Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) ⇒ BANT Qualified Opportunity ⇒ Revenue

That linear understanding of the world made sense (mostly) at some point - maybe a decade ago.

A MQL was a step in a generally consistent buying journey. Of course it was never really sooo simple, but it kind of worked.

Today, though, MQLs are a marketing KPI generally unrelated to revenue. (Kate Adams of Drift calls the MQL "dead" and takes Dave Gerhard through her thinking on people buying - no "account" ever signed a contract - in this podcast.)

And therefore, incorporating the word "lead" as part of "marketing qualified lead" as though it's a clear step in progression on this continuum is simply misleading everyone.

Let's Call It an "Opt-In"

Two things happened simultaneously. One gradual, one abrupt, but both in parallel.

B2B buyer behaviors changed as their tools (search and content) improved and their expectations (from B2C transactions) increased. This was gradual.

The GDPR panic changed the way people thought about their databases - and often changed the contents of the contact databases themselves. This was abrupt. (Shockingly so since two years of warning resulted in two weeks of boiler plate opt-in emails.)

GDPR made it harder for marketers to hit their MQL KPI.

That meant they had to get creative.

The solution was frequently to outsource the process of accumulating opt-ins. They paid (through ads, syndicated content, outsource business development, "sales acceleration" services, etc.) to have contacts added to their database - putatively for a specific webinar or document, but generally to be marketed to going forward.

A MQL therefore went from being a person at a stage in a contiguous funnel, to being a target for marketing efforts. Like Ruben's Vase or the Rabbit & Duck Illusion, you'll see something according to your natural biases.

As a result, paid "lead generation" has largely devolved into commoditized service which is generally off-shored (directly or white labeled), based on volume, and built around tactics focused on the "opt-in."

Fomenting Discord Between Sales & Marketing

In large (e.g. enterprise) companies this is OK. Marketing has large budgets - both to generate the MQL/opt-in using tactics like syndicated content and outsourced email & telemarketing, and to then gradually nurture those opt-ins until they become real leads.

So they're able to simultaneously hit their MQL KPI and also invest time, money and staff resources in cultivating the contacts to the point of being legitimate leads to hand off to sales.

In the SMB market (<$1B), though, resources are more carefully husbanded and management isn't so nonchalant. They expect to connect the dots between marketing spend, lead generation, pipeline and revenue. And here, things break down.

Most contacts that are sold as MQLs, aren't. They're really more like intent signals. Of course the knowledge that someone engaged with content has value. But if following up on inbound leads has a pretty low success rate - it's huge compared to most syndicated content "lead" follow up. That tells us a lot about syndicated content "leads." Add in that they may show employer and job title from YEARS ago (or pay the upcharge for verification) and it's problematic.

As sales wastes time following up on opt-ins that are presented to them as leads, they grow cynical and frustrated.

Nobody wins in the deal besides the lead generation firms and marketers (for as long as the marketers get credit for hitting an irrelevant MQL KPI.) What's worse - it further impairs sales and marketing alignment.

Intent Data Pixie Dust and Syndicated Content

"But......" you say. Haven't you heard how the magic of intent data supercharges syndicated content and makes it super powerful?

Well, sort of.

Companies can absolutely use intent data signals to observe pockets of account level activity. Those observations can be used to focus syndication efforts on those accounts, which in turn can increase opt-ins and expand the breadth of contacts. And while the additional filtering will increase the cost/opt-in, the net impact might be favorable due to focus.

In reality, many leadgen and content syndication firms manage the process - marketing/differentiating themselves with the buzz of a proprietary intent data informed process - and pocketing that savings.

So yes, superficially intent data can improve the metrics of a syndicated content campaign - and that's good if your goal is opt-ins.

However, if many of the MQLs are really nothing more than opt-ins (data points not leads,) then the net impact on revenue is negligible.

Said differently, you can use intent data to focus efforts to obtain additional intent signals (an opt-in) which you can then gradually market to (if you have sufficient resources) in hopes you can create a lead. In other words, if purchased MQLs, including those from syndicated content aren't really leads, then more of them doesn't equal more leads.

It's circular logic to use intent data to generate more intent signals

There are times, though, that doing so is a legitimate goal (e.g. ABM and target account expansion.) Just recognize that's what you're doing and do so with eyes wide open.

There is no Shortcut to Leads

The takeaway, therefore, is one that is often unwelcome. 

There are no shortcuts. You can either purchase opt-ins (whether sold as "sales acceleration", content syndication, etc.) and invest resources in marketing them into leads - or you can do the hard, ongoing work of outbound sales and digital marketing to create them yourself.

Intent data can absolutely help. A very efficient approach is to use contact level™ intent data to create paid ads custom audiences which are segmented based on observable criteria. CTRs and CPL can be substantially improved because you're showing ads to the right people. Predictive™ PR built on data can help amplify your message. And the sales intelligence, especially around complex buying teams, can shorten sell cycles and boost close rates.

Just be aware that there's a lot of snake oil being sold at the intersection of MQLs, syndicated content, and intent data. Do your due diligence. Know what you're buying. And be realistic about how it will help you hit personal, professional, departmental, and corporate goals.

duck / rabbit image credit



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