Lead Qualification, the Buying Process and Content Marketing

PropelGrowth Blog - Financial Services Marketing

Companies need to focus on the customer buying cycle when nurturing leads with marketing content

How Can I Be Sure I’m Delivering Relevant Content to Leads?

During a discussion in the LinkedIn B2B Technology Marketing Community, a group member asked, “How do you distinguish appropriate content for a marketing qualified lead (MQL) from a sales qualified lead (SQL)?”

In my opinion, that question is company-centric, when the marketer should be more customer-centric. Content efforts should be centered not around whether a lead is marketing or sales qualified, but around what stage the lead is at in their buying process. Ideally, content marketing and lead nurturing should support each stage, helping to:

  • Make leads dissatisfied with the status quo
  • Educate them about their problems and approaches to solving
  • Inspire in them a desire to change
  • Handle objections as they inch closer to purchase
  • Give them tools to successfully navigate the change

Simply knowing whether or not a lead is sales or marketing qualified is not going to give you the insight you need to supply them with content relevant to their buying stage.

What are MQLs and SQLs?

Marketing departments often use specific criteria for leads to know when to promote them to Sales. Below is a brief description.

  • Marketing Qualified Lead (MQL): Labeling a lead as marketing qualified means that you have identified them as meeting specific demographic criteria that qualifies them as a prospective customer. Most Marketers use this designation to identify leads for ongoing nurturing.
  • Sales Accepted Lead (SAL): Once a lead’s activity produces enough buying signals, Marketing can promote the lead to Sales. Sales then needs to evaluate and accept the lead, meaning it’s a viable lead to pursue.
  • Sales Qualified Lead (SQL):  Generally, a sales person will promote a lead to SQL once he or she  has access to the prospect’s decision-makers, and the prospect has identified a business need that your company can address. Generally, this stage is where a lead is included in the sales pipeline.
Related: Lead Stages and Benchmarks for B2B Lead Conversion Rates

But none of these stages are an indication of where the lead is in their buying process. They could have discovered your company very early in their awareness stage, or they may already be evaluating options when they come across your company. Or they may have included your content in research for some time, browsing anonymously until they’re further along and ready to be contacted.

B2B Technology Buying Process

The B2B buying process is how we describe the process the buying organization goes through when solving a business problem. They start by identifying and defining the problem, then they research potential solutions. From there, they evaluate various approaches to solving the problem and create a shortlist of options. Then they select a direction, commit to the various vendors involved, and develop a plan for implementation.  Here is more information on what’s happening behind the scenes during the B2B technology buying process.

Offering content for different stages in the buying cycle helps facilitate the customer’s process. If you’re using a marketing automation product that tracks visitor activity, you can observe what types of content a visitor is consuming. This can offer some insight in identifying what buying stage that lead is in. But no amount of analytics can replace a simple discovery phone call.

Achieving More Effective Lead Nurturing

Once the lead has provided contact information, and you are able to detect a likely buying stage, you can optimize your email nurturing. Based on their role, industry, company type, and the most recent activity, you should be able to segment them into a specific buying persona and buying stage. Then you can provide weekly email nurturing with content that is developed specifically for that persona and stage.

However, it is still very difficult to accurately predict buying stage based on consumption alone. It requires precision in the forms you ask visitors to complete and content that is well aligned with the issues your specific buyer personas are dealing with at each stage. Frankly, most companies don’t have content that meets all the necessary criteria. Plus, prospects don’t always follow the pattern we expect. They might consume content indicating they’re in a later stage, when in reality, the organization is still comfortable with the status quo.

That’s where a phone call to the prospect can be incredibly helpful. But most inside sales people call leads assuming that they are ready to buy. That is the wrong approach. A better way would be to ask them where they are in the process and what kind of content they would find helpful.

Can Marketing Qualify a Lead?

While insights from marketing concerning what content leads are consuming are useful, they can also be inexact. For example, marketing may assume that because a prospect looked at the ROI calculator, they are in the final stages of their buying process. But in some cases, an early look at ROI will be used to merely justify launching the research process.

It’s also likely that different people in the organization might be at different stages in their own understanding. So one lead might consume implementation guides (a late stage buying signal), while another lead from the same organization is looking at top of the funnel content.

The more we interact with Sales and evaluate leads based on both Sales’ experience and the data Marketing collects, the better Marketers can get at evaluating the quality of the content and specific campaigns. It also helps us determine what other types of content might help better facilitate the buying cycle. Relying exclusively on the data provided by the marketing automation system will result in skewed information.

Delivering Content That’s On Point

So, what’s needed to effectively nurture leads throughout their buying cycle?

  • A clear understanding of your buyer personas, based on research and interviews.
  • An understanding of what types of information leads need at each stage in the buying process. (Hint:  Sales can help with this).
  • A matrix of buyer personas, buying stages, and the content to present at each intersection.
  • Content that is specific, helpful and non-promotional for each of the cells in the matrix.
  • A plan for how you’ll gauge the buying stage based on lead activity.
  • Marketing automation for tracking visitor activity, email nurturing, and analytics.
  • A careful implementation plan for deploying the lead nurturing. (Hint:  Start small).
Related: For more information on aligning your content strategy with the buying cycle:
Here’s a white paper:  Content and Thought Leadership to Support the Buying Cycle
Here’s an infographic:  How to Use Content to Facilitate Each Stage in the Buying Cycle
Here’s a blog post: B2B Lead Conversion — Qualification Matters


2 responses to “Lead Qualification, the Buying Process and Content Marketing”

Leave a Reply