SQL vs. MQL: What They Are and How They Differ

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Rebecca Riserbato
Rebecca Riserbato


Most organizations have a process of passing a lead from the marketing team to the sales team. Typically, this is when a lead goes from being a marketing qualified lead (MQL) to a sales qualified lead (SQL).

Saleswoman moves along a prospect from an MQL to an SQL

Passing a lead from marketing to sales is kind of like baton racing, just without the physical activity (phew!).

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Below, let's learn more about SQLs and MQLs — what they are, their differences, and why they matter.

Here is the common path leads take in the Inbound Sales Methodology:

A graph of the inbound sales methodology -- from identify, connect, explore, and advise.

In inbound sales, potential customers move through three phases: awareness, consideration, and decision. As they move through these phases, the sales team works to convert these leads into paying customers.


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What is a marketing qualified lead (MQL)?

A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is a lead the marketing team has designated as most likely to become a customer compared to other leads. This designation is typically determined by which CTAs the lead clicked on, the pages they visited, offers downloaded, interactions with social posts, and other criteria.

what is mql and sql definition

Now let's discuss how SQLs and MQLs differ, and how they relate to one another within the sales process.

The Difference Between an MQL and SQL

The biggest difference between an SQL and an MQL is the intent to buy. An SQL is someone who is ready to speak to sales with the intent to purchase the product or service offered.

Knowing this difference is crucial because it determines what lead nurturing process the customer moves through. You wouldn’t want to serve leads content that is not related to their buyer’s journey. Additionally, MQLs are not ready to make a purchase, and sending them off to your sales team prematurely can turn them off to your product and waste the sales rep’s time.

For example, you wouldn’t send a lead to your sales team if they were a first-time visitor to your site and downloaded some research-based informational content. If you’re selling CRM software, this could be content like “Best CRMs of 2023.” As they’re just starting their buyer’s journey, they would be considered an MQL.

However, if they’ve become a repeat visitor to your site, and download content related to a specific action or bottom-of-funnel content like “Things to Know Before Purchasing CRM Software,” this would be a good candidate for an SQL. They’ve already passed the research phase and have indicated by their online behavior that they are ready to take the next step.

difference between mql and sql chart

Why Differentiating Between MQLs and SQLs is Important

Understanding MQLs and SQLs is important for your sales team because the system can save your salespeople time so they spend more of their time selling to the right people at the right time.

At its best, the process of lead scoring and converting MQLs to SQLs gives your sales team more qualified prospects so they'll have more meaningful conversations.

Additionally, tracking MQLs and SQLs gives your sales and marketing team insight into what's working — what brings leads in, and how likely are they to convert? Plus, how often is your sales team closing SQLs? Is your sales team having more meaningful conversations?

Moving a Lead from MQL to SQL

So, how do you move a lead from an MQL to an SQL? Consider the following factors.

Lead Score

The process of moving a potential buyer from an MQL to an SQL can vary depending on the company, but often begins with a process called lead scoring.

According to Lindsay Kolowich, a HubSpot Academy content creator, lead scoring is the process of assigning values, often in the form of numerical "points," to each lead you generate for the business.

You can score your leads based on multiple attributes, including the professional information they've submitted to you and how they've engaged with your website and brand across the internet. This process helps sales and marketing teams prioritize leads, respond to them appropriately, and increase the rate at which those leads become customers.

Lead scoring is a way to save salespeople time so they spend more time talking to leads that actually want to talk to them and are interested in your product or service.

Want to learn how to qualify customers? Check out the Ultimate Guide to Sales Qualification.

Lead Behavior

Sales and marketing teams work together to determine which actions qualify a prospect as ready to move on to the sales process. You'll determine what the ideal lead looks like and decide how much weight a particular action carries.

For example, these actions could be booking a meeting, taking part in a demo, or responding to an email. Then, you could assign higher point values to booking a meeting rather than responding to an email.

Without a defined set of actions, your marketing team might pitch leads that aren't ready to move on to the sales process. Overall, this will slow down your sales team.

So, what type of behavior can move a prospect along? It could come in the form of engagement on your site. Let's say a lead is engaging on your website, opening your emails, or downloading your lead magnets. That means that they're interested in what you have to say. Depending on how much they engage with you and the type of engagement, they might be ready to move from MQL to SQL.

You could also include negative actions. For instance, if a lead has stopped engaging with you or stopped opening your emails, that could bring their lead score down.

Likelihood to Buy

Typically, for a lead to become an SQL, they have to have a need for your product or service, have the budget to purchase your product and infrastructure to use it, and your product or service solves their pain points.

This is the idea of the BANT system (Budget, Authority, Needs, and Timeline). While you shouldn't use this system to ask a series of rote questions, it can give you an idea that you're selling to a good fit customer. For example, you'll still want to map out who's involved, identify your prospect's problems, and discover how quickly their organization moves.

Incorporating Leads Into Your Sales Process

Once your sales team gets a lead from the marketing team, it's time to work on your sales process so that you can close as many deals as possible.

When talking to SQLs, salespeople should prepare just like always, but use the information gathered during the nurturing MQL phase to help close the deal. For example, you should know what a prospect has downloaded, and the path they took to become an SQL.

Then, it's time to talk with them and learn their story so you're aware of how your product can service them.

Categorizing Leads Correctly is Crucial

The MQL and SQL categorizing process above can help you determine how ready a lead is for a conversation. If your company isn't using this system, you can use it to maximize your sales conversations, so you can make more sales.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in November 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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