This article was updated in July 2022.
Ever since the introduction of the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall in 2006, B2B marketers have focused on generating MQLs (Marketing Qualified Leads) as their primary contribution to the business.
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As the Waterfall illustrates, marketing generates MQLs, which they then send over to the sales team for follow-up, ideally to convert to sales qualified leads, and then closed-won business.
At the time, the Demand Waterfall was a groundbreaking contribution toward conceptualizing the modern, data driven B2B sales strategy. It helped organizations operationalize their sales and marketing processes, and break them down into trackable, quantifiable chunks. If you could understand and establish metrics for each level of the waterfall, your sales funnel could become much more predictable.
Since then, marketers have been measured on how well they do at generating MQLs. Unfortunately, this can become a challenge for a number of reasons.
Throwing MQLs over the wall
In many organizations, marketers are put in a position where they're incentivized to generate more and more marketing leads, but not necessarily sales prospects or demos or other productive interactions. They end up “throwing the leads over the wall” to sales because they’re not incentivized to help move them along. They need to stay on their MQL treadmill in order to meet quota.
When that happens, sales complains that the marketing leads are terrible. They start doing their own lead generation and working their own cold leads without marketing support. Marketing retorts that the marketing leads are good, but sales isn’t following up, but really they have no visibility into what sales is up to.
Clearly this isn't what's best for the business in the long run. Marketing can have far more impact when they’re involved all the way down the Waterfall, helping develop a B2B sales strategy, working to get prospects to demos, and providing content to help them to get sales prospects across the finish line to closed-won opportunities--whether that’s educational materials, reference calls, or in person or online events.
Granted, a lot of organizations have trouble tracking activity from the top of the Waterfall to the bottom, making it a challenge to measure marketing’s contribution beyond the MQL. It’s a heavy lift to do it well, but it is something to strive for.
Do great marketing now
In the meanwhile, it’s really an issue of focus, and of doing great marketing now and solving the analytics problem later. When you do the right things every day, the right outcomes for the business will eventually result. Whether you’ve done the analysis behind it to quantify and attribute that with all due rigor doesn't matter as much.
We all tend to spend our time and orient our activity around what we’re incentivized to focus on. Marketing needs to focus less on MQLs and take more of an ownership mentality as to overall business success. Here are three KPIs that marketing can include that are more relevant and would change the way we spend our days:
Account engagement. This is simply a count of targeted accounts that marketing engaged with during the quarter. You need to define engagement. It can be as simple as saying, "Here are our 100 target accounts. How many of them completed a form, or accessed an asset on our website, or attended an event?" That's something that most businesses can do that's not quite as challenging as trying to follow activity all the way to the closed-won stage.
Account influence. It can be really tough to tell with certainty whether a lead became an opportunity or a sale directly because of marketing or sales, but you should be able to tell whether there was at least a marketing touch associated with it. We may not know how the prospect interacted with it, but that can still be counted as account influence.
Overall pipeline and sales. Marketing comes under scrutiny--and sometimes under the scalpel--when business is not going well. There's that saying that sales solves all problems. If you’re generating a healthy amount of new pipeline and net new business, it can be assumed that marketing and sales are succeeding.
Broaden your horizon
MQLs are the most measurable part of the Demand Waterfall, but we should not focus myopically on them. Instead of looking at them as the primary measure of success, look at them as a leading measure, because that’s really all they are. It’s a long way from MQL to closed-won. Just generating MQLs doesn't mean the business is going to be successful. To those who worry that taking their eye off the MQL ball could endanger their job, I would say that stating your contribution purely in MQLs generated isn’t a formula for a long tenure at a business.
What we really need to do is start measuring by account engagement, influence, and net pipeline. That means working with sales to figure out how best to engage our desired accounts across multiple channels. That can include cold emails, phone calls, social outreach, digital advertising, and virtual events, which can be one of the strongest forms of engagement of them all.
MQLs are really just the starting point. Widening our focus will change our thinking, and our behavior, and make us better marketers.