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7 min read

Agile Account-Based Marketing killed the MQL

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“The MQL is dead.”

We are well aware that this statement is bold, but it’s one which we completely stand by when it comes to account-based marketing (ABM) in an enterprise setting. Especially when the ABM program is targeting Tier 1 (C-suite and VP-level) prospects at Fortune 1000 accounts. However, the news is not only that it no longer makes sense to use the term; but also the shift in account-based marketing that has been unfolding since the second half of the 2010s. This shift that is making the term, as we use it today, obsolete.

This article explores how enterprises can alter their approach to account-based marketing, so that they achieve

  • Faster lead- and sales-cycles,
  • Tighter marketing-sales alignment,
  • More qualified opportunities attributed to marketing.

So, what is wrong with the term?

Using the term marketing qualified lead (MQL) and differentiating it from a sales qualified lead (SQL) works on the premises that leads in their initial, “cold” state are automatically nurtured via marketing automation. Then, once they are deemed (scored) ‘interested’ based on activity and company-wise potent enough, then they are to be engaged personally via a sales development rep.

Most organizations classify this type of “ready for contact from sales” state a marketing-qualified lead (MQL) because it is at this stage that the lead is qualified by marketing and handed over to sales; typically a sales development representative for further qualification. Companies using this distinction between marketing- and sales-qualified leads inherently presume that in complex B2B settings, this is as far as marketing takes a lead. This presumption is changing.

In most ABM scenarios, what is usually known about an MQL when handed over to sales development are the digital interactions with the company’s owned platforms (websites, apps etc.), some data provided by the lead herself on forms, and the fact that the company they are working with is a good candidate for the product. In most instances, this means the lead showing interest in digital materials, visiting the website or performing a combination of events that marketing automation is able to track.

The purchasing process has changed

80% of B2B purchasers claim they are spending more time than previously researching pre-purchase, which likely extends the purchasing-cycle. Source: Demandbase

Lead nurturing is just one step in the larger play that we refer to as account-based marketing. In the original way of doing ABM, the play was essentially a linear, 4-step process:

  1. Identify accounts
  2. Create a plan to engage those accounts
  3. Launch campaigns to engage buyers
  4. Hand over qualified leads to sales

The sales department may also have a process of identifying and reaching out to accounts, but rather than launching digital campaigns (email campaigns, display ads, PPC etc.), they would contact tier 1 prospects personally by cold outreach over the phone, email or Linkedin.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the concept of the MQL, but it is becoming obsolete, as ABM itself is evolving. We are soon uncovering a more agile approach where marketing hands over a much richer profile of MQLs than before, qualifies leads with greater efficiency and all together makes a greater impact.

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How old-school ABM fails

First, let’s look at where the traditional account-based marketing approach has its shortcomings.

  1. Unapproachable C-level. Digital initiatives don’t reach the C-level at Fortune 1000 organizations. In this environment, key stakeholders never become MQLs. Downloading whitepapers, filling out forms; these tasks are most often tasked out to coordinators or mid-level management.
  2. Single-threaded outreach. Traditional account-based marketing assumes that an MQL, after being nurtured and coached, will sell the vendor’s solution internally to the decision makers. All too often, sales development reps are waiting around until a lead gets nurtured by marketing automation. Even then, sales development reps don’t contact the supposed-decision makers - they only contact the lead that is warming up, who, again, is likely not a decision maker in the purchase. Marketing typically hasn’t been dealing with what happens after the MQL stage.

As a result, the pipeline-velocity (and sales cycle) is slow, marketing only plays a small role in the earliest stages and struggles to prove attribution.

Marketing is only nurturing tier 3 people (typically analysts and researchers, even interns) at target accounts. The actual marketing materials mostly never reach the actual decision makers. At the same time, the sales department is slow to react. They should be fast to proact. Any misalignment in communication and processes between sales and marketing only weakens the joint effectiveness of the two departments, slowing pipeline velocity even more.

ABM the Agile way

The essence of ABM’s agile version is the deployment of personal outreach to multiple top level decision makers very early in the lead nurturing process. The new-school approach to doing account-based marketing has evolved from the notion that marketing can (and should) be involved further down the pipeline.

Agile ABM with its increased marketing involvement and more proactive outreach consistently results in

  • a smoother and more personalized experience for the account
  • better quality leads for the sales department
  • more high-quality leads attributed to marketing
  • faster pipeline-velocity and
  • better sales-marketing alignment

The Agile ABM process differs from its predecessor in that as a tier 2 or 3 lead from a target-account shows interest in the company, a “swat team” under marketing’s control researches and performs a coordinated, cold outreach to multiple tier 1 leaders simultaneously, who are presumed to have a say in the evaluation.

Agile_ABM_ábrák_Final_ABM_Figure-3_B-1

The goal of these interactions is to get information on the intent and plans of the organization in order to further assess the validity of the lead.

The rationale behind the simultaneous outreach is this: interest in a complex B2B solution from a target account on behalf of a tier 3 contact is preceded by direction from higher up the organization. In other words, if a potent prospect-company has somebody researching a $100K+ solution, there is usually very good reason to suspect that the idea to do so has originated from above.

In any case, pipeline velocity grows when following the Agile ABM strategy of establishing several points of contact between multiple stakeholders at the prospect account very early on.

In our experience, one of three scenarios happen when we do a SWAT team-like outreach to multiple perceived-stakeholders for our clients’ marketing teams.

  1. A very frequent scenario: we find out that they are indeed researching/shopping for a solution. The Tier 1 contact will connect us with the right tier 2 or 3 stakeholder which is valuable, because we get handed down from an authoritative stakeholder. This increases our significance, bettering our chances down the line. Even in this scenario, we will often get some information on the organization’s purpose and be able to check off a few of the BANT criteria; super-valuable information.
  2. Another frequent and positive outcome is that we manage to connect with a high-level stakeholder who agrees to a discussion. We get huge amounts of feedback and end up qualifying the lead at the SQL level. Sales is super happy with the lead-quality. If the timing or other factors aren’t right and we decide not to proceed, valuable feedback and market-information gets collected by marketing.
  3. The least likely scenario: We find out that top-management has no interest in our solution. This lead will never get passed on to sales, even though they would traditionally qualify as an MQL based on their digital activity.

A key win in all three scenarios is the time saved - in other words, increased pipeline velocity. This guerilla-like research-followed-by-outreach in a “multi-threaded”, simultaneous fashion happens very fast; typically by the time a “slower” lead qualifies themselves as an MQL, we’ll have reached out to several high-level decision makers at the account and will have gathered valuable information about intent, need, budget, time-frame etc.

AABM_4-pager_illustr_AACS-1

A client of Infinityn International’s journey to Agile ABM is typical of how companies transition to this approach. The case also shows how the road to sales-marketing alignment often leads to Agile ABM - and vice versa - as it works both ways: implementing pieces of the agile ABM puzzle fosters a stronger relationship between marketing and sales. I The other way around, a tighter collaboration between the two departments naturally results in agile components emerging and seedingnto the ABM playbook.

How a global industrial software vendor implemented Agile Account-Based Marketing

Infinityn International has been doing whitelabel sales development for this client for over 18 months. At a certain point, the sheer volume of high-quality SQLs was too much for the inside sales team to follow up on, so they requested a short pause in our operations. The timing couldn’t have been better for the marketing leader of the client.

The marketing leader requested that he “borrow” Infinityn and we do a pilot project following up with MQLs who have potential but the SDR team lacks resources to follow up adequately. After initial results were in, the client kept deploying Infinityn earlier and earlier in the lead-nurturing process.

Currently, for select and high-potential leads, Infinityn does the Agile ABM outreach after just a few interactions on the lead’s behalf - and the results are stunning.

Consequently, Infinityn now forms an integral addition to the marketing team and not the sales team. Pipeline velocity as well as the volume and quality of sales qualified leads all point in the direction that Infinityn should be deployed as early as possible in the lead cycle. 

So, what happens to the SQL as a term?

We have only mortified the MQL in this article and haven’t said much about the sales-qualified lead. As we have discussed, using the distinction between marketing- and sales-qualified leads becomes irrelevant. For select accounts, a multi-threaded and multi-target outreach is initiated as soon as there is indication of interest from digital marketing. This makes the use of both MQL and SQL terms obsolete and results in

  • More concise reporting
  • Less argument about definitions

Final thoughts

Adopting the principles and process of Agile ABM is recommended for companies selling complex B2B solutions. It’s an uncomplicated shift, when added to a well-oiled ABM process, while implementing Agile ABM also provides opportunity for fine-tuning processes in marketing. Key wins that come with Agile ABM include

  • a smoother and more personalized experience for the account
  • better quality leads for the sales department
  • more high-quality leads attributed to marketing
  • faster pipeline-velocity and
  • better sales-marketing alignment

If you would like to learn how this methodology would play out in your organization, or you’d like to discuss a pilot Agile ABM project, please schedule an appointment. Alternatively, watch a 20-minute primer on AABM:

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