Generating leads is a top priority for most marketers – that's no surprise to anyone. But defining what a lead truly is and knowing what lifecycle stage each lead is in is even more critical.
Every lead will travel through definable and measurable lead stages with your brand. The message you send to them at each stage determines whether they advance to the next phase of your relationship with them... or fall through the cracks of a broken pipeline.
Why Is Understanding the Stages of a Lead Important?
Thinking of the customer lifecycle in these lead stages allows you to track the progress of individuals through your funnel consistently.
You build a plan around each stage. Now, someone doesn't fall through the cracks and get ignored just because they're not as far along as you thought they would be at this point.
Maybe they weren't ready to buy when they first downloaded your Ultimate Guide. If they're a good match otherwise, don't send them back to square one.
They stay in that stage. Nurture them relative to the progress they've made.
Ideally, nurturing is automated, so this could happen indefinitely if needed. However, as you collect more data, you'll be able to refine your processes so that only leads who've indeed "reached the next stage" get labeled as such. What's more, you don't waste resources on those who will never progress—cutting marketing and sales costs over time while increasing your ROI.
What are Lead Stages?
Depending on your B2B business model, leads likely progress through 8 lead stages.
You can engage strangers online and keep them returning to your website. But we don't even start measuring lead stages until someone has voluntarily given you some basic information about themselves.
Before this point, most of an unidentified person's activities were hidden due to privacy settings and laws. Until this person reveals themselves, they're just an IP address (if that). You have no control over their experience.
A person enters the subscriber lead stage by following your blog, social activity, or brand. They now consistently see you even if you know little about them.
There's some debate on whether social followers count. So, it's important to be clear about your organization's definition. That often comes down to how engaged your followers are.
How many subscribers do you think a SaaS company like HubSpot has? A lot, right?
But not every subscriber is a business buyer or can afford HubSpot technology. Highly-engaged subscribers are helpful. They share and comment. They increase social proof. But they may not be leads themselves.
A lead is a person who meets your basic demographic/firmographic criteria to be a potential customer. But lead generation is only the start of the lifecycle stages that carry this lead through becoming a customer.
You now have enough info about this person so that Marketing can personalize some of your communications with them. Plus, they have demonstrated enough interest in your brand (based on their digital footprint) that Marketing considers them qualified to nurture with more content offers, outreach sequences, etc.
The precise criteria vary by company. A lead becomes an MQL when a person who meets basic criteria takes an action like:
- Downloading a Guide, Case Studies, or other Lead Magnet content.
- Taking a quiz
- Downloading multiple offerings
- Attending a webinar
- Watching a video
In other words, you've established that they're worth the extra time and resources it takes to move someone deeper into your sales funnel. Typically, after a person becomes MQL, you pass them to Sales for evaluation.
The lead stages continue as sales evaluates this MQL. If Sales accepts the MQL, they change the flag to Sales Qualified. It's up to them to carry the baton until the deal is closed/won or closed/lost. They will reach out directly to the lead.
If Sales doesn't think the MQL is ready to become SQL, they could kick it back. However, if you have a well-aligned Marketing and Sales, the percentage of MQL that become SQL immediately is high.
If Sales does outreach with no response, they may also kick it back to Marketing. Often, this is just a matter of timing for the lead, so Marketing will continue to engage the lead as an MQL until they take another action that advances them.
This sounds like a lot of back and forth, and can be. But lead management automation makes this seamless.
If the outreach outcome is favorable, Sales has a hot lead. They'll stay in contact with this lead because this person is ready to buy. Sales just needs to work out the details, manage objections, and make sure the customer ends up with features that will delight them.
This seems self-explanatory. But lead stages don't stop when you make the sale. Onboarding, trouble-shooting content, and customer support become vital. You're focused on ensuring the customer can see and experience the value of what they've purchased.
A customer who is so delighted with you tells others about you, generating word-of-mouth referrals and growth (the flywheel effect).
This becomes social proof. It magnetizes your brand among your target audience and builds instant trust with new strangers. It expands your reach and drives the lead stages forward faster—shortening the sales cycle.
Some leads don't fit into neat packages. These could include job applicants, vendors, employees, and competitors who you have contact information for because they're spying on you. It's common.
How to Build a Marketing Plan Around Each Lifecycle Stage
You can think of the lead stages as the inbound marketing buyer's journey from a marketing point of view. The two are aligned. So is your marketing plan around them.
- Subscribers are in the Awareness Stage.
- Leads and MQL are the Consideration Stage.
- SQL and Opportunities are in the Decision-making Stage.
- Customers and Evangelists are the Delighted Customer Stage.
Now, what do the right people (ideal customers) in this stage need to see to move into the next phase with you?
You'll build your marketing plan around it. Follow these steps.
- Segment contacts based on where they are in the lead stages.
- Drive endless leads by getting to know your niche audience and what type of content they need at each stage. Set up a system that notifies you when they've entered the next stage (e.g., they download your guide).
- Automate whatever you can to deliver a consistent lead experience.
- Set clear conversion rate goals for each stage and ensure you have the systems and technology to track performance effectively.
- Assess where leads are getting stuck in the pipeline and address it.
- Make note of how quickly people move through stages to forecast the percentage of subscribers who become customers and the revenues that generate. This will become very predictable.
How to Use Marketing Content at Each Stage
This starts with a lead generation website. This site is built with a clear goal to generate leads and guide them through the lead stages.
Subscribers need high-quality blog posts that help them explore their problems, why they're happening, and a broad but useful overview of how to fix them. This generates interest in how you help them. You capture more leads.
Think long-term here. How can you build a lasting, meaningful relationship through helpful content?
Position yourself for the long game with the stretch goal of playing a short game. When you do, semi-strangers become invested in a brand without throwing up their defenses before you can connect with them.
Think helpfulness first!
Pre-MQL Leads Content
In this lifecycle stage, they know who you are, trust you a little, and will take small actions if you ask them to.
Use CTAs to encourage them to explore your website and learn more. This further positions you as an authority. Ask them to download additional educational content like eBooks, guides, checklists, or whitepapers.
Where interactions may have been casual and sporadic before, an MQL is in the active research phase of its journey.
Selling features in an earlier lifecycle stage would have been confusing overshare. But now leads are ready to hear about the specific features and how becoming a paying customer adds value.
Case studies, demos, and free trials help paint this picture.
Now the lead is in Sales. Marketing has less to do with how the lead progresses. But Marketing's job is not done yet. Marketing can create sales enablement content. Through marketing automation, becoming an MQL can trigger three events:
- A notification goes to Sales management about the ball in their court.
- The lead is directly assigned to an available Sales agent for follow-up.
- An email sequence begins which includes sales enablement content created by marketing to aid sales in closing the deal efficiently.
Sales follows their processes, closing the deal and signing the contract. That's somewhat out of your hands.
Marketing, Sales, and Service collaborate to create Chatbots, trouble-shooting videos, tutorials, and other content that helps customers get the most out of their purchase. Service sends surveys to take the general satisfaction pulse and more in-depth surveys to get specifics about target customer experiences.
Content to Generate Evangelists
Marketing continues to re-engage customers with email, social media, and remarketing to generate shares, referrals, social proof, renewals, and more leads subscribers entering the pipeline.
How Tracking KPIs Improves Your Lead Stages
Tracking KPIs helps you home in on the lead stages that aren't flowing into the next stage as they should. Maybe you have subscribers but no leads. You have to ask yourself if you're attracting the right people.
Perhaps your MQL to SQL conversion rate is low. It's possible Marketing and Sales aren't in agreement about what a SQL looks like. You could be attracting the wrong crowd. Or your content could just not be doing the job of nurturing people to take that next step.
The insights you'll gain from clearly defining KPIs at each lifecycle stage will help you market smarter with less waste. You'll be able to predict revenues, repeat what's working, and scale it to grow the business.
How to Track Lifecycle Stage KPIs
It's no secret that you need certain technologies to track KPIs. Reporting is essential to staying on top of campaign, content, channel, and pipeline performance. It's important to know what KPIs you need to track and how to use technology effectively to track them.
Your tech stack could include a mix of free and paid tools like:
- Google Search Console
- Google Analytics
- Your CRM
- Ad analytics
- Social media analytics
- UTM tracking codes
- Email marketing analytics
Where can you go from here? Our team recently produced a webinar where we discuss how to capture leads so you can effectively guide them through the lead stages. View our webinar for free now: