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Inbound Marketing Lead Generation Life Cycle Stages and What They Mean

Written by Becky Armstrong

Aug 1 2016

inbound marketing lead generation life cycle

How does your organisation define what a qualified lead is? At what stage should you send leads to sales? We explore each lead lifecycle stage, and how to progress leads to close in this post. 

Understand Lead Lifecycle Stages

If you’re running an inbound marketing campaign, lead generation is likely to be one of your highest priority goals. After all at a basic level, it’s marketing’s job to secure more leads for sales to work with.

But what does that mean exactly? How do you define what a lead is? What defines a qualified lead? When is a lead worth sending to sales? And how many lifecycle stages are there between generating that first lead contact, and having them close as a customer?

What is Lead Generation?

Lead Generation is the term used to describe how new leads are captured. As HubSpot describe in their Lead Generation Guide: “It's a way of warming up potential customers to your business and getting them on the path to eventually buying.”

What is Lead Nurture?

Lead nurture tactics help to progress initial leads through their purchasing journey. It's important to remember that each lead you generate will come into the funnel at a different stage in that journey. Equally, not all leads will be a good fit for your business. So before you can nurture leads through each lifecycle stage, you first need to identify and segment which lifecycle stage they are currently at - and assess whether they are a quality prospect worth prioritising.

Inbound Lead Lifecycle Stages and What They Mean

What is a Subscriber?

A subscriber is someone who has opted in to hear from you occasionally; they’ve typically signed up to blog updates or newsletter content - and want nothing else. This is the segment of your contacts who are sitting on the periphery of your sales funnel. They should be regarded as a long-term prospect and nurtured with relevant content - that they opted in to - to encourage them to progress.

What is a Lead?

A lead is someone who has indicated interest in learning more about your product or service offering in some form. Maybe they entered your database after downloading content on your site and completed a lead conversion form. Maybe you met them at an event. Or maybe they left an enquiry. Whatever action they took - they indicated that they hold a deeper interest in your brand and services. This is one of the first steps in the journey to closing them as a customer.

What is a Qualified Lead?

In traditional marketing, it’s not uncommon for all leads generated, regardless of quality, to be handed straight to sales. But an Inbound process works differently; marketing will firstly be trying to generate quality rather than a quantity of leads (more suited to your buyer persona profile). Secondly, marketing and sales teams are aligned in an Inbound process; meaning sales has access to marketing insight, and the two will work together to ensure only the best quality leads are qualified, prioritised and nurtured through to close.

Each organisation has it’s own definition of what constitutes a qualified lead. But essentially, a qualified lead is one that matches your ideal persona and has a challenge that your product/service can resolve.

To progress these leads through the funnel, there are two further lifecycle stages to go through, from an MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead) to an SQL (Sales Qualified Lead). It is important that definitions of what defines MQLs and SQLs are clear for both marketing and sales departments to ensure clear transition from one stage to the next.

What is an MQL?

An MQL is a good-fit business lead that has been qualified by marketing, has indicated an interest, and should be nurtured further with relevant content. Qualified leads are those that match your persona profile; that have the right challenges, business size, budget, organisation size etc, that you need.

What is an SQL?

One step further through the sales funnel, if a lead is a good fit MQL, sales teams should make contact to explore the challenges and context of that lead further. If they remain a good fit, they can be considered a sales qualified lead (SQL)

What is an Opportunity?

An opportunity is a contact who has been identified as meeting all of your ideal-fit persona criteria, has progressed through qualification stages and is in a position to consider purchase.

What is a Customer?

The icing on the cake! Having progressed through all of the life cycle stages, a customer is someone you have nurtured through to purchasing your products/services. But the work doesn’t stop there...

What is an Evangelist?

To continue the cake analogy - an evangelist is the cherry on the top! An evangelist is a client who has purchased your services and are happy to recommend you to others. If you want to reduce churn and build long term, fruitful relationships, you want to aim for this final stage.

Note: You should also have one or multiple ‘other’ lifecycle stages for leads outside these categories; typically for closed lost opportunities, customer renewals, and key accounts.

Using Lifecycle Stages For Success

Depending on the quality of the leads you’re generating, the success of your nurture activity and the length of your sales cycle, going from nought-to-customer can take a while. But if you understand and segment your leads into these lifecycle stages, you'll be able to better target your nurture activity, content and interactions for better lead conversion results.

Note: Further definitions on the above Inbound terminology can be found in our Complete Inbound Marketing Glossary of Jargon & Terms.

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