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Guide to the Marketing Lead Lifecycle Stages

Strategy & Lead Gen 10 minute read

This blog post was originally published in September 2013, but updated on September 7, 2017.

Last month we talked about what it took to build the framework to start increasing your website performance. At this point you are probably starting to get the increase in traffic you were looking for and getting those unknown visitors to convert into leads.

But you may be finding out that not all the leads you are getting are the highest quality, ones that would eventually become your ideal customers. Next week we’ll be touching on exactly how to determine whether a lead is qualified but first it’s necessary to understand the different lifecycle stages of a lead.

What is a Lead Lifecycle?

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The term lead lifecycle refers to how we manage the life of a lead (or contact or prospect depending on your terminology) from the moment it shows up in your system to eventually becoming a customer. The lead lifecycle defines where a lead can live, how a lead moves along and what we do with a lead at each stage.

Companies typically use lead lifecycle stages for two primary reasons: 

  1. Preventing sales leads (and potential sales leads) from falling through the cracks
  2. Reporting on conversion rates through each stage so movement from stage to stage can be optimized.

Do you know the stages of your lead lifecycle? You should—unfortunately, not everyone does.

Over 68% of businesses have not defined their sales funnel sages, according to Marketing Sherpa.

Yikes.

Leads in your lifecycle will take on many stages and the stages must be defined by your sales and marketing teams (a term we like to call Smarketing). Depending on what stage of the cycle the lead is in will ensure that you know where each lead is and how to communicate with them most effectively.

6 Sample Lead Lifecycle Stages

Below is an example of 6 different lifecycle stages that may apply to your business or provide you a starting place when determining your own lead lifecycle.

Subscriber

Think of subscribers as those folks who know about you and have opted in to hear from you periodically. In many cases your subscriber base is the segment of your contacts database that has only signed up for your blog or newsletter and nothing else.

Here's how to nurture them further:

You should nurture a long-term relationship with subscribers and offer them content that will increase the chances that they will move forward in the customer lifecycle.

For example, because they've opted in to hearing from you, put them through a very light nurture (I'm talking 1, maybe 2 emails) that offers them a download they'd enjoy. 

Relevant: "How to Reengage Cold Leads with a HubSpot Workflow"

Lead

Leads have shown more interest in what you offer than subscribers.

Typically a lead has filled out a form with more than just an email address, often for some sort of content-based offer on your website. We see companies use the lead lifecycle stage for what we think of as general, broadly appealing or top of the funnel offers.

As each lead demonstrates a higher degree of sales readiness and qualification, they will move further down the sales funnel.

Marketing Qualified Lead

Marketing Qualified Leads, commonly known as MQLs are those people who have raised their hands (metaphorically speaking) and identified themselves as more deeply engaged, sales-ready contacts than your usual leads, but who have not yet become fully fledged opportunities.

Here are ways you might classify an MQL:
  • They've downloaded more than one Awareness offers.
  • They've viewed your products page 10 times in 2 weeks.
  • They've downloaded what you've determined is the "consideration stage" offer (Like a guide of real case studies of people who have worked with you).

Ideally, you should only allow certain, designated forms to trigger the promotion of a lead to the MQL stage, specifically those that gate bottom of the funnel offers like demo requests, buying guides and other sales-ready calls to action.

Sales Qualified Lead

Sales Qualified Leads are those that your sales team has accepted as worthy of direct sales follow up. Using this stage will help your sales and marketing teams stay firmly on the same page in terms of the quality and volume of leads that you are handing over to your sales team.

Opportunity

Opportunities are contacts that have become real sales opportunities in your CRM. By this point, this person will have been reading your content for a long time. They've downloaded several of your offers, and may have seriously considered your services.

They probably know your prices, services, and have read your client reviews. They will be 90% ready to buy from you (yes!!), but still need that extra nudge and their last questions answered.

Customer

This is everybody’s favorite lifecycle stage: an actual, paying customer.

I know what lifecycle stages are now, but how do I use them?

You want to align the right kind of marketing tools with the right lifecycle stage. Here is an image that's a great high level review of what a typical business would determine as the right content:

customer-lifecycle-content-funnel.png

To really understand lifecycle marketing, you need to understand how people buy today.

According to HubSpot, half of shoppers spend at least 75% of their total shopping time conducting online research.

In other words, very few of your business leads are ready for a sales call.

So where are they in the buyer's journey (<< click if you need a refresher) — and how should you respond?

The buyer's journey is made up of three stages:

Awareness, consideration, and decision.

lifecycle-marketing-buyers-journey.png

  • In the awareness stage, people are trying to understand a specific problem. They're doing Google searches, reading blog posts, and checking out reviews.
  • In the consideration stage, people have nailed down their problem and they're looking at different solutions. They're downloading educational content to learn more, and maybe exchanging information with a few key brands.
  • In the decision stage, people have weighed different solutions and landed on one — now, they're looking for the right vendor to buy from. They're perusing demos, pricing sheets, and comparison reports.

Those are the three stages of the buyer's journey... But don't get too caught up in the definition.

Just think of how you shop today, and the kind of research and education you seek out: You probably use a mix of Google searches, third-party blogs, and vendor-supplied information.

This process is native to our digital era. In fact, it's probably how how you're already shopping online, for everything from new sneakers to long-term software investments.

Now, let's go back to a marketer's role in lifecycle marketing.

Consider this:

According to MarketingSherpa, 61% of B2B marketers send all leads directly to sales. However, only 27% of those leads will be qualified. (Tweet this)

In other words, marketers assume too many leads are in the "decision" stage, when really, they're only dabbling in "awareness."

Do they have bad leads?

Probably not.

They just need to identify their lead stages, and move people more effectively down the marketing funnel.

Not every lead is immediately qualified for a sales pitch. You need to ask the right questions to separate out your customer lifecycle stages.

Marketers need to segment our marketing messages to create the most impact and relevancy. We should classify leads into our five lifecycle stages that we discussed above.

Now, I'll walk you through the basic skeleton of a complete lifecycle marketing campaign.

Traffic to lead campaigns

You can't start lifecycle marketing without people first engaging with your brand. To bring in new visitors and convert website traffic into leads, you'll need plenty of educational, top-of-funnel content.

Best practices say you'll want to create a consistent blog calendar and post 1-2x weekly, targeting keywords to draw in new visitors.

You've got visitors:

Now what?

Your blogs and web pages should capture these leads by promoting premium content offers — the first trigger to enter your sales funnel.

For your first traffic-to-lead campaign, you should start with one premium content offer. This could be a guide related to your industry, a how-to eBook, worksheet, checklist, white paper, etc.

This offer should be purely educational, and make no (or little) mention of your product/business. It should be something your target audience really wants to get their hands on. (Try these 7 steps to create targeted offers for your buyer personas.)

Gate the premium content offer on a landing page with a form, AKA a lead capture page, so you can collect information... turning the visitor into a business lead.

You'll want to set a conversion percentage goal for your site as a whole. For example, you could aim for a 1.5% conversion rate on all organic traffic converting into business leads.

You'll also want to set a conversion goal for your landing page. A 20-30% conversion rate is great for a landing page.

Lead to MQL campaigns

Now that you've got a way to capture leads, you'll need to do something with these new people in your database!

For your lead to MQL campaign, create a series of emails that educates your lead on a specific topic, and entices them to take another action.

You will generally create a second offer — something more actionable — that encourages another download, read, or view.

For example, offer the "10 Step Checklist to Save Money on Winter Utilities" or "The Complete Guide to Mobile Security Webinar."

Not all of your emails need to point to this reconversion, but it should be the ultimate goal of the sequence.

At this point, you can label people as marketing qualified leads in your database. This label shows that they're considering solutions to their problem.

MQL to SQL campaigns

At this stage, you're encouraging a marketing qualified lead to start shopping around for solutions — one of which could be yours.

This preps the person for a sales call, passing off what we'd call a "warm lead."

This stage is so important, because it represents the handoff between marketing's to sales' ownership of a lead.

RELATED ARTICLE: "Create Your Own Sales and Marketing Alignment in 5 Simple Steps."

An MQL to SQL campaign starts introducing your solution specifically over time. 

You could create a series of emails that offer helpful tips, videos, etc... and then have a sales development rep jump in by offering helpful advice. 

Note: The inbound sales model — being helpful first, selling second — is picking up steam as the most cohesive with the marketing funnel ideology. You can get free training on this method from HubSpot.

If you see someone perusing your pricing page, visiting your website several times, or engaging enthusiastically with all of your emails, you might label them as an SQL sooner.

SQL to opportunity campaigns

The SQL stage is mainly in the ballpark of your sales team, but there are pieces of content that can be very helpful at this stage.

For example, you could create an eBook called "Working With [Company Name] on a [Company Offering] Project." You would distribute it to SQLs in personalized emails, encouraging them to download it and request a demo, assessment, etc.

Ideally, marketers would work with sales teams to develop this content.

This keeps the messaging cohesive through the entire customer lifecycle journey, and creates a better lead experience.

Like I mentioned before, you'll probably want to work from the bottom up — that is, start by creating your sales demo process, sell sheets, pricing materials, etc., and the workflows that people enter into them by.

Then you can create middle-of-funnel offers, "Awareness" stage downloads and landing pages, and blog posts to build out the top of your funnel.

Generally, you'll want more top-of-funnel content, and fewer middle- and bottom-stage offers. Just think of a funnel shape — easy!

Takeaway

Most non-sales-ready leads will eventually be ready — and it is up to you to both provide them with relevant information so you are there when they are ready to make a buying decision.

According to Brian Carroll, CEO of InTouch and author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale, up to 95 percent of qualified prospects on your Web site are there to research and are not yet ready to talk with a sales rep, but as many as 70 percent of them will eventually buy a product from you —or your competitors.

The key is to focus on current issues in your prospect’s mind and offer effective solutions to their problems. Getting your salespeople involved in the buying process as early as possible where relevant will increase your opportunity of conversion. The lead lifecycle begins early in the buying process and it is most important that you get involved at the beginning and not at the end.

want a stronger sales funnel? grab our free customer lifecycle ebook!

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