Lead Nurturing, Fast and Slow

I’ll borrow the title of one of my favorite books (Thinking, Fast and Slow) to make a few important points about lead nurturing in this post.

While there is a strong argument that buyers should be nurtured before, during, and after the initial sale, I’m going to speak in this post about pre-sales lead nurturing, the purpose of which is to turn prospective buyers into marketing qualified leads, or MQLs.

For a widely used term, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find a good definition of MQL on the web. HubSpot’s definition, while a tad self serving, isn’t bad:

A marketing qualified lead (MQL) is a lead judged more likely to become a customer compared to other leads based on lead intelligence, often informed by closed-loop analytics.

An MQL is someone judged to be more likely to buy than the rest.  That works for me.  Typically, MQLs are defined by a set of rules like:

  1. New
  2. A predictive lead score of A, B, or C
  3. Correct geography
  4. At a company bigger than some threshold
  5. “Raised their hand.”  Took activity that indicates interest (i.e., they are not just  a name on purchased list) or increasingly, took multiple actions that accumulated points in a behavioral tracking system that exceed some threshold.

The first point (the newness criterion) was a trap that I slipped in to see if you were paying attention.  While some marketers will argue that MQLs need to be “new” (and there are some good reasons for this) others will increasingly question — in a lead nurturing world — what “new” actually means and why “new” matters.

After all, what should matter is that we have found a person more likely to buy than the other people.  Whether they’ve been in our database 2 hours, 2 weeks, or 2 years shouldn’t matter.  Or should it?

I think it does matter because:

  • Marketing needs to watch its image in front of sales.  Declaring someone who’s come to our last 3 annual roadshows an MQL strikes me as a “Kick Me” sign, regardless of whether she’s just accumulated 50 points.  There is a difference between someone who is new and someone we’ve been recycling for several years.
  • Marketing needs to track how many are new vs. recycled (1) to avoid a seemingly in-built tendency to be new-obsessed, (2) because few companies actually want 100% of either, and (3) because new and recycled MQLs will likely show very different downstream conversion rates, which should not be averaged away.

That’s why, in my view, a “new MQL” is a contact who has become an MQL for the first time (i.e., they are not necessarily new to our database, but they are new in hitting the MQL criteria).  After that, if they don’t buy on the first round and if they later come back to life again (by accumulating enough points in the nurture system), they are a “recycled MQL.”

MQLs = new MQLs + recycled MQLs

When I first heard the term “nurture” about a decade ago, to me it was all about recycling.  Nurture was what you did to people who were interested in your stuff, but who weren’t ready to buy now.  The purpose, then, of nurture would be some combination of (1) maintaining awareness and positive opinion so that the customer would call when they were ready to buy, and (2) attempting to accelerate the customer’s buying timeframe by marketing the benefits of acting sooner rather than later.

Nurture, then, was a process that should take quarters or years — not days or weeks.  Nurture could include emails, but it wouldn’t be limited to them.  We might invite nurtured leads to local events, mail them schwag (aka, “dimensional pieces“), and even call them from time to time.

I now call this path “slow nurture” because marketers seem to increasingly define “nurture” as the process by which you take a new inquiry (or name) and turn them into an MQL.  It becomes largely about email and is a speedy process that executes in hours, days, or maybe weeks.  I now call this “fast nurture.”

Both types of nurture should involve point accumulation, use tracks, and be A/B tested.  But there is a fundamental difference between fast nurture and slow nurture, related primarily to frequency.

This is what fast nurturing all too often feels like:

That’s why I also call fast nurture speed-bagging.

If you speed-bag someone who plans to buy in 12 months, what happens?  You irritate the heck out of them.  “Hey, I just wanted to read that white paper and you’ve emailed and called 4 times in a week.  Go away.”  Then they  hit unsubscribe or junk-sender.

And that’s it.  You’re done.  You spent real money finding someone, they were the right person, they even have plans to buy — just not now — and you speed-bagged them into blocking your communications.  Epic fail.

That’s why marketers need to think about Nurture, Fast and Slow.  They need to never fast-nurture slow-nurture prospects.  And they need worry about just how much they are speed-bagging even the fast-nurture prospects.  Particularly in markets where the challenge is more finding the right buyer at right time than simply finding the right buyer, matching the pace of the nurture to the pace of the buyer is everything.

9 responses to “Lead Nurturing, Fast and Slow

  1. Judd Bornheimer

    Hey Dave,

    Great write up, you’re one of my favorite SaaS blogs to follow. Quick note on MQL’s. Having worked with a few of your reps while I was at Cervello, and knowing how they view the world, I might suggest a change in thinking when it comes to MQL’s and who should be passed over the fence to your sales guys.

    Recently at InsightSquared, we transitioned to an MQA format (Marketing Qualified Account) and it’s worked wonders for me as an AE. Rather then getting an MQL from a low level contact, we weight higher level (VP/C-Level) interactions with our content heavier. And rather then looking at it at a contact level, we look at the cumulative score under the account.

    Our VP Marketing calls it the “it takes a village” approach. Which I think would apply to your guys’ sale to the enterprise.

    Thanks again for the post btw!

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  3. Dave, i appreciate your fresh thoughts and that you share them for discussion. And i’m asking myself for a while now if it still makes sense to distinguish between marketing-qualified and sales-qualified. I’d rather prefer to look where the client is than us.

    The idea looks more like this:
    Are they open to talk with us but still to be discovered more deeply? A Discovery-QL. Are they ready to be shown our solution? A Presentation-QL. Are they ready to change things, is there a will to go? A Buying-QL.

    A question that rises: Who does discovery and presentation then? Marketing or sales?

    • From a buyer journey perspective, I’d need to think on that a bit. However, from an operational perspective, I have a very practical definition of “sales qualified lead” (SQL) that does suggest it needs to be different from a MQL. I think an SQL is, de facto defined as “an oppty that a salesperson is willing to be asked about every week.” Because that’s when happens (or should) when they accept one!

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