Why I’m Killing the Marketing Qualified Lead

Five years ago, I was sitting at my desk working on a PowerPoint pitch for an upcoming customer visit. My boss stopped by and asked me a question that would change my life.

Hey Tom, can you run marketing?

Prior to that moment, I had spent my entire career in technical sales with a few short stints in product management. I had worked closely with marketing throughout my career, but I had never been a marketer. I had never generated a lead. I had never managed a budget. I had never launched a campaign.

So I of course said yes, but then reality quickly set in. I had to scramble to learn modern marketing, and learn it fast. I started by reading everything I could find from the companies I admired. Marketo’s Definitive Guides. HubSpot’s Blog. Eloqua’s Content Grid. I read these over and over until I could nearly recite them word for word, and recreate the important visuals on a whiteboard.

I was asked to join marketing at a time when growth hacking was just becoming a thing, and it happened fit my background. I’m not a brand guy (a weakness I’m trying to address) but I love technology and math, so the language of marketing automation spoke to me. I implemented Marketo at my first CMO job at Ektron and then again at Acquia, where our team won the 2014 Marketo Revvie award for most dramatic business impact.

There’s no arguing that the MQL, and the broader sales and marketing funnel, transformed marketing. It forced alignment, requiring sales and marketing to agree on the traits and actions that made a good lead. It required a good content strategy to guide prospects through the complex B2B buying journey. It drove a consistent set of lead management processes that made it easy to measure conversions at key points. And maybe most importantly, it let marketing to prove our contribution to revenue.

I loved the MQL. I owe my marketing career to it. But now I’m over it. I’ve learned that more isn’t always better, and I think the MQL treadmill is slowly starting to suck the life out of marketing.

Enter the PQL.

I first heard of the concept of a PQL — or product qualified lead — via Christopher O’Donnell of HubSpot via a post on the excellent OpenView Medium publication. The basic idea is to combine freemium/open source product distribution with an inside-sales model to increase deal velocity. Users qualify themselves by using the product and inside sales exists to support them through the journey and set the stage for a long term relationship with the customer.


RapidMiner is the ideal candidate for a PQL model. We get over 20,000 product downloads a month. While there is some immediate drop-off between the initial product download and first usage, once someone makes it past the up-front learning curve, they absolutely love our product. For example, here’s our NPS score at two usage checkpoints:

Our clear path to growth is to get more people to use the product, guiding them through the product journey from building their first predictive model in RapidMiner to embedding the results into a business process to make or save money.

If someone doesn’t download and use our product, they aren’t a qualified lead.

The MQL + marketing automation playbook simply can’t produce the kind of high velocity leads and conversion rates we’ll get from creating happy, engaged users. If users need additional help or have questions, they can still “raise their hand” to talk to our inside sales team. And we’ll use a RapidMiner predictive lead scoring model to help identify the right free users for our inside sales team to proactively connect with.

We’re going to fully commit resources across the entire company to make this PQL model work, from how we allocate marketing resources and budget to our sales processes to the product roadmap. Everything. Instead of measuring traditional marketing metrics like MQLs, we’ll focus on product usage metrics and customer success.

Goodbye Lead Forms

The shift away from MQLs also lets me liberate content from the dreaded lead capture forms. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, and this post from Dave Gerhardt of Drift Why We’re Throwing Out All Of Our Lead Forms And Making Content Free pushed me over the edge.

I really don’t care how many leads our content generates. If our content is great, more people will download RapidMiner (we do capture email addresses on downloads) and more importantly, people will use it and see how we can deliver business impact. I’d rather help one user build a predictive model that generates millions in new revenue than add a bunch of poorly qualified “leads” to a database.

For example, people love our webinar content. We consistently get over 2,000 people to register, even though we ask them to fill out a complex form. How many people could we reach if we required nothing? (or maybe just an optional email address to receive the on-demand version for those who can’t make it?). I’m betting on a lot.

We’ve got great content. We’ve got a team of brilliant data scientists and predictive analytics experts. I want to get their knowledge in front of as many people as possible.

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