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Are Inbound Leads Really Leads? I Believe the Majority Are Not.

I think some of the information being touted by companies that have a stake in inbound marketing can be misleading. What I am talking about is the categorizing of all inbound inquiries as “leads.”

Ask any salesperson if all inbound inquires are leads, and when he or she stops laughing, you will probably get an earful about how inquiries, unless they have been prequalified, are a waste of salespeople’s time.

I blame the mailing list and database compilers for starting the problem by calling the contacts in their databases or mailing lists “leads.” In my experience, contacts from compiled databases aren’t leads until they have been qualified. Until then I believe they are really just “suspects.”

Not-yet-qualified contacts, such as inquiries (responses) generated by inbound and outbound marketing, are a bit better than suspects, as they indicate that someone actually took some kind of action (e.g., inquired, downloaded, visited, registered, or attended). But I wouldn’t classify these inquiries as “leads” either; I’d classify them as “prospects.”

Now back to my earlier comment: that some of the information being touted by companies with a stake in inbound marketing can be misleading. I believe that if studies like HubSpot’s The State of Inbound Marketing 2010, instead of categorizing all inbound inquiries or responses as “leads,” rather talked about a lower cost per “prospect” from inbound than from outbound marketing, the results would be a more accurate reflection of reality.

Which leads me to another observation (no pun intended) . . .

The majority of inbound inquiries need to be nurtured and qualified with outbound marketing in order to be “qualified” as leads. Don’t believe that? Look beyond the hype and you’ll see that even inbound marketing companies like HubSpot use outbound marketing tactics such as e-mail and telemarketing to proactively follow up on, nurture and qualify their inbound inquiries.

The bottom line?

The most effective lead generation programs involve both inbound and outbound marketing.

What do you think?

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I completely agree that mailing list and database compilers calling the contacts in their databases “leads” is completely ridiculous, as at the point of data acquisition, these individuals have clearly shown no specific interest in the list purchaser’s company.

I’m more inclined to label inquiries as leads however, since (as the term implies) they may lead to an opportunity. (I wrote about this myself recently, actually: http://bit.ly/cLPPtl).

The point about qualification is crucial though, and until an inquiry is qualified, it certainly isn’t a lead that Sales want to see. Of course, Sales don’t want to see any lead that isn’t qualified, so it’s the same difference! Inquiries will probably need more nurturing and qualification before they’re Sales ready, and that it what Marketing should build into their lead handling strategy and processes.

Simon Daniels.


I agree that using phone and email to connect with people who have already found you and given you permission to contact them is absolutely a best practice. I would not even call this outbound marketing.

The big difference between inbound and outbound is around permission and conversation. For example, print ads, telemarketing, and direct mail are outbound (no permission, no invitation to conversation), then blogging, opt-in email and social media are inbound (all permission based and the prospect initiates the conversation). If someone finds you through a search engine, signs up for your blog, then later reads and article and then fills out a form on your website, and you then call and email them relevant information, that is all inbound marketing, and very effective. Picking names off of a “targeted list” and calling them up and having to explain who you are and what your company does because they have never heard of you is outbound marketing. And increasingly outbound marketing is becoming more difficult and less effective, no matter how you slice or define the different stages of the funnel – suspect, prospect, lead, qualified lead, sales ready lead, etc. – the overall trend is the same.

From all the data I have seen and in my experience working with thousands of businesses, the vast majority of companies over rely on outbound marketing and have a huge opportunity to lower their cost per suspect, prospect, lead and customer.


It’s all marketing. The list broker/owners love to call their names “leads.” They can charge more for leads than names. Nobody wants to buy names when they can buy leads…or so the thinking goes.

I agree with Mike’s point that outbound is getting harder and less effective. I also agree with Mac in that at the end of the day, its a combination of the two (inbound and outbound).


A generic contact is not a lead unless they have expressed interest in a product. Neither is an incoming name if they are inquiring about something totally different!


Mike, Thanks for weighing in. I agree with much of what you said, but you didn’t address what my post was really all about: Inbound inquiries or responses are more often prospects than leads. – Mac


I agree Mac, calling every name that comes in a lead is ridiculous but that said a prospect that finds you (inbound) vs an outbound-generated prospect is generally better. Warm vs. cold.

That does not mean inbound prospects don’t need nurturing and follow up. Of course they do.


Dave, I appreciate your comments, but disagree that inbound-generated prospects are warmer than outbound generated prospects. In my considered opinion, while names on a list are seldom better than suspects, outbound-generated inquiries (responses) can be just as “warm” as those which are inbound-generated.

If I read a magazine and an ad in it gets my attention and I choose to respond to it, Dave, how is that being less warm than if I saw something on a blog or via Twitter?

– Mac


Hey Mac,
Isn’t this just a semantic argument? Inbound inquiries are unqualified leads (many of which are junk). Once you qualify them, they are now qualified leads. Or am I missing a greater point that you are making?

– Mike


Some interesting and relevant comments above.

Like many things that work it’s about getting the balance right in this case (Inbound and Outbound). However it’s equally important to adopt a flexible approach which can be quickly adapted based on constantly reviewing quantifiable results these techniques may or may not deliver.

Getting the basics right by having a clearly defined value proposition that the client can relate to gives us a fighting chance. We must then start and maintain accurate and consistent qualification throughout but be prepared to make changes when needed. Whether it’s Inbound, Outbound, Permission Marketing, phone, email or software demos by carrier pigeon!! It all has part to play in the overall strategy.



Yes, it is semantics, but I believe it is misleading to classify everything from lists to qualified, sales-ready opportunities as “leads.” – Mac


Thanks Mac. Interesting post. As you point out, many successful companies use both inbound and outbound to maximize customer acquisition. Why leave any stone unturned when you are looking for the biggest and best opportunities to grow your business? Chris Snell also wrote convincingly about this recently http://bit.ly/9SS33c.

I agree the word “lead” is misleading. As one of the new generation of compilers (crowd-sourcing) of business contacts, we avoid the word when describing the contacts in our directory.

You used the word “suspects” in relation to outbound. I would add the word “visibility”. With more comprehensive business contact directories on the market, companies are a step closer to identifying ALL the potential “suspects” across their markets.

In addition, these new outbound tools provide knowledge in terms of where prospects work, their roles, size of organization, industry and location. This is meta-data for highly targeted outbound activity and we can expect more of it as the industry continues to evolve. Knowing more about your prospects is the key to keeping outbound relevant and productive.

I think the growing trend for B2B companies to use both inbound and outbound in lead generation is a ying and yang thing – complimentary, unified and energizing marketing across the board.


[…] the rest here: Are Inbound Leads Really Leads? I Believe the Majority Are Not. « Job – Weber Shandwick – Social Media Director    Job – […]


Mac –
‘Just picked up the MarketingProfs’ spotlight on this post today, kudos. I think Gary’s comments above takes this conversation back to your point – it’s not either/or, it’s both. Rare is the case in B2B that an inbound inquiry closes without an outbound touch. And I have to agree that statements like “turn your website into a lead generation machine with inbound marketing” harken back to list companies’ deciding to sell leads, not lists. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “(a list of) names are not sales leads…a list of names is a phone book”.


I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that inbound leads are just items to go on a salesperson’s to do list. Lead nurturing e-mail is a good way to keep them interested and soften them up, but the human touch is almost always required for a close on anything that can’t be purchase via e-commerce. I also agree that inbound and outbound should be blended, not only post-lead but also pre-lead. Thanks.


I often wonder the disservice that we do trying to qualify a potential customer. Maybe the business funnel should be turned upside down so we don’t ever overlook the potential that in-bound and out-bound marketing are just tools in the marketing process


Outbound marketing are not leads: these are just people who are harassed by spam and cold calls.

Inbound marketing are leads: these people have taken the time and effort to contact you or to visit your website.


[…] the article here. 2010 13 […]


Alan, please enlighten me: How is someone who responds to a print ad, trade show exhibit, direct mail letter or email less valuable than someone who responds to a blog post or website page? – Mac


Good post. And I agree with Mike Volpe’s comment too. An inbound “lead” – say someone who downloads content, is hardly a qualified lead, but is, as you say, a suspect. It’s like seeing an attractive woman and she smiles at you. A smile is not a relationship.

Careful, gentle, patient nurturing and two way communication (the telephone and in person) over time can build a relationship.

People should not call inbound suspects leads. If they were, my business would be booming.


Mac – Nice post.

I especially like your point about the need to have both inbound and outbound marketing, and following up on inbound inquiries with outbound touches.

I find it amusing how some companies claim “inbound marketing” is the *only* thing that will work in the so-called “web-2.0 age” (whatever that means). These companies invariably have something to sell (such as “inbound marketing” software), or affiliates of the same.

Good job highlighting this point.


Of course all inbound contacts are not leads but what is interesting is to compare the conversion rate of inbound vs outbound. For most companies it turns out that inbound converts better, which means that contacts generate leads and leads, if well nurtured, generate sales. So raw inbound contacts are not leads but are more likely to become so than outbound contacts.


Christophe, You say “inbound converts better.” Do you have data you can share that validates that statement? – Mac


“Ask any salesperson if all inbound inquires are leads, and when he or she stops laughing, you will probably get an earful about how inquiries, unless they have been prequalified, are a waste of salespeople’s time.”

All I can say is Amen.


I think that this is very interesting conversation that is going on here. I do think that inbound contacts tend to be warmer than outbound, however. This is simply because with inbound, the person has already taken an action that is positive toward you. Is there still a chance that you can screw it up? Of course. But at least they have taken a step.


Outbound marketing is needed in most cases if you want your company to actually be noticed. If we’re taking a look at inbound, we’re assuming that people already know about your product/company. But in most cases, and especially the case where you’re a start-up company, in order to get noticed you will have to do some research/outbound qualifying.


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