What is a Lead? What is a Prospect? What’s the Difference?

What is a Lead? What is a Prospect? What’s the Difference?

Lead and prospect – for two terms that you likely hear on a regular basis, they’re surprisingly difficult to define. Both terms are deeply ingrained in business processes, leading to a variety of company-specific (or even business-unit-specific) definitions. To make things more complicated, marketing automation and CRM systems contribute their own – sometimes differing – definitions for leads and prospects. In fact, many sources can’t even agree on which of the two is more qualified; some say leads are qualified prospects, others say prospects are developed from leads, and still others say prospects are equivalent to sales leads.

For continuity sake, there needs to be a common understanding of the terms “lead” and “prospect” at a company level (at minimum). Continuing to use these terms without some sort of shared understanding is detrimental to all parties involved. What constitutes a lead? What constitutes a prospect? Where do leads and prospects fit in the sales process? Companies need clear answers to these questions.

We’ll walk you through our definition of leads and prospects, as well as our rationale. We’ll also highlight some key differences between leads and prospects.

 

Leads

One of the most difficult things about defining the term “lead” is that it covers a broad variety of qualification standards and positions in the purchase cycle.

The most basic, top-of-funnel lead is an inbound web form completion. Web forms are commonly completed to ask a question or download a gated asset. Just about anyone can complete such a form. Those who submit the forms are considered leads even though they may not have the authority, resources, or intent to purchase. These leads are just beginning to receive branded communications.

On the other end of the spectrum, sales-ready leads have been thoroughly vetted. These leads have been checked to ensure they’re a good fit for the company and offering. They may have come in as a web form completion, but since then they have demonstrated sales-readiness through subsequent engagement. As the name indicates, sales-ready leads are prepared to be contacted (and hopefully closed) by a sales rep.

To find a meaningful definition that covers the various subtypes and standards for leads, we have to take a step back. At the simplest level, what is a lead? This answer begins with the most basic, non-business definitions of the word.

Lead [noun]

  1. A piece of advice or useful information especially from an expert

    My sister got a lead on the job opening from her neighbor, who is the human resources director for the company.

  2. A slight or indirect pointing to something (as a solution or explanation)

    The police are now working on several leads generated by the evidence gathered at the crime scene.

Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Looking at these definitions, two key pieces of information stand out; leads are information-based and they’re indefinite. Applying this information to a sales context, we can conclude that a lead is information that indirectly points toward a sale.

When we compare this definition to typically accepted examples of leads from either end of the spectrum, the definition more or less holds up. Both top-of-funnel and sales-ready leads have provided information and point toward a sale. Top-of-funnel leads have provided contact information and demonstrated some, albeit indefinite, sales potential. Sales-ready leads have provided the same information and demonstrated a greater degree of sales potential. In both cases, the information is typically user-generated and provides a contact method (thus enabling further communication and sales potential). With these two clarifications taken into account, the final definition is the following.

Lead – An individual who has provided contact information and, in doing so, pointed toward a potential sales opportunity.

 

Prospects

Prospects tend to be classified in one of two ways. Some consider prospects to be contacts who fit one of a company’s buyer personas, but have not expressed interest. Others consider prospects to be sales-ready leads that have moved on to the sales team. Again, we look to the simple, non-business definition of the word “prospect” to help evaluate these approaches.

Prospect [noun]

  1. Something that can develop or become actual

    One highly desirable prospect for the city is a major-league franchise.

Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Comparing the definition of “prospect” to the definition of “lead”, we see that the word “prospect” is more closely linked to an outcome. The verbiage around “lead” discusses slight or indirect indications toward a subject, while that around “prospect” discusses the potential for immediate development and actualization. In other words, a leads puts you on the path toward an outcome, while a prospect is the final step before actualization of the outcome.

Both of the aforementioned interpretations fit the criteria for a prospect; the former describes a prospective lead, while the latter describes a prospective sale. Technically, both are prospects, though one is a sales prospect and the other is a lead prospect. Because, most people who use the term “prospect” are referring to sales prospects, we have adopted the latter interpretation.

Prospect – A qualified and interested individual who, through two-way interaction, has demonstrated they are preparing to make a purchase decision.

 

The Difference

Obviously, sales prospects are further along in the sales process than even the most qualified leads. Beyond this, there are two key distinctions between prospects and leads.

Lead Prospect Funnel Diagram

The single biggest difference between prospects and leads is their engagement; leads are characterized by one way communication, while prospects are characterized by two way communication. A lead has reached out to a company – through a form or sign-up – and provided their information. Once the company has that information, they enter the lead into their nurture process, wherein the lead receives communications from the company with hopes of driving further engagement. More qualified leads may engage with the content, but there is no sustained back and forth. Prospects, on the other hand, are created after a sales-ready lead is contacted by a rep. In order to be elevated to the status of prospect, the lead has to engage in dialog with the rep. This could take the form of a chain of email messages, a phone call, or a meeting.

The other key difference between leads and prospects is the methods of communication. Leads are typically contacted in large groups or as part of an automated program. In either case, processes are defined by the marketing department. Messages come from general addresses (marketing@company.com, newsletter@company.com, etc.) and calls to action are related to consuming additional content or connecting in on additional channels. Prospects are usually contacted on an individual or small group basis. Messages come from associated reps and are highly personalized to the recipient. Calls to action for prospects usually center on keeping the dialog going (scheduling a call, requesting a quote, etc.).

Leads Breakdown Chart     Prospects Breakdown Chart  
 

 


 

Let us know what you think:

  • How do you define leads?
  • How do you define prospects?
  • Do you have issues standardizing these terms between systems?

 


 

FURTHER READING

The Savvy Sales Manager’s Guide to Inbound and Outbound Lead Generation

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Matt Leap

Director of Marketing at HiP
Matt Leap is marketer who enjoys wearing many hats at HiP. Among other things, he handles HiP's content marketing efforts and acts as the editor-in-chief of the HiP Blog. Matt is also a regular contributor to the blog. Matt brings five years of digital marketing and blogging experience to HiP, having worked in both the B2B and B2C sectors. Matt's expertise includes content marketing, content strategy, marketing automation, lead generation, SEO, and SEM. In his personal time, Matt enjoys sports, movies, technology, reading, and writing.
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Comments

  1. Reply

    Thank you for sharing! You did a great job of summing this up.

  2. Reply

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for sharing your thought about the difference between “Lead” and “Prospect” It was really a mind opening for me do distinguish it clearly. However, If I may ask you to explain this process that I am conducting on a daily basis during my practice in Real Estate activities. I do conduct many door knocking, respond to many ad as well as web inquiries.
    While going on the door knocking to find a prospective lead, do I actually work with “leads” or “Prospects”, the moment they express they would consider to make a move in the next 3 to 6 months or longer? It is a one-way communication that they indicated their intention. After I collected all the information and established a rule of engagement to further our relationship by sending market updates, newsletter, following up with contacts either via phone calls, email, and text to establish a rapport to lead to a presentation where we formally go into contract to proceed to work together and finalize the sale.
    Hence, what am I looking or working “Lead” or “Prospect” while door knocking to find an owner who wants to sell his or her house?
    Thank you,
    Najib

      • Trendingpending@gmail.com'Chris
      • December 15, 2016
      Reply

      I thought of something similar, Matt’s definitions are based off whatever singular business model has relating it too, ie; a business that runs off of mass advertising which warrants interested leads to request for more information. But is simply not applicable to your situation of lead generation, or many others which involved direct communications and not randomized advertisements

      An real estate agent as yourself, or any door-to-door or telemarketing type marketing is in-fact lead generation. Any type of contact with a potential consumer that is not aware of your product or services, which warrants the potential consumer to inquire for more information, is lead generation. When they review the information and are knowledgeable of said product or service and have requested ( or agreed to further move along with the process; either it be real estate assessment, assessment for solar panels, or just a quote in any sense), they have now turned into prospects.

      Lead generation: formal or informal contact with consumer that agrees to learn more of said product

      Prospect: needs and interest of potential consumer are now realized, move for sale

  3. Reply

    Great post with very good information. I have often confused the two, but now I understand their differences.

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    • elvin@goldeneyeinvestments.com'Elvin
    • February 22, 2016
    Reply

    Its targets—Prospects—Leads—Qualified leads—Clients
    You can take out Targets and just have prospects or you can take out qualified leads and just flow into client. But prospect is before lead. A leads is someone you made contact with and are trying to get the business from.

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    • thomas.tk.kramer@bmw.com'Thomas
    • December 2, 2015
    Reply

    Dear Matt,
    i very much enjoyed reading your piece. we share a similar view on many things; i just think that the prospect comes before the lead; i.e. a prospect will turn into a lead. just like you point out: “Something that can develop or become actual”. A prospect may have an interest in the brand, but he does not know which model neither is he significantly close to the purchase (decision). on the contrary, a lead as a set interest on a model and is willing to buy within a set time frame (approx smaller than 3 months). would like to know your thoughts on this.

    • Reply

      Hi Thomas,
      I’ve definitely heard the term “prospect” used in the context that you’re talking about. In your example, prospect is being used to describe a prospective lead rather than a prospective sale (which is the variation that I adopt in the post). I chose to go with the prospective sale version of the term because I feel that it’s a bit more common, but both definitions are valid. The important thing is to make sure you and your team are on the same page as to the definite your company is using.

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