Marketing Operations: How to Build a World-Class Demand Engine

This guide provides a ground-up look at how to structure a demand engine, so you don’t accidentally build yourself into a corner

Andrew Wooler
May 18, 2022

One of the most common challenges faced by marketing teams is the lack of a clear playbook for building a world-class demand engine and marketing operations to support it. The systems marketers typically use today were designed to be extremely flexible in order to meet widely different business needs, so it’s been difficult to establish a common set of best practices that work for the intricacies of every business. The issue this causes for marketing teams is that they often have to learn on-the-fly how to build the best marketing demand engine for their business, making constant customizations to adapt their operations to the specifics that their business requires. 

However, while there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to creating a demand engine, there are certain building blocks that can create a solid foundation and limit the amount of technical debt marketing teams will have to deal with down the road. This guide provides a ground-up look at the most crucial considerations for structuring a demand engine and marketing operations, so you don’t accidentally build yourself into a corner.

Account-Based Marketing

To start, it’s important to address what is one of today’s most popular approaches to marketing – Account-Based Marketing (ABM), where marketing strategy and outreach is targeted towards entire best-fit accounts. ABM caught on as an attempt to spin the lead-based marketing approach into a more macro view. Instead of trying to qualify and convert individuals, ABM argues that it’s better to store leads under their account and think of qualifying and converting the whole account. After all, it’s the overall account that has the need for your business solution, and the account that ends up paying you, right?

There are two main holes in the ABM approach that you need to consider when building your demand engine. First, the shift to ABM doesn’t eliminate the need for sourcing, handling, and routing leads when they enter into your demand engine. Marketing still needs a way to surface leads, pass them to sales reps for outreach, and engage to figure out whether they’re part of an existing opportunity or a new opportunity. ABM can be used on top of a lead-based process, but it doesn’t work on its own without an underlying way of tracking and engaging with the leads that make up an account, so you’ll need those processes in place first.

Second, ABM did have it right in saying that the lead-based view of the customer journey was too narrow. If marketing only understands how it’s converting individual leads, it’s difficult to get a picture of the health of the business and of marketing’s contributions to the bottom line. But viewing the entire demand engine in terms of accounts is too broad of a response. Buying decisions aren’t made by individuals or entire accounts – they’re made by buying groups. Forrester research shows that 94% of B2B sales are made to buying groups of three or more people, so your demand engine should take into account that a lead-based or account-based view will not be accurate to how buying decisions are actually made. After we discuss how to implement your underlying processes for handling leads, we’ll show how you can find a middle ground between the lead-based or account-based view. 

Core Systems

With over 8,000 marketing technology vendors available today, sifting through all of the possible offerings and finding the right systems to put in place can be overwhelming, to say the least. Before you go on a shopping spree trying to piece together the perfect tech stack, it’s important to identify what core groundwork you need first.

To start with, you’ll definitely need a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform. CRMs typically pull together data from all of your various communication channels to track your interactions with current and potential customers. This includes maintaining and updating individual contacts, tracking and managing account information, recording transactions, informing financial data, and overall providing a near real-time view of your business. 

Although CRMs are usually owned and operated primarily by sales teams, especially to track the activities of Account Executives (AEs), they also contain data that’s crucial for marketing to understand – the results of opportunities.This is important because the success of marketing is dependent on downstream AEs to capitalize on the demand marketing generates, so you can’t understand the revenue impacts of marketing initiatives without CRM data.

While a CRM is essential, there are a couple limitations to be aware of. First, analyzing data in your CRM will require customizing a new report or dashboard for each new business question you want to answer. CRM reporting is typically static, which creates additional work for your team if you want to keep your analysis within the CRM. Second, capturing time-series data to look at trends for your whole business can be impractical in a CRM. CRMs typically require you to create a custom snapshot for each field you want to capture time-series data for, meaning not only more work but that you’ll have to know exactly what fields you need to capture time-series data for in advance. If you later realize you need to capture time-series data for some other area, it’ll be too late.

The second core system that you’ll need is a marketing automation platform. “Marketing automation” is a broad term, but to start with, you’ll want a fully-featured platform where your marketing team can perform the majority of their activities, including launching campaigns, capturing contact data, qualifying leads, and tracking lead activity detail. Even if you’re starting with simple email automations, you’ll want a tool that your team can grow into, and one that will allow you to build a robust marketing.

Marketing automation platforms today are generally pretty interoperable with other common systems, but it’s still crucial that you verify that your marketing automation platform of choice can integrate well with your CRM. A healthy flow of data between these systems is necessary for a healthy demand engine, because while the majority of your activities will occur in the marketing automation platform, the ultimate results will be tracked in the.

Marketing automation platforms share some of the limitations of CRMs – they tend towards static reporting that requires lots of customizations to get to new views, and they make it difficult to capture time-series data and analyze trends over time. In addition, while they’re a core component to today’s marketing stack, they’re only meant to target very specific areas of marketing such as digital marketing and field marketing. They’re not meant to provide a higher-level picture of the business that marketing leadership can use to inform strategy decisions. 

The third core system that you’ll need to consider is a system for the activities of Sales Development Representatives (SDRs), who are sometimes also known as Business Development or Inside Sales Representatives. While SDRs are part of the marketing team at many companies, even when they aren’t, it’s important for the marketing team to work extremely closely alongside SDRs and have to have a hand in their systems and processes. This is because SDRs will be directly responsible for making the most of marketing campaigns, and because they have to carry out the most first-hand, personal version of the marketing message.

Systems for SDR activities are often known as sales engagement or sales automation platforms. They typically allow SDRs a place to carry out their activities, such as making cold calls or sending emails, and provide a place to track these activities while notifying SDRs of what actions they should be taking next. 

Probably the biggest pitfall to avoid once you’ve identified vendors for these three core systems is the development of silos. With marketing teams tracking their activities in the marketing automation platform, SDRs tracking their activities in the sales engagement platform, and AEs tracking their activities in the CRM, it’s easy for specific data to end up stuck in places where only one function can see it. Not only does this create misalignment between different functions, it makes it impossible to determine what is driving successful revenue outcomes for the business, and therefore where the business should invest moving forward. Longer-term, your goal should be to create a unified Revenue Operations (RevOps) data model that allows you to have a single way of understanding the customer journey across marketing, SDRs, and AEs.

Marketing Qualification

After you have your core systems in place, the next step is to think about lead sources, which give you information about your leads depending on where they’re coming into your demand engine from. You can source leads through blogs, landing pages, search traffic, ads, and a wide variety of other methods, while usually capturing information about them through a form, or other interaction like a reply on email or social media.

Sourcing leads is its own discipline and could fill many blog posts of its own, but what’s just as important as finding all the creative ways to source leads is to understand how they should be tracked and built into your wider demand engine. 

First, it’s key to measure the difference between channels for driving leads, versus content that leads interact with. For example, social media advertising is a channel, while specific ads within that channel are content. The distinction matters for later having a consistent way of identifying what channels and content are most effective at driving outcomes for your business. Lead sources are typically tracked as an overall channel, while content is captured in an entirely different field so you can measure both the source channel and content. A common mistake is to tag a grouping of content, like a certain email campaign, as an overall channel, which muddies the waters when trying to determine how that content fared versus other content, and when trying to separate out the performance of different channels. It’s also important for you to have a way of capturing metadata around content and campaigns to better understand what’s working and what’s not. Adding metadata to campaigns such as topics or ideal customer profiles will enable you to better analyze outcomes by letting you sift through the results by your tags.

Second, a helpful best practice is to also have a way of separating out your lead sources by the function that contributed them, whether that be marketing, SDRs, AEs, partners, etc. Not all leads will have been spotted by marketing first – if an SDR is able to identify a lead through their own prospecting, you’ll want a way of capturing who was able to originally source the lead, and a way of differentiating between SDR generated versus AE generated without generalizing it all into “sales.” Creating this clear way of tracking responsibilities in your demand engine is again crucial for understanding the health of the business and what’s working to drive growth. It’s also important because executives leading different functions are commonly held responsible for contributing a certain percentage of pipeline or revenue. If marketing leadership has signed up to provide a third of pipeline coverage, you want to be able to trust that you can accurately measure progress towards those goals.

Once you have your lead sources setup, you next need to think about a process for creating Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs), which are leads that have demonstrated sufficient interest for you to advance them through the demand engine, or those that have a higher likelihood of eventually becoming customers. The most popular way to create MQLs is through lead scoring, which typically assigns points to the behaviors of individual contacts that could indicate a legitimate interest in your company. For example, simply clicking on links in an email campaign might earn a contact just a few points, whereas submitting a request for a demo might earn a contact enough points to become an MQL immediately. 

Due to the popularity of the ABM approach, many companies are shifting to scoring accounts, but lead scoring still has utility. SDRs approach outreach on a lead-by-lead basis, and deciding when marketing should surface leads to SDRs is important. Whether it’s using account scoring or lead scoring, you need a way to identify when to engage.

Lead scoring is typically based on how people interact with your website and content, but it can also be based on demographic or firmographic data, depending on how your business thinks about prioritizing its target buyers. For example, if you have a strong preference for selling to a certain title, receiving any interaction with a person of that title could make them into an MQL. If your company sells only into a certain industry, you could prevent a contact from becoming an MQL unless data is entered confirming they are part of that industry.

Marketing qualification through lead scoring is important because without these processes, your lead sources would simply be collecting masses of data about people just sitting in your database. The MQL can be thought of as an algorithm that prioritizes leads and pushes them into a queue for SDRs to assess. Even at a smaller company without many assets or much data coming in, it’s still important to have lead scoring as a formal way of measuring how you prioritize leads based on their activities, so you can continue to evolve these assumptions as you learn more. 

The MQL is also key as a formal way of measuring the handoff between marketing and SDRs, such as by helping to establish a Service Level Agreement (SLA) for how quickly SDRs should accept or reject an MQL once it is created. For example, many businesses have an SLA that SDRs need to look at an MQL within at least one business day. A clear way of capturing the handoff is also important for building alignment between marketing and sales. If there are disagreements about the quality of leads being generated, the lead scoring and MQL process provide a way to quantify what’s being generated and assess whether you’re taking the right approach to scoring. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the MQL is that only leads sourced by marketing need to go through the MQL process. While the MQL has been mislabeled as being about marketing qualification, it’s really an algorithm that marketing operates that qualifies leads for the whole business. A common operational mistake with leads that marketing didn’t generate is to try to bypass the MQL process and load contact data straight into the CRM to a later stage in the demand engine. It’s not necessarily about making sure that every lead meets your lead scoring threshold. It’s more about having a common way of being able to track, report, and see where your leads are coming from, and ultimately where your revenue is coming from. Splitting up the entry points into your demand engine will give you a messy and incomplete view.

To have a top tier process for tracking MQLs, it’s also important to ensure you tag everything in your demand engine by the date it occurred. The velocity of your demand engine is super important to understand, because of the reality that people tend to lose interest or forget about you over time. You need to be able to see things like how long it takes from a first interaction with someone until they become marketing qualified, and how long it takes from marketing qualification for an SDR to begin working the lead. Tagging everything by dates is also a necessary first step for later using time-series data to look at trends in your demand engine over time. 

Sales Acceptance

Once an SDR accepts an MQL, it becomes a Sales Accepted Lead (SAL). The SAL stage is used to track SDR activities to try to engage with the lead and book a meeting, whether that be reaching out by phone, email, or social media. If an SDR is working in their sales engagement platform, it’s important that there is some sort of checkbox that confirms they have reviewed an MQL, that this action is time-stamped, and that this information is passed back to the marketing automation platform and CRM.

Whether SDRs live under the marketing or sales team varies by company. But even when SDRs are part of the sales team, it’s crucial for marketing to be involved in SDR activities and operations, because the success of these activities is what marketing has been working towards. 

SDRs also act as one of the best resources to understand the effectiveness of the messaging marketing has developed. SDRs have to distill the marketing message down to very succinct points in short phone conversations or emails. While developing a marketing message can be somewhat of an academic exercise, SDRs get real-time, authentic reactions. It’s important for marketing to be engaged here to improve the message and boost the conversion of marketing dollars into downstream revenue.

To be engaged in a helpful way, marketing teams need to think about how they can aid SDRs throughout their process of reaching out. Marketing should be arming SDRs with templates and assets to use, and helping them think through what content will be most effective with specific personas or industries. 

Operationally, the primary things to think about in the SAL stage is establishing an SLA for how long an SDR should reach out to a lead before concluding they aren’t currently interested, and how often an SDR should reach out by medium. For example, many companies have their SDRs reach out to leads for fourteen or twenty-one days. In a twenty-one day period, an SDR might reach out via email five times, with five accompanying phone calls, but this is entirely dependent on whether it’s effective to reach out frequently to your type of target personas.

This is again an area where tracking each step is important. Establishing that your company has the most success with cold calling leads the same day they become an MQL, versus waiting a few days for them to process information, is crucial information for improving your processes. On the other side, you want to formally establish what these cadences are and create a notification system to help SDRs follow the cadence, because SDRs deal with a high volume of daily activities and it will typically be too difficult to track cadences for individual leads over weeks on their own. This can be as simple as reminder tasks or emails for keeping SDRs on the right timeline for reaching out within your SLA period.

Sales Qualification

Knowing when to create a Sales Qualified Lead (SQL) can be tricky because there’s some ambiguity as to its exact definition. Should an SAL transition to an SQL when a meeting is booked with a lead? Or when a meeting has been completed? The latter would seem to be the obvious answer, because you have much more information about a lead after you’ve actually met with them, and so they should be more qualified. 

However, the issue is that capturing when a meeting is booked is often easier than capturing when a meeting is completed, because the SDR activities to complete the meeting typically happen completely within the sales engagement platform, and that activity data doesn’t always find its way back to the marketing automation platform and the CRM. Yet this data is crucial to capture correctly, especially because it helps determine quotas and commissions for SDRs. So when you establish your SQL process, whatever definition you choose, it’s important to verify that your flow of data is not interrupted so you can get the whole picture.

Before you get to the point of creating opportunities from your SQLs, there are a couple operational pieces you need to establish. First, what is the expectation about who actually joins the meetings that SDRs book with leads? Typically companies will have an AE join along with the SDR, but you’ll need to evaluate whether an initial meeting requires more or less people on the meeting from your company. There also needs to be some expectation established that AEs will actually show up to meetings that SDRs book. This sounds obvious, but in a busy sales cycle an AE may not always have lots of time available to be taking on new potential opportunities. SDR quotas need to be set at a level that is achievable without overwhelming the AE team. In addition, this is where a formal process for scoring and qualifying leads is important. If the criteria for what constitutes an SQL is agreed upon, this reduces the pressure between SDRs and AEs to book meetings based on what will accommodate one another, and instead makes it about tweaking the criteria if the volume or quality of meetings is off. 


When a lead reaches the SQL stage it’s generally time to determine whether a legitimate opportunity exists. While qualifying and pursuing opportunities is clearly the purview of the sales team, it’s still important for marketing to understand what’s going on with opportunities since they are the culmination of the customer journey. 

The most common mistake with an SQL is to assume that an opportunity should be created just because a meeting was held. Some companies even track whether an SQL meeting was completed based on whether an opportunity was created. This makes tracking meetings completed easier, and gets around the fact that AEs generally don’t like to spend time entering data into the CRM by having SDRs create opportunities. But this approach massively inflates your company’s sales pipeline and makes it difficult to determine which opportunities are real. 

One common approach is that companies create a “stage zero” in their sales pipeline where SDRs can create opportunities after SQL meetings are completed. Opportunities in “stage zero” are meant to be understood as not as fully qualified as the other opportunities further along in the sales pipeline. But this ignores the importance of later being able to analyze and report on metrics across the customer journey. Opportunities in “stage zero” that are inevitably disqualified at a high rate are going to skew a company’s metrics so that it looks like the company is failing to convert a huge amount of sales opportunities. When reporting at the executive and board level, those are the exact type of figures that will make people jumpy. 

Like at other stages of the demand engine, the answer is to have a clear, formal way of defining what constitutes an opportunity. For example, a popular framework for evaluating potential opportunities is Budget Authority Need Timing (BANT). In this framework, for an opportunity to be created, you must be able to establish that the buying group has sufficient budget to purchase your company’s product, that the buying group have the authority to make a purchasing decision, that the buying group has an actual need for your company’s product, and that the timing is right to make a purchase. 

Whatever framework you choose to employ, you need it to be consistent and measurable across all of your company’s AEs, and built into your CRM so you can capture why a lead is qualified to be an opportunity for visibility purposes. Arbitrary opportunity evaluation that’s left to the individual perceptions of each AE will prevent you from getting a common understanding of what good opportunities look like for your business. Measuring this could range from having requirements about adding different stakeholders to an opportunity, such as who owns the budget or has the authority to make a purchase. It could include requirements to fill out some information for each part of your opportunity evaluation framework before an opportunity is created. Or it could be around certain documents that you want filled out. Either way, you want a process that you can continue to tune, rather than being in the dark about what different parts of the business are doing.

Revenue Marketing

The consistent theme across this set of best practices for building a demand engine is that your processes need to be formal, clear, and measurable. But because your processes have to move across different functions and systems, one of the most difficult final challenges is getting a unified view into the operations of your demand engine, so you can actually measure how the whole thing is going. This is especially hard because each function is focused around different success metrics – marketing is focused on leads or accounts, SDRs are focused on converting leads to meetings, and AEs are focused on opportunities and revenue. Even if you have a good flow of data between different systems, because each function measures success so differently, it becomes hard to get a common understanding of what’s working and what’s not.

Revenue Marketing is a new approach that breaks down silos for a common view across the customer journey, so you can gauge the health of your entire demand engine. It does so by standardizing marketing teams with sales teams on a common set of revenue metrics. The opportunity object is used to represent the customer journey from the point of initial engagement all the way to past close. Leads are attached to an opportunity, and it is the opportunity that progresses through different stages of the customer journey. This allows you to see exactly how marketing initiatives influence eventual revenue results, which increases the credibility of marketing, instead of having a fragmented understanding of how marketing might be driving lead conversions or meetings.

Revenue Marketing emerged relatively recently as the next step from the lead-based or account-based marketing models. To learn more about how it can be easily operationalized, check out the following on-demand webinar, or other resources included below:

Learn more

Datasheet: Why Revenue Marketing?

Whitepaper: The Ultimate Mperativ Explainer

Blog: The Revenue Marketing Manifesto

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