Marketo Lead Source or Acquisition Program (or Salesforce Campaign)?

A reader asks:

“We use Salesforce and Marketo, and I’m a bit confused with the number of options for attribution. Should we use lead source? Salesforce Campaigns? Marketo’s Acquisition Programs? What is the best practice?”

I hear this question from many companies, and the short answer is “it depends”. I’ll see if I can unpack this a bit and provide a better model of everything without overwhelming you with information.

History of the lead source field

I first started using Salesforce in 2008, and at that time Salesforce Campaigns were not widely adopted, while the lead source field was a standard field on every lead object.

In 2008, there were many issues with the lead source field, and these haven’t really changed since. The fundamental issue seems to be the desire for every company to overload this field with data.

  • Is “Lead Source” the first source of a lead?
  • Is “Lead Source” the first meaningful action a lead takes?
  • Is “Lead Source” the last action a lead takes to become an opportunity?
  • Is “Lead Source” a channel, or a campaign, or something else?
  • Is “Lead Source” a field for marketing to run reports or a field for sales to review a lead before calling them?
  • Should “Lead Source” contain 10 values or 1,000 values?

These questions show the variety of uses that companies usually have for one field; I’ve seen most of these occur within just one company!

If the problem with this isn’t clear, consider these two rules:


Salesforce Rule #1: one field for one question

A core rule I apply to Salesforce (and databases in general) is to match every field to one and only one question. With this principle, you can see the problem with the Lead Source field: there are at least five uses for it, and left unmanaged this is a recipe for disaster.

Salesforce Rule #2: don’t create more fields

Unfortunately the competing rule also is in play: in general, avoid creating more fields in Salesforce, as it adds complexity to the system. In Marketo, this is even more true, as you cannot delete fields in Marketo.

Alternative: Acquisition Programs (and Salesforce Campaigns)

When Salesforce announced Campaigns, and Marketo created acquisition programs, the paradigm shifted. Here, you now have an entire object dedicated to the question “What buckets of money brought the best results?”  Where a field like lead source is optimized to only answer one question, the campaign object allows you to both answer many questions, and group the answers without specifically programming the groupings.

If that last paragraph doesn’t make sense to you, this comparison of lead source and acquisition programs might help:


This table shows the advantages of using the object, but also the basic problem. The lead source field has the advantage of being understood by admins and executives, and so you’ll often hear the executives speak in terms of lead source, followed by an admin configuring lead source to match their requirements. Too often, the overwhelmed admin doesn’t take the opportunity to deeply understand what the executives really want, so you end up with an entire reporting architecture relying on the lead source field, even when it doesn’t match the executive’s goals.

Instead of simply following the vocabulary of the business stakeholders, we recommend taking the time to deeply understand their goals independent of any vocabulary to ensure they sincerely want to use the fields and objects they mention.

What else to do with lead source field

The lead source field is standard, so you can’t delete it.  What to do with it if acquisition program effectively replaces it?  Our favorite use case is to use it as a reminder to the salesperson of the last source where the lead came from.  For example, you might make a lead source “Attended Webinar on reporting”.  With a bit of effort, you can add a lead source value update to every program.  This is especially valuable for inside sales teams using the console, as it minimizes the time needed to research an inbound lead before follow up.  You may not be able to get meaningful reporting from this field, and thats ok: let the lead source empower the sales team to move faster, and save macro analyses for the more complex objects.

Technical Details

If you’re on the business side, the blog post is over! Check out our Guide to generating bounced buyers. For those more technically inclined, the rest of the post will provide more details you may find useful.

Technical overview of Lead Source and Acquisition Program


Some of you may be wondering “why use Marketo acquisition programs when the SFDC Campaign is just as good?” I’m glad you asked. It turns out these actually sync nearly 100% with each other out of the box, so the information above for Acquisition Programs applies equally well to SFDC Campaigns.

I say “nearly 100%” because there is some syncing behavior worth noting. Here is a diagram provided by Marketo:

Marketo data sync diagram

If you don’t want to remember everything in this diagram, an easier heuristic is this: “when in doubt, start your data in Marketo.”


In conclusion, and to answer the original question, almost every company using Marketo and Salesforce should use the acquisition program object and ignore the lead source field. If you really want to keep it, we typically recommend using the lead source field as the last touch before conversion, but focus on providing values actionable to the sales team rather than the executive.