Let’s Talk About Salesforce Lead Source

Share this article...

Lead Source is one Salesforce field that marketers have their eye on. The most basic way to describe the Lead Source field is as a Salesforce picklist field which records where leads came from. It will indicate which lead generation channels produced the greatest number of new leads and down the line, which generated the most revenue based on won opportunities.

There’s more to the Lead Source field than meets the eye. Did you know that in addition to Leads, Contacts, Accounts, and Opportunities also have a Lead Source field? Did you also know that these fields are related to each other, inheriting the value from one field to the next as a lead progresses through the funnel? Let’s learn about how Lead Source is populated across your org. It will benefit you to understand how this field is populated so that you are making decisions about future budget spend based on accurate source reporting.

Lead Source

Lead Source is a picklist field that comes out of the box. The values you will find by default are:

Web, Phone Inquiry, Partner Referral, External Referral, Partner, Public Relations, Trade Show, Word of mouth, Employee Referral, Purchased List, Other.

You can choose which values to keep active, deactivate, or add new values:

As a picklist field, each lead can only have one Lead Source value which can be very limiting, mainly by masking any other marketing activities that contribute to the won opportunity (see ‘Outgrowing Lead Source’ later in the post).

How does Lead Source get populated? On leads, there are a number of ways and it depends on how watertight your lead generation and data collection processes are. You can populate Lead Source through:

  • Manual entry: a user adds a lead record to Salesforce. It’s typical practice for organizations to make the Lead Source field required to ensure a value is always filled in,
  • Import: you can add a header for Leadsource in your import file, for example, mass uploading leads from a tradeshow,
  • Webforms/Web-to-lead: capturing leads on your website using a form, you can add a hidden field to set the lead source to be ‘Web’,
  • Pardot: if you’re a Pardot customer, you can take advantage of Pardot’s advanced source tracking (see: ‘Outgrowing Lead Source’ later in the post). Although this can never be 100% accurate for a few reasons (which I won’t go into in this post), you can capture more detailed information about a prospect’s source (eg. they came to your landing page from a Google search)*.

*you can achieve this with other web forms, but Pardot empowers non-technical web developers.

How Account and Opportunity Source works – Understanding Lead Conversion

Lead Source is a special field that has been deliberately engineered a certain way in Salesforce.

The key to understanding how Lead Source works with Account Source and Opportunity Lead Source is to look at lead conversion.

If you are using the lead object in your organization, there will be a process where the lead is converted into a contact, account, and possibly an opportunity, too.

Note I said possibly an opportunity. You may know that creating an opportunity during lead conversion is optional. Just to be clear, when a lead is converted there are three scenarios:

  • A contact is created and a new account is created.
  • A contact is created and related to an existing account.
  • A contact is created related to an account, and an opportunity is created.

The table below shows each of these conversion scenarios, and which source field values get automatically populated:

A lead has a Lead Source value of ‘Partner Referral’. This is what would happen when that lead is converted:

 Contact sourceAccount sourceOpportunity source
A contact is created and a new account is created.- 'Partner Referral'- 'Partner Referral'n/a
A contact is created and related to an existing account. The Account Source is blank. - 'Partner Referral'- 'Partner Referral'n/a
A contact is created and related to an existing account. The Account Source is ‘Purchased List’. - 'Partner Referral'- 'Purchased List'n/a
A contact is created related to an account, and an opportunity is created. - 'Partner Referral'- 'Partner Referral- Partner Referral'

Account Source

As you can see in the table above, whether Account Source inherits the lead’s Lead Source will depend on whether it has an existing value in that field.

When the lead is converted:Inherits lead Lead Source?
New account created
Related to an existing account which has a blank Account Source.
Related to an existing account which an Account Source value. X

A cause of inaccurate reporting here is that an account record and its data could have been in Salesforce long before the lead was created. A good example is adding account data from a data enrichment provider, but not adding the Account Source. Another example is if contacts are associated to the account with no Lead Source values themselves. The new Contact will still override the blank Account Source.

When the new contact is created from lead conversion, their source is not the true source of the account data. Some marketers or Admins may brush this aside if Account Source is not a valuable metric they are tracking. There is a workaround to always have an Account Source value filled in, even if that value has to be ‘unknown’. At least then, the accounts won’t be falsely attributed to a source!

Opportunity Lead Source

Opportunity Lead Source gives you, as a marketer, an option to credit each opportunity to a different Lead Source. Even if the Business Development team sourced the lead in the first place, the opportunity that was created on the back of a tradeshow can be attributed to ‘tradeshow’ without interfering with the contact’s Lead Source or Account Source.

An opportunity is created when:Inherits lead Lead Source?
A lead is converted.
After a lead is converted, using the ‘New Opportunity’ button on the contact page.
After a lead is converted, using the ‘New Opportunity’ button on the opportunity or account pages, or any other method of creating a new opportunity. X

That’s the gotcha! It all depends on
whether the contact is directly related to the opportunity at the time it’s created. It’s common for the sales team to use the ‘New Opportunity’ buttons on opportunities or accounts, which is a wasted chance for opportunities to have an Opportunity Lead Source value – take a look at your own org, I bet there will be plenty of opportunities with a blank Opportunity Lead Source! (unless your organization has a watertight policy to adding Contact Roles).

Changing the process of how/when opportunities are created will also pay dividends for Pardot customers. The process fix also creates a Contact Role, which is crucial to campaign influence reporting and Pardot segmentation.

Reporting on Opportunity Lead Source

I wrote about Opportunity Lead Source reporting in a previous post on Salesforce System exceptions that marketers may bump into.

I will admit I have a favorite Salesforce report type, the ‘Leads with converted lead information’ report. On this report, you can show the Lead fields, and Account/Opportunity fields when the Lead has converted. Sadly, there is one thing missing – you can’t add the Opportunity Lead Source field to a Leads with converted lead information report – you need to use an Opportunity report for that.

Tips for Using Lead Source

Number of values

Don’t go crazy with the number of Lead Source picklist values you chose to have. Many organisations that want to have a more detailed view on Lead Source will add a ‘Lead Source Detail’ field that can contain all the miscellaneous values, for example, ‘Partner’ as a Lead Source will show ‘Partner A’, ‘Partner B’ etc. available to choose in the Lead Source Detail picklist.

Lock down the field

Make the lead source field uneditable for everyone except for System Admins (or any other trusted individuals). I do not mean blocking users from filling in the Lead Source field when they create a new Lead.

Lead Source when using Pardot

Pardot has a field called ‘Source’ on prospect records. This field has special behavior that helps marketers capture more accurate and granular sources based on Pardot’s advanced tracking*. Be aware that the ‘Source’ field in Pardot is free text; this means there are implications if you try to sync this with a picklist field in Salesforce (in fact, I usually suggest an alternative method, which I will save for another post). Also, pay attention to which system is the master between Salesforce and Pardot when the connector sync occurs. You don’t want to risk previous lead source values from being overwritten.

*Prospect Source field is populated using what’s called the ‘referring URL’ or utm_source if you use UTM parameters and have the Google Analytics connector enabled.

Outgrowing Lead Source

As Lead Source is a picklist field, and can only have one value, it’s a limitation when two lead generation teams want to credit their teams against a lead record. From what I have seen, it is not the team that actually sources the lead that consistently gets credit, but instead, the team that has the best data processes, including tricks like validation on input (the field is required, for example).

Another issue I have against lead source is that it pulls people’s attention to the top of the funnel, fixating on what is coming inbound. The primary goal in most marketing strategies, especially in B2B marketing is not to attract single, new leads in order to grow the marketing database; strategies such as Account-based marketing (ABM) plan marketing activities and success around specific accounts already in your CRM (a contrast to random, single leads dripping in through the website).

Often it’s the lead source that is used in source reporting, especially when organisations don’t have a more sophisticated alternative. Lead source is rudimentary first-touch reporting, which has many flaws to it (a couple I have touched upon in this post).

Campaign Influence

Campaign influence is the obvious alternative, which goes beyond ‘first-touch’ attribution, and records the specific marketing activity that should be credited for the new/won opportunity. In Campaign Influence reporting, the name of the campaign will be used, eg. ‘Berlin Autumn Tradeshow 2019’ vs. the vague ‘Tradeshow’ Lead Source value.

Getting to this stage is not easy for an organisation that is operating a solid campaign influence ‘culture’ (creating Salesforce campaigns, associating leads and contacts as campaign members, etc.)

The Lead Source field is simpler, easy to understand, and is a great first step for organizations.

Upgrading to UTM Parameters

UTM parameters are code that you add to the URLs that direct traffic to your website. The guide below explains how UTMs work, how Pardot’s default “source” behavior works, and ways you can capture richer lead source data.:

READ MORE: Ways to Capture Lead Source in Pardot and Salesforce

8 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Salesforce Lead Source

  1. Hey Lucy,

    This is an OUTSTANDING post! The depth of knowledge and intuitive wording make it truly informative.

    You touched on something that’s been driving me a bit mad with the quote:
    “Be aware that the ‘Source’ field in Pardot is free text; this means there are implications if you try to sync this with a picklist field in Salesforce (in fact, I usually suggest an alternative method, which I will save for another post).”

    I’ve been losing my mind trying to reconcile the Pardot free text with a Salesforce picklist, and honestly I’m astonished both systems come out of the box with this problem!

    The best solution I’ve been able to come up with is populating the Pardot free text into a SF ‘lead source detail’ field, and then having the sales team choose from a small picklist in the normal “lead source” field with more general options like “digital”.

    Perhaps I’ll just have to wait for the post but I’d love to talk about how you’ve solved the Pardot free text SF picklist conundrum!

    Thanks again for the great content.

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment, it means a lot that the info was helpful. Admittedly, I didn’t get around to writing that post just yet! But it is a thorny problem. First things first, the Salesforce picklist can accept random values (ie. Pardot source text values). Then it becomes a question of, do you want to keep your lead source field in neat picklist values? If yes, then either the solution you proposed, or the other way (rolling it into a picklist value on the Pardot side before it sync to Salesforce). Depends on a number of factors – how reliable our sales team are, how many value variations you have to account for… it’s best practice to keep it as the text field syncing to Salesforce lead source, but in my experience, this has not been the ideal solution for clients I work with/p*ssed off Admins/SalesOps teams. Hope this info helps further, and good luck!

  2. Hi Lucy, Thanks for great content! I was wondering would you recommend every opportunity should have a lead source regardless if it was converted from a lead. I was thinking for those opportunties grouping them into a source of field sales.

    1. Hi Tony,

      You’re very welcome! I would say yes – but the question is then who should be responsible (/trusted) to populate this field and make an accurate assessment of its source? Might be feasible with a small team/few opportunities, but likely inaccurate when at scale! Interested to hear how you rolled this out/plan to roll this out.


  3. Hi Lucy,
    Great article! One question – right now we have completion actions to update lead source/type when a prospect takes an action (fills out a form, attends a webinar, etc.) We don’t know if that will overwrite what’s already there or if it’s more of a “if blank, then add this value.” Any insight would be appreciated!

    1. Hi Grace, thanks for your kind words. Yes… this is an ago old problem. As completion actions can’t be conditional (ie. they just fire every time the activity happens, regardless). How I’ve got around it in the past is by using automation rules, where you can restrict the rule to apply only when lead source is blank. Hope that helps!

  4. Christine Markuson


    Excellent article. So if I understand correctly, if I have one prospect that fills out three different forms on the website, I can only capture the first one as the lead source. There isn’t a way to capture the other lead sources or update the single lead source. Currently our org is creating three new (and duplicate leads) so looking how to solve for this.

  5. Hi Lucy,

    Great article! My company are about to make source and source description (custom field like you mentioned above) mandatory. As mentioned in someone’s comment above I’d be keen to read more information about getting around the lead source as free text, the one you were going to save for another post.

Add Comment