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Marketing Content Strategy

Is Gated Content an Evil Troll or the Savior of Content Strategy?

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To gate or not to gate: That is the question. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Ever since Bill Gates proclaimed that content is king way back in 1996, marketers have been trying to figure out the best ways to present compelling, engaging content in a way that also helps drive leads and close sales. Gated content has been the most visible result of the debate: the sealing of content behind a form like this one, asking viewers to exchange their details in return for the ability to access it.

Gating your content is a basic pillar of good content strategy, and most of us have had this debate with peers and colleagues at some point. It seems to be a no-brainer when it comes to generating marketing-qualified leads—but there is also a line of argument that says gating just puts barriers in front of your audience. Nathan Isaacs refers to SiriusDecisions, which has developed a framework for deciding when to gate and which describes gating like charging a cover fee at a nightclub: “They contend you want to charge the cover fee for a really great band and not charge a cover for your uncle Bruce’s drum circle set (unless your uncle is Bruce Springsteen).”

So we conducted an incredibly scientific study (via Twitter poll) that gauged the appetite out there for gating. Content strategist Gillian Seely was fairly indicative of the outcome when she tweeted: “I’m split. I hate having headline news-type content gated. But I understand when it’s op-ed/long-form and definitely for DLs/mktg pieces.”

And when the debate was moved to LinkedIn . . . “If you’re smart you’ll only gate content that’s valuable enough to download but doesn’t hurt your SEO so much that putting it on a webpage causes missed opportunities,” wrote content strategist Jonathan Davies. “Case studies are good examples of this; the back-and-forth linking to big-name clients can be a nice boost in domain authority but often goes amiss when people think everybody still needs a downloadable PDF to print things.

“Rant aside,” he continued, “the more journalistic content marketers like to think that only high value content should be gated. In my opinion, once someone downloads your gated content you already have your conversion—time for an automated lead journey to step in and nurture that lead to a state where sales can step in. The quality of your content should then be measured by audience response—from that lead journey hopefully, or from sales’ feedback—rather than ‘what some stakeholder thinks of it.’”

Davies’ comment described the general bit-of-everything viewpoint that’s emerged in recent times. While you still have some who advocate an all-or-nothing approach—Moz’s Rand Fishkin, in this excellent Whiteboard Friday, says he prefers open access content—it’s the hybrid view that is gaining dominance.

Why Opt for Gated Content?

It’s estimated that as much as 80% of B2B content marketing assets are gated. Those who argue for gating believe it will:

  • Generate sales leads
  • Reflect the value of the content
  • Filter out those who are just browsing

Two men in a sparring ring

Image attribution: Johann Walter Bantz

While gating will likely have a negative impact on views of your content, the theory is that those who fill in the form are already more engaged and at a later stage of the buying cycle. Mike Volpe, former CMO of HubSpot, is a big believer: “If I can get 100,000 people to see that page and I can get 28,000 people to fill it out, 28,000 contacts may be more valuable than even 50,000 people seeing the content. That is really what the debate comes down to. The question is what is the value of a view or a download versus someone who has actually filled out the form?”

A form gets you more information about those accessing your content; they’re also more likely to be further down the sales funnel, which makes sales outreach easier. Plus, thanks to the exchange of data, the lead may view the content as more valuable or trustworthy. Yet gating gives you a smaller audience potential; it’s harder to earn links and amplification, and it can simply annoy people. Just remember GDPR and other data protection regulations if you’re collecting personal data and moving to marketing automation techniques.

When to Keep Open Access

But gating all of your content means that even those early-stage, top-of-funnel posts that are designed to create brand awareness will suffer. As Marcus Johnson says, “During the awareness stage, most prospects know very little about your brand and have yet to trust you. Removing the gate in this stage can improve your brand’s visibility and enhance your credibility with prospects. As prospects move down the marketing funnel and are more interested in your business, they will be more likely to be willing to fill out a form in order to access to content like e-books and webinars.”

Those who argue against the form-filling believe open access will:

  • Build trust with prospects and viewers
  • Remove roadblocks for consumers
  • Improve SEO through more traffic and inbound links
  • Gain a larger future audience for re-targeting and re-marketing

Kissmetrics’ Neil Patel thinks gating just annoys people, says Kathryn Aragon: “From [Patel’s] experience, gating content creates a lot of backlash. Opt-in forms give [him] 3x the leads of any other method, but they tick people off . . . by a lot. He uses opt-in forms, but judging from his own content marketing efforts, he favors giving away a lot of value without asking for anything in return. For him, not ‘ticking people off’ is the smarter approach.”

Flowchart answering question

Butter Your Content Strategy Bread on Both Sides

To understand what content you should gate and what should be given away free, it’s important to understand the buyer’s journey, says Lucy Jones. If you gate awareness stage content you may sabotage your lead generation potential, but by the consideration stage of the journey, you will have typically built more trust, so prospects will be more comfortable sharing information in return for helpful content.

As such, the answer to the gating question for you will come as part of your documented content strategy. Understand your audience and develop personas; map your content to the sales journey and identify any gaps. If you’re asking yourself “should I gate this content?”, try testing out some hybrid approaches. One such approach is offering “teasers” of the content to help bring some SEO benefits into play; the reader then must exchange their information to access the full version of the content. That approach is endorsed by Rand Fishkin himself: “I like this tease model a lot. I think that can work really, really well, especially if you are giving enough to prove your value and worth, and to earn those engagement and links, before you ask for a lot more.”

But remember that your open or “pre-gated” content will heavily influence perception of your gated stuff, and vice versa. You need to make sure there is high quality all round, and that anything you gate is truly high value—it’s not easily accessible elsewhere, has a unique viewpoint, and is not echoing content your competitors offer for free. Remember, your audience’s personal data is highly valuable, so you need to ensure the value exchange is fair to both sides.

Before making your decision, consider the size of the form, the value of the content, and whether it’s going to convert someone to a customer. Do not gate top-of-funnel, brand awareness-style content, but only treat your premium, high-value, “big rock” content to a gate. If you’re really unsure, HubSpot has a great flowchart to help you make the decision.

But the great gating debate really boils down to this question: Do you value views (open) or qualified leads (gated)? If the answer is both, you need to butter your bread on both sides.

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Featured image attribution: James Sutton

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.

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