Ask a Content Strategist: When Should I Use Gated Content?

The default in B2B marketing seems to be to make every “big rock” piece gated content, hidden behind a form. But how do you actually decide when content should be gated and when it shouldn’t?

-James, San Francisco

After a hiatus, Ask a Content Strategist is back by semi-popular demand. I’m like Season 8 of Scrubs! You’re not overly excited, but you’re pretty okay with it. James from San Francisco definitely is.

First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Gated content is any marketing asset that can only be accessed by filling out a lead form. The most common types are whitepapers, reports, and webinars.

The logic behind gated content goes like this: If you get someone’s contact info, you can proactively contact them. Presumably, if they are interested enough to fill out a form with their personal information, they may want to buy something from you.

In many cases, that assumption is false. Let me explain why.

Why most gated content fails

The entire point of marketing is to build trusted relationships with people so that they buy something and advocate for you. However, when most companies gate content, they build as much trust as a creepy stalker from a ’90s B movie.

Here’s how it goes bad:

Step 1: Marketing gates a valuable report.

Step 2: One hundred people arrive at the landing page for the report. Eighty of them leave immediately because filling out that form will unleash unspeakable hell upon their inbox. The other 20 fill out the form.

Step 3: Marketing gives the contact info for those 20 people to the sales team.

Step 4: Sales harasses the people who downloaded the e-book with passive-aggressive emails and cold calls even though all they did was download a piece of content.

Step 5: These 20 people who downloaded the report now regret doing so. Now, they kind of hate the company, making this an incredibly masochistic exercise for everyone involved.

I call this THE MARKETING FUNNEL OF HELL.

marketing funnel of hell gated content

To be fair, plenty of sales teams are much more thoughtful in how they follow up with prospects. But this is a worst-case scenario that happens a lot when companies incentivize quantity over quality. Most marketing teams are praised for “driving leads” and if someone gets pissed off, they can just blame sales.

We haven’t always been perfect on this front in our own marketing program, although we’ve been aiming to get a lot better. Even though we try to maintain strict rules for when sales can reach out to leads that come in via gated content, we’ve also gated too much content. Alienating 80 percent of the people who visit a landing page just isn’t worth it—especially since many of them came to the page because they wanted to see what we had to say.

This hit me like a ton of bricks when I stepped back and analyzed the past 6 months of campaigns since I took over as Contently’s head of marketing. I realized that 80 percent of our inbound opportunities come from people who read our un-gated content on The Content Strategist. Only about 10 percent of opportunities come from people who accessed gated content.

We’re much better off maximizing engagement through un-gated content and giving people the ability to talk to sales when they’re ready. I’d bet that’s true for 99 percent of B2B companies.

When a gate makes sense

That being said, gated content can still work—as long as its done with the purpose of delivering value to leads. You have to make it explicitly clear what you’re going to do with their contact information.

Here are the scenarios when gated content makes sense:

Webinars

Webinars are a virtual event. Like any event, webinars benefit from invitations and reminders. After the webinar, you also want to follow-up by sending recordings, slide decks, and any additional resources. You can’t do that without someone’s contact information. In this case, gating a webinar has clear benefits for both sides.

Educational courses

This is a big focus for us at Contently, from our Content Marketer’s Playbooks to or our Content Strategy Series. We’re developing on-going content marketing courses and releasing lessons on a regular schedule. We want someone’s contact information so that we can send them the next module when it’s ready.

Exclusive content

It’s also a smart tactic to develop exclusive content for people who subscribe to your newsletter. It provides clear value in exchange for people to sign up.

For instance, Contently editor-in-chief Jordan Teicher sends a private newsletter to everyone who subscribes to The Content Strategist’s email updates. Jay Acunzo of Marketing Showrunners hosts live video chats for subscribers only. My favorite tech site, The Information, has incredible content that’s exclusive to subscribers. This incentivizes people to subscribe, all while ensuring they know exactly what they’re getting.

Customized PQL content

Lately, we’ve been developing product qualified lead (PQL) projects, like custom content strategy benchmarking reports that we automate using a proprietary piece of software called Storybook.

To put these reports together, we need certain details from people. And when the reports are ready to ship, we need contact info to email them out and follow up with feedback. We couldn’t do that without gating the content.

Conversely, if you just have a standalone white paper, e-book, or original research report that isn’t connected to a broader research report, you’re probably doing more harm than good by gating it. If you un-gate your content, more people will read it. And if the content is good enough and relevant to your brand, they’ll come back.

Joe Lazauskas is Contently’s Head of Marketing and co-author of The Storytelling Edge. Ask him your most pressing content strategy questions here, or email him at lazer@contently.com.

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