Updating the argument against gated content

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By Mark Schaefer

One of the most popular methods of generating leads is to “gate” your most valuable content. Generally this refers to the practice of having a website visitor opt-in to the content by providing an email address in exchange for a document of some sort.

Gated content can be a legitimate way to increase a mailing list with potential leads. But I’m going to challenge conventional wisdom and this marketing “best practice” by suggesting a new view of gated content in the context of our current, challenging business conditions.

Many marketers point to the high investment in exceptional content and that the exchange of an email address is the only way to get any value in return. What I would like you to consider is that by making it difficult for people to see your content, you’re actually leaving value on the table.

The current state of gated content

Here are a couple of points to provide a perspective of our marketing world today.

  • People hate gated content. Even marketers who gate their content know this. Research shows more than 90 percent of the people interested in the content abandon the sign-up process because they don’t trust what happens next to the email address.
  • Many marketers justify gated content as a fair value exchange but research shows this is not true. Consumers state they are “resigned” to annoying marketing practices and more than half immediately unsubscribe to a site even after they opt-in.
  • We are clearly in an era of Content Shock where the competition for content views is vicious. One of the visible manifestations of this trend is BuzzSumo research showing how social shares on a topic decline precipitously as a subject becomes saturated. In other words, unless you are among the first to create content on a topic, it is extremely difficult to get your content to be seen and shared.

A new content marketing philosophy

In my book The Content Code, I provide an updated view of content marketing strategy.

The philosophy behind the book revolves around the practical idea that the economic value of content that is not seen and shared is zero. Therefore, we must develop a competency in not just producing content, but igniting it so that is seen and shared by the most people possible. The economic value of content marketing is not in the content, it is in the transmission of the content.

Creating great content is no longer the finish line, it is the starting line. The book outlines six possible strategies to remove barriers and give your content the best possible chance to flow and reach the most people possible.

Obviously requiring people to provide an email address to get a piece of content is about the worst thing you can do in this new view of “content success.” In essence, gated content places a stop sign in front of your content flow. It is an anachronistic way of thinking.

The value exchange

The decision to provide a barrier before your content must boil down to this: Are you going to receive more value from a trickle of people providing their email, or a flood of people seeing and sharing the content? Let’s look at case study to try to figure this out.

My talented friend James Carbary provided this interesting example of how the gated content value exchange played out for his own business. He wrote:

You can find his free pdf here: Content for LinkedIn

The case for amplification

James told me that the most tangible benefit of the ungated strategy was a connection with a high-potential customer and a podcast interview with this powerful new connection.

There are also some implied benefits in this un-gated content example that would probably be easy to track down:

  • Of the 692 people who asked for the content, how many were entirely new LinkedIn connections for James? He didn’t get an email address, but he did get a signal of interest and arguably these new LinkedIn connections might be more valuable in the long-term than an email address.
  • How many of the 692 people responded to a call to action at the end of the report and visited a website, or organically subscribed to receive more content?
  • How many shared the free content with more people inside and outside the company? How much additional flow did this receive because it was free?

Even if the percentage of people sharing content is the same whether it is gated or ungated, you are going to reach many more people with a base of fans numbering 692 versus 295. And that is happening in a matter of days versus months!

Finally, I have shared James’s story, linked to his website and shared his story. I can’t recall ever linking to gated content that would require my readers to sign-in to something. So the benefit created by this post would have never happened if he didn’t give his content away for free.

If you subscribe to my philosophy that the company that moves the most content will win, there is no question that un-gated content provides more potential value. His content is moving like crazy.

Branding and trust

I was discussing this issue with a colleague and she said “gated content just annoys me. Why would a brand want to be annoying? The company is making me distrust them because I have no idea what will happen to that email address.”

I think this an important consideration that is not normally part of the gated content debate. Most marketers are pre-occupied with trying to get value from a single piece of content without considering the cumulative impact on the view of the brand.

A simple thought exercise: If you are in a hotly-competitive field (like SEO or digital marketing) and one company has gated content and the other gives their best content away for free, which one will have a more positive brand view?

The research supports un-gated content

My friend Roger Dooley is an expert in the field of neruroscience and marketing. In a post, and he points out that from a psychological perspective, ungated content is the undisputed content champ. Roger writes:

The issue of measurement

A compelling argument for requiring an email to access content is measurement. Providing a tangible demonstration of the value of content marketing is difficult. There is some elegance in telling a client or your boss that an eBook (or whatever) resulted in a count-able number of sign-ups which might be stretched into a claim of “leads.”

Measuring content marketing is damn hard. Most can’t do an adequate job. I acknowledge that gating your content may be the politically correct thing to do even if the strategy is flawed based on today’s market realities.

However, I think “social shares” is a more powerful measurement than “number of email addresses.” An email address may translate into … nothing. But a social share represents organic advocacy, better than any ad you could pay for. I understand that many people still don’t understand that.

A simple rule of thumb

One of the themes in my recent writing is that we have lost our way in marketing. Often, those setting the standards we follow aren’t marketers, they are SEO experts, statisticians, and IT professionals. I am not diminishing the worth of these resources at all, but maybe a statistical evaluation is not always the best guidepost for a marketing decision. Perhaps we need to get our heads out of dashboards and spreadsheets and look at what is really happening with our customers in the real world.

Just because something seems favorable because of an A/B test or some new research into a backlink strategy, it doesn’t mean we should do it … especially if people hate it.

So I’ll end this post with a simple piece of advice. People hate gated content. Don’t do things people hate.

Instead, dig deep to discover what your customers love. Now go do that thing better than anybody else. That’s going to be marketing that works.

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for {grow}, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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Originally published at www.businessesgrow.com on June 25, 2018.

Written by

Chieftain of the blog {grow}, strategy consultant, educator, podcaster, author of Return On Influence, The Content Code, and The Tao of Twitter.

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