Is Gated Content a Necessary Evil? [Case Studies + Optimization Tips]

By , August 8th, 2014 in Content Marketing | 7 comments
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…without providing your email address. Image source.

As conversion-driven marketers, we’re always on the lookout for ways to improve the results of our campaigns.

Most of us follow the accepted practice of putting high-value content — usually an ebook or training series — behind an opt-in form on a landing page.

But not everyone accepts this as best practice. Some marketers, such as David Meerman Scott, believe content should be freely accessible because it results in more downloads and better brand perception.

Part of the reason the content gating debate remains unsettled is that it’s hard to conclusively test gated campaigns against their ungated counterparts. Comparing campaigns that are structured so differently with different KPIs can feel like comparing apples and oranges.

Should content be left ungated, or is gating content a necessary evil? If so, is it possible to create a content gate that doesn’t turn people away? Here are some strong arguments from either side of the debate – and some tried-and-true gated content campaign optimization tips.

To Gate or Not To Gate? 4 Marketers Weigh In

Mike Volpe – Gated content attracts qualified leads

mike-volpeAs CEO of HubSpot, Mike keeps his eye on the bottom line.

He admits that fewer people download gated content. But he believes the people who fill out a form have essentially prequalified themselves and are, therefore, higher quality leads.

For Mike, the debate essentially comes down to what data you value most. Is it views you’re after or qualified leads?

“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?

Demian Farnsworth – Gating content helps build relationships

Copyblogger’s chief copywriter, Demian Farnsworth, believes that gating content helps you build a relationship with your ideal prospects.

damian-farnsworth“Most people, in some capacity, are publishing online for the purpose of building an audience around whom they can build a business. And gated content helps you elevate that relationship.

Holding something back identifies those who are more serious. The blog post draws in a crowd and builds trust – the download indicates someone wants more information. If it’s a valuable download, more trust is accumulated.”

And that’s exactly what drives optins: trust.

Ian Rhodes – Give your prospects the option

While Demian believes a gate can help you build relationships, Ian Rhodes believes you can build relationships better without the gate.

ian-rhodes“I don’t believe in content gates for one simple reason. If the information you’re putting out is truly worthy of my time, I’ll naturally want to receive more. I’ll be hooked.

How will I receive more? That’s my call. Email, RSS, Twitter follow, Linkedin connection. Give me easy access to your information and I’ll be your biggest customer. Your biggest advocate. That should be the real intent of your content.”

Rather than putting his stock in leads, he’s looking for advocates – people who know what you believe in and want to put your ideas into practice in their business. And interestingly, he’s found a practical way to gather emails from people without resorting to an optin form.

Give your reader the option. ‘Too busy to read now? Receive this guide/course by email in digestible chunks over the next 7 days’ can prove just as effective as a locked gate only accessible with a verified email address.”

Neil Patel – Optins tick people off

neil-patelConversion expert Neil Patel, co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg, doesn’t recommend gating your content.

A strong advocate of content marketing, Neil has been creating “advanced guides” since 2013: in-depth ebooks that teach readers advanced marketing tactics in a variety of topics – and he leaves every one of them ungated. One, which he and I co-authored, is 40,000 words, a veritable book. But he has never charged a dime for it. The return on his investment isn’t leads. It’s traffic.

I asked Neil for his take on the debate.

“From my experience, gating content creates a lot of backlash.

Optin forms give me 3x the leads of any other method, but they tick people off… by a lot.”

He uses optin 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.

There’s no one right answer

The raging debate continues as supporters of either side continue to see promising results that back up their stance. Though each of these marketers brings an interesting perspective to the table, the only way to know what works best for your campaigns is to always be testing.

When in doubt, gated content campaigns produce immediate, tangible feedback in the form of collected leads. This makes optimizing these campaigns (and gauging whether your conversion optimization efforts are working) relatively straightforward.

For this reason, I decided to pick a side and explore what works when gating your content. Is it possible to create a content gate that doesn’t turn people away? How can you get the highest number of optins possible without driving prospects away?

3 Marketers On Optimizing Your Gated Content Campaigns

Barry Feldman – Assure landing page visitors they’re in the right place

A consummate content marketer and designer, Barry Feldman is a creative director who makes campaigns look as good as they sound. As you might guess, he puts emphasis on the creative elements of a campaign, namely, creating a landing page with optimal conversion-centered design.

From his experience, that’s key to getting people to complete your optin form.

barry-feldman“If gating your content is going to work, you’ve got to create landing pages that convert at a high percentage, particularly for personas you deem to be important to your lead generation efforts.

From what I’ve seen, I’d say the top two mistakes companies make are not assuring the visitor he or she has come to the right place, and not clearly communicating the benefits of completing the form. You need to expressly say what the result of doing so will be.”

Mike Bal – Set high expectations

In line with Barry’s point, Mike Bal, Director of Social Media and Content at Single Grain, recommends that you keep the bar high when creating your gated content. The content behind an optin form should be significantly higher value than anything else you give them.

mike-balSomething to beware of is watering down your offer.

I think putting a little extra time into the presentation and delivery goes a long way with the perceived value. I recommend alternating between different media or even offering different downloads that are optimized for mobile, tablet or desktop devices.”

Kristi Hines – Focus on name recognition and brand authority

Kristi Hines, content marketer and blogger extraordinaire, believes another key to improving the conversion rate of your gated content campaigns is your reputation.

kristin-hinesIf you have demonstrated that your content is both unique and valuable, then creating a content gate should work. Otherwise, that would be your biggest challenge — getting people to believe enough to complete the action necessary to open the gate.

This is especially true if you have not built up enough recognition as an authority in your industry. Generally, no one wants to give up their email address to someone unknown or recommend content that they have not actually seen yet.

Case Studies: Gated Content Campaigns That Convert

While it’s nice to see the thought process that experts use when making these decisions, ultimately, the truth is in the numbers.

I turned to two companies that are using gated content campaigns effectively to build relationships and generate leads: Single Grain and Digital Marketer. Let’s dive into why their campaigns convert.

Single Grain’s gated content campaign that converts at 19%

Conversion rate: 19%
Leads: 50/week
Facebook ads CTR: 2.216%

Single Grain’s content campaign starts with a Facebook ad targeting people with relevant interests (in this case, people who follow Crazy Egg).

560single-grain-sponsored

The artwork is simple and communicates that the offer is an ebook. The ad copy gives good incentive for exploring further. Who wouldn’t want information on a new type of advertising that gives 1,900% more profit than ads?

Click through, and you arrive at this landing page.

560gated-free-report-reveals

This landing page does many things right to reduce friction:

  • It’s immediately clear we’re in the right place because Single Grain employs message match by using the same ebook image as in the ad.
  • Though the headline could be more benefit-oriented, the bullets do speak directly to benefits and do a good job of convincing me that the ebook is worth reading.
  • The call to action, “Get instant access” communicates that I’ll get the information quickly. And since there is no form on the page, my first impression is that I may not have to opt in to anything. Not much friction here.

After clicking, I’m presented with this short popup form:

560where-report

It’s got one field, so filling it out feels relatively painless. I’m then taken to a download page, where I can immediately download the report.

560allset-download-now

After download, subscribers are sent a seven-part autoresponder sequence that teaches them how native ads work (including a pitch for their services in the P.S. of each email). For some extra conversion power, people who landed on the landing page but didn’t opt in are retargeted on Facebook.

Why does this campaign work?

With the results that Single Grain is getting, it’s clear that done right, you can get good results with gated content. But why has this campaign performed so well? According to Tom Lambert, Single Grain’s Director of Paid Acquisition:

  • It speaks to a very specific pain point most marketers share (display advertising not working).
  • The offer pre-qualifies prospects: marketers who struggle with or are interested in alternative marketing sources.
  • The copy builds desire for the report. Not revealing the method creates an element of mystery (curiosity is the ultimate persuasion tool).
  • There is message and design match between the ad and landing page, so people know they’re in the right place.
  • The 2-step optin lets the prospect take a small step (a micro-commitment) before asking for their information.

Now let’s look at another winning gated content campaign.

Digital Marketer’s gated content campaign that converts at 45.2%

Conversion rate on the landing page: 45.2%
Leads: 23,735 over 45 days
Facebook ad CTR: 1.88%

This campaign also begins with a Facebook ad:

560digi-marketer-facebook-ad

The simple and direct ad features Digital Marketer’s signature design elements, so it’s easily recognizable to DM followers.

The ad copy poses a question, coupled with a call to action. Notice that they also specify the number of swipes in the file. Specifics will always give you a better response than generic messaging.

Now the landing page:

560digital-marketer-landing-page

This landing page is optimized for conversions in a few ways:

  • Immediately, I see that I’m in the right place. Both the distinctive artwork and the keyword, swipe file, match the ad.
  • The persuasive headline is benefits-oriented and uses a deck, or subtitle, to give more specifics about the offer.
  • The specific numbers included in each of the bullets convince me that I’ll get high value from this download.
  • Any doubts I may have are overcome by the elements of social proof: well-known brand names and a testimonial.
  • Similar to the Single Grain landing page, I see no form embedded on the page. That gives me the feeling that this may be free content (ungated), reducing friction to click on the CTA.

Clicking the big, orange “Download Now” button reveals a pop up:

560digital-marketer-yes

One addition here is the completion bar across the top of the popup. This communicates that “instant access” might not come in the very next step of the process.

As predicted, the next step after filling out the form isn’t a thank you/download page:

560digital-thank-you-download

While the headline promises a case study, this is actually a long-form sales page that ends with an offer:

560digital-marketer-optin

The strategy, then, is to send Facebook fans to a landing page that offers a valuable piece of content. Instead of a regular thank you/download page as we saw with Single Grain, you’re told that your free gift is on its way to your inbox and are then offered a related entry-level product for $7. Digital Marketer is leveraging the power of reciprocity here.

As marketing campaigns go, this is a winner. Just under 2% of the Facebook users who see the ad click on it. Nearly half of those people also download the swipe file, yielding more than 23,000 leads in just over a month.

Why does this campaign work?

  • It speaks to a very specific pain point most marketers share (poor results from social media marketing).
  • The offer’s copy pre-qualifies prospects: marketers who struggle with or are interested in social media marketing.
  • The message and design match between the ad and landing page offer continuity, so people know they’re in the right place.
  • The popup optin form reduces friction caused by the standard embedded form.

The Bottom Line

Is there a better way to generate leads than gating your content?

The only way to know is to test for yourself, but these examples have shown that if you want to build a responsive list of people you can market to, putting content behind a gate works – if you do it right.

Before you get started on your next gated content campaign, consider doing the following:

  1. Develop the highest-value content you can.
  2. Create a variety of content that always exceed your prospects’ expectations. Surprise and delight is the name of the game.
  3. Place the offer for your content in ads and native content that will be seen by your target audience.
  4. Prequalify leads so they’re less likely to bounce when they see your optin form.
  5. Keep your optin form short and sweet. Consider testing a pop-up form, so it doesn’t feel like an extra step.
  6. Focus on the user experience throughout the entire process.

All of these together will create a positive impression so people are eager to see more of your brand in their inbox. Sound easy enough?

Now it’s your turn. Do you believe in the efficacy of gating content? Let me know in the comments.

– Kathryn Aragon


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About The Author

Photo of Kathryn Aragon

Kathryn Aragon is managing editor of Crazy Egg's blog, The Daily Egg. She is an award-winning copywriter, internet marketer, and publisher of the C4 Report. Follower her on Twitter and Google+
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Comments

  1. Hi Kathyrn,
    That was one of the best articles that I have read today:-). I really enjoyed how you not only showed examples, but that you broke down what is working in them. For me it was interesting to see the micro-conversions on the SingleGrain landing page. I had not really thought of doing it that way. I am always so paranoid about adding another click, but that type of micro-conversion is something that I will be testing out on my landing page in the future (via UnBounce of course!). In my opinion gating content works better because it allows you to interact with the customer after via email. They get a chance to know you as a company rather then just a single piece of content. With so much content out there, they will forget about you – even if your content is great. I have tried alternative methods like retargeting users, or even reaching out to them on the comments and from my experience gating content and then marketing via email has the highest ROI. Again – I really enjoyed the article and find your writing to be in depth. Do you think that gating a piece of content makes it more likely the user will consume it since they have invested (entered their email) for it?
    Thanks!
    Adam
    http://www.nerdsdoitbetter.com

    • Hi Adam. Glad you liked it. I think you can create a higher perceived value from putting your content behind a gate, but I don’t think it actually increases readership. People are way too busy, and the content has to be really valuable or really unique to get people reading. That’s our biggest challenge as marketers–figuring out what people will see as valuable.

      By the way, I recently learned that the popup optin in the case studies is called a 2-step optin. From the stats I’ve seen on it, it tends to increase conversion rates, so it’s worth looking into. Best of luck!

  2. I’m kind of shocked that “search” or “SEO” doesn’t appear in this article, or is mentioned by any of the marketers quoted.

    I understand that the focus here is conversion – and (implicitly) leveraging content for purposes of lead generation – but the findability of “high value content” is certainly a factor to consider.

    In fact, the higher the value of the content, the more likely it is that people are going to be seeking it out through search engines. And since gated content is by definition not accessible to search engines, the possibility exists that a competitor with freely-accessible content – even of substantially lower quality – will outperform sites with gated content.

    This means putting your value proposition in front of more eyeballs, and perhaps substantially more eyeballs. Yes, because that content is freely available one can’t convert users by dangling “high value content” in front of them, but collecting user information through an opt-in form that unlocks content isn’t the only conversion game in town, and isn’t even the only lead-generation game in town.

    As alluded to above, for example, Neil Patel parlays search and social traffic to his high-value topical content with overlay opt-in forms and on-site CTAs.

    I’m not saying that all “high-value content” should be open because that’s the superior strategy for SEO, but one must add the potential of search traffic to the mix when making that cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to gate content.

    • Great addition to the debate, Aaron. Search definitely has to be a consideration in your content strategy. Personally, I think you need both: free content for SEO and gated content for lead gen. But it’s critical to think it through so you’re making smart decisions.

  3. “Give your prospects the option” I generally go with that statement. There have been other studies showing that if you give a report etc. away for free and politely ask, but not demand, as in “gating”, their email address (you can even ask for referrals!) conversion rates can be higher than for restrictively gated content. In other words, some campaigns produced more VOLUNTARY email addresses as per number of total visitors than the split tested form that promised the same content but DEMANDED the mail address first. So I guess, there is no one-size-fits-all, but this should be split tested. After all, we do the same for colors and wording etc.

    • Interesting findings, Darragh. I’m not surprised. From my experience, letting people feel more in control (not less) builds good will and trust, which almost always translates into better results.

      Another cool option is to put your gate INSIDE the content. Basically, you prove your value before asking for emails. So, for example, you give several pages of high-value information, then insert an optin gate for the most advanced tips. As you say, there are lots of options, and they should all be tested to know what works for your audience.

  4. bebes juegos says:

    I agree with part of the information you gave, altough SEO and SEM strategies should also be included in the article. I think that it is totally possible to create a content gate for users don’t take away at all,

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