examples of gated and ungated content

When, Why and How to Gate Content Along the Customer Journey

Forget the arguments about whether or not to gate content. The questions are when – and how – to best gate content. The answers lie along the customer journey.
Article Outline

In early 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay entitled Content is King. Twenty years later, and after the explosion of content megacarriers such as BuzzFeed, Facebook, YouTube, and many of our own company websites, his prediction is eerily prescient.

“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting,” he wrote. “No company is too small to participate.”

With all the available content out there, and more on its way (including this blog post), an often-asked question is whether or not to gate that information in exchange for personal contact information such as someone’s name, email, or phone number.

Within marketing circles, it’s been a relatively big debate over the last six or seven years. However: forget all the arguments; the questions are when and how to best gate content. I believe the answers lie along the customer journey.

What does it mean to “gate content”?

But first, let’s agree on a common definition for what I mean when we say “gated” or “ungated” content: To gate means you are requiring some specific information from the viewer, usually via a form fill, in exchange for getting access to the content.

You see this all the time, including on the Act-On website. There is a white paper or ROI template or video that you – the consumer – are interested in, and when you click on “Get It Now,” or whatever the call to action may be, you are prompted to fill a form with your first and last names, your email address, and then maybe your company name, or your phone number.

Pros & Cons for Gating Content

According to Starfleet Media’s B2B Content Marketing and Lead Generation report, respondents estimate they keep 80% of their major content marketing assets gated.

If everyone is doing it, what’s the big deal, right?

Advocates for gating content believe it will:

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

Those who want to “tear down this wall” by offering ungated content believe the benefits include:

  • Building trust with prospects and viewers
  • Removing road blocks for consumers
  • Improving SEO (and theoretically, you’ll get more traffic and inbound links)

The gating content question typically evokes any number of metaphors.

SiriusDecisions, which has developed a framework for deciding when to gate, 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).

To continue this bar metaphor, David Meerman Scott, a marketing strategist and best-selling author has been a long-time advocate for removing barriers to access for your customers and prospective customers. He’s compared the gating experience to a singles bar where some guy comes up to you and says, ‘What’s your phone number?’ without even introducing himself.

I can see where Mr. Scott is headed with his analogy, but to bring back our cover fee, and to make this more confusing, I think his example is a bit like charging a cover fee to hear my mom sing karaoke. This ill-timed solicitation at a singles bar is more about bad timing and bad decision making than it was about asking the question.

And if the content is clearly valuable – say Brad Pitt-esque – do you need to spend the time introducing yourself? (OK, I’ll quit now before I am all alone and closing down this bar metaphor at the end of the night.)

Whether or not to gate could be answered by asking a couple of questions. Do you need to increase your leads? Then you should gate. Do you need to build brand awareness? Then the content should be ungated and free.

The reality for most organizations is that the true answer is going to be a bit of both: you want to generate leads and build awareness. So the question is not if we should gate, but what we should gate and when we should gate it.

I’ve written a post, 5 Key Questions To Help You Decide When To Gate Content, that outlines when and when not to gate your content, and what kind of forms to use.

“Begin with the end in mind”

One of the seven habits of highly successful people, according to author Stephen Covey, is to “begin with the end in mind.”

Often, I think, we’re so busy executing the various tactics of our sales and marketing campaigns that we lose sight of the big picture. Also, we’re too focused on what we want from the prospect (e.g., Merriman’s version of a singles bar pickup line) and not considering the buyer’s needs. So we end up gating the wrong piece of content, or gating at the wrong time in the process.

Instead, we should invest the time to review (or create) our content marketing strategy and then map out a plan for gating some of that content. To do that, we need to begin with identifying or updating our target customer personas and our desired business objective(s).

Once we are reminded who is our target buyer, we need to next map out their buying journey. This can be done from actual data points we may have from their engagement history; from interviews and focus group studies (whether formal or informal); and from listening to what folks are saying on social networks and so forth.

Once we have a good grasp of our ideal customer persona and their buying journey, we should match the content we have to each stage of that journey. It’s important to remember that our buyer’s journey doesn’t necessarily match up with our sales funnel.

“The customer journey is not linear anymore. It’s not awareness, all the way through to the sale and then support,” said Kristy Bolsinger, senior manager of customer experience and optimization at F5 Networks, during a presentation on the customer experience at Portland’s SearchFest conference. “People are bouncing around all over the place. They are watching a YouTube video and maybe clicking a link from there. They are doing a tutorial on your website and maybe downloading a white paper. Maybe they are listening to somebody rant about you, hopefully positively, on Twitter. Their experience is multifaceted.”

The point is that different prospects will engage with some pieces of your content at different stages. For example, they may watch the same demo video at the top of the funnel, at the middle of the funnel, or at the bottom of the funnel. So creating a rule that you’re only going to gate MOFU or BOFU content may not work. That said, it is generally more appropriate to gate content as you move more toward the bottom of the buyer’s journey/your sales funnel, since the prospect is engaged, showing interest and intent in doing business with you.

This content lifecycle, used with permission from DigitalMarketer, illustrates how gate-worthy content can be used at every stage.

Once we have mapped the content to our ideal customer’s journey with us, we should be able to see where there may be content gaps. And we can also identify where there are opportunities to offer premium content that can include gated content. This could include developing an ROI calculator or assessment tool for a B2B and requiring a gated form to see the results.

As Bolsinger points out, “There is an overlap of what you want to accomplish and what your customer wants to accomplish. You really need to focus your energy on that middle part. That is where the magic happens, where your common wishes, hopes and dreams come together.”

When done well, gating information can benefit both the prospect customer and the business. The key for successful gating is to understand customers’ intent and to have ready high quality content for which your ideal customer is willing to trade their personal information.

At the end of the day, people don’t have a problem exchanging their email address — if they feel like they’re going to get something they find valuable in return.

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