Last updated 25 February, 2022.
The ultimate guide for deciding when (not) to gate your content
“Why the hell do we keep our best and most useful content hidden behind a form?” is a question posed by about a billion marketers, including Contently’s Joe Lazauskas.
“What even is an A4 if you're not going to print it?” is a question I ask every time I'm trying to make the case for a better user experience — and against a gated PDF that isn’t exactly compatible with mobile screens or millennial trust issues.
And true enough, several big players in the B2B SaaS space including Drift and ChartMogul have recently thrown the traditional inbound playbook out the window, scrapped their lead forms, and opened their long-form content to the public.
Heck, even we got rid of ours.
But while I’d love nothing more than the ability to give you a simple one-size-fits-all type of answer on whether or not to gate your content, I’m going to be an intolerable brat and go with 'it depends'. Because really, it does.
In fact, I’ll answer a different question altogether. And that question is: “When exactly is it still okay to gate content?”
Here’s the formula for finding out. And should you find any of these topics particularly juicy, feel free to skip directly to that part:
- The introduction: why did we start gating content in the first place? 🤔
- The proof: why is gated content going out of style? 👜
- The alternatives: how the hell else will I get leads? 🤖
- The dependencies: when is it okay to gate content? 🚪
- Case 1: high-touch sales vs. online self-service 🏧
- Case 2: loyal audience vs. high-intent organic traffic 🚦
- Case 3: amateur audience vs. jaded professionals 👀
- Case 4: existing category vs. radical innovation ⚡️
- Case 5: established brand vs. new player 🎩
- Case 6: top of the funnel content vs. sales enablement 🎉
- The test: is there an experiment I can run if I’m still unsure? 🤷🏻♂️
- The parting words: do you need a hand? 🙋🏻♀️
Part 1: Why did we start gating content in the first place? 🤔
True to style, I’ll now walk you through the short history of inbound marketing — yes, in gifs. Are you ready? Good.
Once upon a time, marketing was all about opening the door and starting conversations. (I totally ripped that from Drift’s Dave Gerhardt. Soz!)
Then, practically overnight a dark cloud appeared on the not-so-distant horizon.
That dark cloud was data. Lots and lots of it.
And just like that, it washed over the world. Like literally. There was data everywhere.
And that's when marketers started feeling the pressure. The problem was, they now had to use that data to prove that their hard work really was paying off.
Luckily, a brave knight dressed head to toe in orange came to the rescue.
The knight said: "Worry not, young marketer. I'm going to teach you everything you need to know about the sales and marketing funnel. All you have to do is ask your website visitors to complete a quick form in exchange for your most valuable content. When I'm done with you, you'll have MQLs and SQLs coming out of your ears."
And miraculously enough, that worked for a long time. People were more than happy to give out their contact details in exchange for some grade-A content.
But then, in the quest of getting more leads faster, some marketers got desperate and started gating content that was, well... A little less than amazing.
Suddenly, nobody wanted to download an 18-page PDF anymore. And what's worse, thanks to the inbound knight, marketers now had the data to show for it.
And while I hate to bring storytime to a halt, this is where we're at right now. And even if that hasn't happened to your brand yet, I'm pretty sure it will. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?
But before we get to that, let's have a serious discussion about the different reasons why gated content has lost and continues to lose its appeal. 👇
Part 2: Why is gated content going out of style? 👜
To say that gated content has stopped working altogether would be a gross overstatement. That said, my crystal ball and I are pretty convinced that sooner or later, old school lead forms will, in fact, stop working. And lucky for you, I’ve got some interesting data to back it up:
Exhibit A: The quality conundrum 💩
As I hinted before, one of the biggest reasons why your visitors may be hesitant to download anything gated off your website is the undisputed truth that 90% of gated content is well, not very good.
In a way, gating content can seem a lot like saying: “Hey, I’m too embarrassed to have just anyone read this. Please leave your contact details here so I can at least blackmail you to keep quiet.”
Of course, you could also be saying: "Hey, I don't want my competitors to snoop around and steal my best-kept secrets."
But sadly, the only way to really know is by taking a risk. And not everyone likes those odds.
Exhibit B: The customer-centricity debacle 💑
So you’ve declared to the world that your company is customer-obsessed, user-friendly, accessible, and well… human? That’s great, but as you probably know by now, saying that you’re something isn’t enough.
As former Slack CMO and SaaS legend Bill Macaitis once said: “Your brand is every single touchpoint your customer has with you during their journey.”
And I don’t know about you, but lead forms never gave me the warmth and fuzzies. So if you want people to buy into your beautiful brand promise of customer-centricity, you might want to reconsider your forms.
Exhibit C: The declining role of organic social 📉
Back when organic social still was a thing, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter were ideal distribution channels for new ebooks, guides, and whitepapers.
However, according to a study conducted by BuzzSumo, content sharing in social has halved between 2015 and 2017. What’s more, Facebook business pages’ organic reach keeps dropping. And don’t even get me started on LinkedIn, because those broetry-obsessed folks have gone to great lengths to prevent anyone from even temporarily leaving the platform.
As these grim trends imply, we can’t exactly afford to put all our eggs into the one basket known as social. The alternative, you ask? Paying for eyeballs on social, or betting on a different distribution channel altogether. 👇
Exhibit D: The rising role of search 📈
If social is out, search is definitely in. While the good news is that organic search requires a media budget of zero, the bad news is that competition is ruthless and so high-quality, ungated long-form pieces and carefully crafted topic clusters may be just about the only way to rank high on Google and other search engines.
To prove my point, Backlinko’s recent research suggests that the highest-performing pages on Google are typically somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 words long. And that the highest-ranking domains typically have at least 8 subpages or posts around the same topic.
TL;DR: Eventually gated content will stop working because your customers will lose faith in its quality, it will keep destroying your brand, and/or nobody will find it — unless you're willing to pay some serious advertising dollars.
Part 3: How the hell else will I get leads? 🤖
Now that we’ve got the proof out of the way, I’ve got another hard truth for you: All those contacts, MQLs, and SQLs never really helped you close more sales. They helped you measure what was going on at each stage of the funnel, identify potential bottlenecks in the buyer’s journey, and know when someone was getting close to buying.
But what you really needed marketing to do all along was simple: identify the right kinds of people and start conversations with them. And you absolutely 100% don’t need a gated A4 (or any other content format) to do that.
Now that I’ve got your attention, you’ve got a couple of options:
- Technologies like Drift allow you to automatically pre-qualify website visitors with the help of a chatbot. If and when that website visitor is a) interested in your product b) a good fit for your company, the visitor can book a time from your sales rep’s calendar – or a salesperson can take over from the bot and answer any questions that the visitor may have.
- Now this may come as a shock to you, but there are also a few sneaky ways to use forms to capture leads, which don’t involve hiding your best content behind them:
- Invite visitors to subscribe to your blog. And if they tick the magic post-GDPR box, you can send them relevant and targeted marketing emails — just like you would have, had they downloaded your super-secret PDF!
- Alternatively, you can invite your readers to submit their email addresses so that they can continue reading your ungated piece of content later. Here, you’re just helping people out, and if in the process they do want to subscribe to the rest of your genius material, then hey — it’s your lucky day!
- You could also offer your readers a free demo or trial of your product or service. You’re absolutely right: not everyone will bite, but the ones who will are the ones your sales team is dying to talk to anyway.
With these reassuring alternatives brewing in the back of your mind, let’s get to the fun part. Drum roll, please! 🥁
Part 4: When is it okay to gate content? 🚪
You have no idea how much I’d like to say “never”. However, as we’ve established, that’s not the whole truth. Not yet, anyway.
Next up, I’ll walk you through 6 scenarios, where gating content may still be somewhat excusable.
Case 1: high-touch sales (vs. online self-service) 🏧
When you’re trying to determine whether or not to gate a piece of content, start by looking at the business. More specifically, your average deal size and the sales model.
If your prospects require a lot of live demos, sales meetings, and general hand-holding during the buying process, gated content, automated workflows, and a robust lead scoring model can act as a great signaling and prioritization device for the sales team. In other words, in this particular instance, you may very well want to gate some of your content.
Of course, gating content is no longer a must in the enterprise world either, especially if you combine your ungated content pieces with a chatbot and a sophisticated lead scoring tool like MadKudu.
But especially if your product can be sold with little to no intervention from the sales team, why would you prevent these wonderfully proactive prospects from accessing the information that they need to seal the deal?
Case 2: loyal audience (vs. high-intent organic traffic) 🚦
Another important thing to consider is your content mission. In other words, the answer to the question: “Why are you creating content in the first place?”
The way I see it, the answer boils down to two alternatives:
1) Either you’re trying to build a loyal audience of repeat visitors the way Joe Pulizzi has taught you to...
2) ...or you’re trying to convert high-intent search traffic from Google — much like Jimmy Daly would advise you to do.
As you may have guessed, if you have no trouble converting high-intent traffic into customers, you’re better off leaving those gates open. But if you need a long-term commitment from the prospect before they can make decisions, identifying them early on with a lead form might still be a smart choice.
And while your situation may not be this black-and-white, and you might in fact be doing both, I’d advise you to focus. Go back to your customer research, and figure out how exactly your most successful customers ended up buying from you. Then rinse and repeat that process at scale.
Case 3: amateur audience (vs. jaded professionals) 👀
When I say amateurs, I mean that in the nicest possible way. You know, the kind of people who would never even imagine submitting a form with a fake name and a 10-minute email address just to get their hands on your wonderful PDF.
But if you’re marketing to marketers like we are, your content has to be absolutely golden before anyone will even consider reading it, let alone exchanging it for their contact details.
That’s why audience maturity should also be factored into your decision. People like me would never fill out a form with my real name and email address, but then it's also good to remember that I’m not everyone.
Case 4: existing category (vs. radical innovation) ⚡️
Believe it or not, coming up with a whole new category is not as easy as Drift makes it look. So if you’re in the business of category creation, I’d advise you to steer clear of gated content for two reasons:
1) No one will know to look for your product with the very term you’d like them to use to find it.
2) Nothing says radical innovation like gated content. Oh, wait. I’m kidding, aren’t I?
But if you’re working in the CRM space, building a simple project management tool, or competing in any of the more old-fashioned, and highly competitive markets, then go ahead and keep gating some super valuable research reports and the like. After all, if your prospects are still biting, why stop?
Case 5: established brand (vs. new player) 🎩
While established companies have years and years of industry experience on their side, new players have the ability to reinvent the game without any legacy weighing them down. Sure, the average buyer may be used to long qualification processes and waiting for sales reps to get back to them, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way.
By introducing an easier way to buy, you’ll simply close more sales in less time.
However, if you are an established player, fear not! While you may not be able to turn that gigantic (and profitable) ship around as fast as your younger (less wealthy) competitors, you’ve clearly done something right to get to where you are now. So keep doing what you’re doing, with the added flavor of trying some new things here and there to see if you can find an even better way to close business.
Case 6: top of the funnel content (vs. sales enablement) 🎉
As you may already know, not all content is created equal. Product literature, customer references, or pricing information should never live behind a lead form because these pieces should be available to potential buyers at a moment’s notice. You simply want all the eyeballs on them that you can possibly get.
However, you might still occasionally want to gate a middle-of-the-funnel product comparison guide just to get an idea of who’s considering your product against your biggest competitors.
This way, you’ll be able to follow up with the leads who’ve downloaded the guide, and start a conversation when it counts.
Another option is to gate a top-of-the-funnel research report, but the truth is that many of the contacts you’ll get through content like this will never buy from you. What’s more, your chances of getting the piece to spread like wildfire are much better if you encourage people to share it.
Now if you’re still not quite sure about where you land on the to-gate-or-not-to-gate gate (yeah, I went there), go ahead and perform this experiment.
Part 5: Is there an experiment I can run if I’m still unsure? 🤷🏻♂️
While a one-off experiment may seem like a bit of a silly move when it comes to getting a definitive answer, I’m going to advise you to do it anyway.
Why? Because what you’re really testing is your target audience’s readiness for change. And to test that, you only need one clever experiment per audience segment.
Ready? Let’s go.
Ingredients 🥕 + 🍆 + 🥑
To perform the experiment, you’ll need:
- A theme that hits the sweet spot between your customers’ interests and your company’s specialty
- One piece of content you can gate + a landing page with a lead form, a thank you page, and the usual works
- One long-form pillar page about the same theme, preferably an existing one that’s already generating a good amount of organic traffic + an interesting follow-up offer that can be promoted on the pillar page, e.g. email course, free assessment, webinar, calculator, demo...
- Drift (the free version or standard plan will do, as long as you can afford to invest some more of your own time for the duration of the experiment)
- One month (preferably more, but hey, a month will have to do since we’re so agile)
- Some media budget for paid acquisition across social and search (optional)
- Let’s assume that you have your gated content behind that lead form and your pillar page up and running.
- Next, set up Drift on that pillar page, and come up with a conversation opener that is a) perfectly in line with the content on the page, b) attention-grabbing, and c) somehow valuable to your ideal buyer. For example, you could offer a free assessment or a product demo, and let the site visitor book a time from your calendar.
- Start promoting both the pillar page and the landing page like crazy — just as long as you’re splitting the budget and effort evenly, the sky is the limit.
- Let the two pots of soup simmer, but check back often to see if there’s something you could optimize. Play with the copy, optimize the pillar page for search, change your angle… Do what you have to do.
- After a month has passed, lift the lid and take a long, hard sniff. It’s time to serve the results on a silver platter.
Now that your lead soup is ready for the table, pay attention to the following:
- The number of leads. But remember, this only works if the promotion was fair and the competing content pieces targeted the same funnel stage and approached the same topic from equally appealing angles.
- Lead quality — please note that this is much more important than lead quantity.
- The number of meetings/demos/assessments booked through each method. Pay special attention to this little guy, since the harsh reality is that most of your form-generated leads are nowhere near buying.
- Total sales through each method. But bear in mind that if your sales cycle is long, you may need to give this experiment another couple of months to really see the results.
After performing this experiment, you should be left with a pretty clear idea of your audience’s content and communication preferences.
The way I see it, there are three possible outcomes:
- Your prospects were jumping at the chance to start conversations! If this was the case, burn every single one of your lead forms immediately, buy Drift pro, build some kick-ass playbooks like this one, and never look back.
- In the second, slightly more likely, scenario, your Drift experiment managed to do one thing primarily: shorten your sales cycle. In fact, you probably got more leads through the form, but more sales meetings through the chatbot. And this is the kicker: as marketers, we've been primed to love those lukewarm leads. But don't fall into that trap.
- Your website visitors didn’t bite. Either they didn’t see the value in what you were offering, they weren’t interested in the product, or your conversation openers sucked. Well, guess what. I’m not gonna let you off that easy. Suck it up, count your losses, and start the experiment over.
If you got to the last point, you’ll see that I tricked you.
But if your conversational marketing efforts are still failing after 3 separate experiments on the same target audience, using different pieces of content, I’ll let you off the hook (for now).
So go ahead, keep gating that content if it’s getting you the results you need. But make sure to experiment with alternatives every now and again, because like I said, chances are that your gated content will eventually lose its appeal.
Part 6: Do you need a hand? 🙋🏻♀️
I know that un-gating (some of) your content and waiting to see what happens can feel overwhelming, because well, change can be pretty scary.
But worry not, with tiny experiments like the one that I just walked you through, failure is not an option. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll learn something valuable about the buying process of your audience.