Think of the great rivalries throughout history and culture.
Yankees and Red Sox. Hamilton and Burr. Coke and Pepsi. Marvel and DC. Several others probably come to mind.
If you ever glance at the comments section of content marketers’ LinkedIn posts, you’ll notice a bitter dispute stands above the rest: gated versus ungated content.
What Is Gated Content?
Marketers are divided on the subject of gated content. Some think it’s a necessary evil, a better-than-nothing way to capture a lead and guide them toward an eventual purchase.
But a growing contingent of marketers think gating content is a tacky, intrusive tactic that undermines the power of good content and exacerbates the tension between marketing and sales departments.
Why People Hate Gated Content
Gated Content Causes Friction
The most obvious answer for why gated content draws ire from critics is that it yields a poor user experience, interrupting the natural flow of a website visitor’s search for content.
Someone types a search engine query, stumbles upon a landing page and finds a piece of content that looks like what they’re looking for — and then they’re asked to fill out a form, giving away their information to a company whose brand they don’t know very well, if at all.
It’s not an ideal user experience for generating trust and goodwill, especially when the amount of form fields to fill out feels excessive (do you really need their phone number, zip code and mother’s maiden name?).
But the real, deeper reasons gated content frustrates users go beyond the tedious exchange of information.
It has to do with what’s locked behind the gate, and what happens after.
Gated Content Is Often Underwhelming
Not all internet users mind the friction of a form fill. Some have come to expect an exchange to take place to access free content. They simply expect value in return.
Problem is, most content that’s gated “is completely underwhelming,” according to Brendan Hufford, a growth content marketer and founder of Growth Sprints.
“Most gated content goes into people’s Dropbox or Google Drive to die,” he continued, “and they never look at it ever again because it’s just not that good.”
Two-page PDFs, generic articles and infographics all come to mind.
“Most gated content goes into people’s Dropbox or Google Drive to die, and they never look at it ever again because it’s just not that good.”
Hufford finds gates forgivable when the content locked behind them is tactical and actionable — like a high-quality guide that can be referenced again and again.
For instance, Hufford gladly gave his email away to one software vendor in exchange for their downloadable guide that featured detailed sales scripts to use in emails and phone calls.
But that sort of value is all too rare.
“We’ve just been burned by opting into so much crap,” Hufford said.
“A lot of gated content is strategic, teaching you what to think or why to think something,” Jacalyn Beales, content marketing manager at Lever, said. “And that’s not really helpful. People don’t need to be told what to think. They need to be told what they can do to solve a pain point.”
Follow-Up Communication Is Often Overwhelming
There’s a meme popular with marketers that features an iconic moment from the horror film The Shining. In it, actress Shelley Duvall hides fearfully behind a locked door, while Jack Nicholson breaks it down with an axe. Duvall’s caption reads, “I just wanted to read your content,” with Nicholson’s character replying, “Here’s Sales!”
Setting aside how the meme portrays salespeople as murderous villains, it’s widely shared because there’s an element of truth to it. The meme draws attention to the fact that lots of people who exchange their information for gated content aren’t interested in the company’s actual product. They just want to read something. And yet, they receive a barrage of follow-up emails and calls, assuming their intentions were to buy software.
“The automation that follows is brutal,” Hufford said. “You get 27 emails in the next 27 days, you’re getting opted in for all this stuff, you try to unsubscribe five times and you mark it as spam.”
“You get 27 emails in the next 27 days, you’re getting opted in for all this stuff, you try to unsubscribe five times and you mark it as spam.”
Well-intentioned marketers and salespeople want to keep the conversation going with website visitors who may benefit from their company’s product. But there’s often a glaring disconnect between what they think the visitor’s mindset is and what it actually is.
People are not always — or even typically — reading gated content because they’re ready to buy. They are often doing research, looking for data and statistics to include in their own assets.
“Nine times out of 10 those people just wanted the content and aren’t interested in being sold to,” Chelsea Castle, director of content marketing at Chili Piper, said.
Castle speaks from experience.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve [accessed gated content] and then immediately received several calls on my cell phone and emails from the salespeople at that respective company,” she said. “I’m not a lead, I’m not interested in buying. I just wanted to read your content.”
“That experience has left a bad taste in my mouth,” Castle added. “Will I ever download your content again? Probably not. Will I consider the vendor if I have a problem they can solve? Probably not.”
Rather than deal with the gate’s aftermath, many people simply turn elsewhere for the content they seek.
“Nothing is really proprietary anymore when it comes to what you’re writing,” Beales said. “Unless it’s product related, anyone can Google anything.”
The thinking goes that, when a reader is ready to buy, they will be the ones who pick up the phone. And they’ll first dial the vendor whose brand they already trust. In this way, giving away high-quality content with no strings attached can pay dividends down the road.
The Motivation Is Often Misguided
In many B2B contexts, marketers are responsible for generating a certain number of leads to give to the sales team. One way to do this is to count the people who fill out the forms on gated content landing pages as leads — even though they may have no use for the company’s product.
Hufford described this all-too-common situation in which sales wants more leads, so the marketing team hires more people to deliver the leads, and eventually “it just ping pongs back and forth until you have an abysmal close win rate, a super bloated sales team and a super bloated marketing team.”
Situations like this makes gating content, calling form fills “leads” and setting up sophisticated email nurture sequences for them awfully tempting. But this approach often fails to take into account the user experience and how people perceive the company’s brand.
“There’s a lot of traditional thinking,” Beales said, “where you want to gate everything because you think it’s a lead-generation tool. And at the end of the day, what content should be is a demand-generation tool — we should be using it to drive brand awareness and engagement, and get customers to understand our value and help them learn something.”
The primary role of most content, in other words, is to add value to people’s lives, which helps build a brand over the long haul, rather than focus myopically on driving short-term sales.
When It’s OK to Gate Content
While there are plenty of reasons to hate gated content, there are times it’s all right to use it.
Content That’s OK to Gate
- It provides tactical steps for solving a specific pain point.
- It offers interactive tools and templates, or proprietary data.
- It comes with follow-up communication that matches the reader’s intentions.
The Content Is Highly Tactical
People can get wide-reaching, zoomed-out, explanatory articles just about anywhere. What provides an equal exchange in value for people frantically Googling for information, though, are articles that offer practical, expert guidance.
“Something that’s going to show people how to do something step by step, especially if it’s product related,” Beales said.
Tools and templates, such as interactive spreadsheets and calculators, are also “reasonable to gate,” according to Hufford.
The Audience Persona Prefers It (or Doesn’t Mind Follow-Up)
There are scenarios where gating content works just fine when it’s directed toward specific audiences.
“I would definitely add an asterisk to this conversation,” Castle said, “because it 100 percent does depend on personas.”
A follow-up call may not go over well when it’s a jaded content marketer receiving it. Castle said she has heard that people in some professions, such as engineers or educators, don’t carry the same negative perceptions toward gated content as other professionals do. They don’t mind giving their information or receiving a follow-up call.
The Follow-Up Is Tastefully Executed
Gated content works best when the marketing team has alignment with sales and has a plan in place for assessing the quality of leads and putting each one on the right path, be it an automated email nurture sequence or an invitation to sign up for a newsletter. That way, not everyone who fills out a form gets blasted with the same demo requests.