Gated content is something to read, listen to, or watch on a website which requires the viewer to supply personal information (typically an email address) to view or download.
Using gated content to acquire new leads through a website is a popular and enduring digital marketing strategy, which effectively gave birth to the concept of inbound marketing.
Convincing viewers to hand over their personal information in trade for easy-to-produce content is what originally got marketers excited about content marketing in the first place.
However, those early days of manifest destiny are long over and, as with our colonial ancestors, the natives have grown suspicious of our trickery (with good reason).
In this article we will examine industry benchmarks and statistics, my own personal experiences, and strategies for increasing qualified lead conversions without relying on gated landing pages.
Jump ahead if you like…
- Why Gate Content In The First Place?
- My Personal Experiences With Declining Conversion Rates
- Implications Of The Approaching Content Cliff
- What’s More Important: Leads or Views?
- Opportunities To Gate Content Across The Buyer’s Journey
- When To Gate Content And When Not To Gate Content
- If It Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It
- If It Is Broken, Fix It One Experiment At A Time
- There Is No Rule Of Thumb...Test Everything
Inbound marketers rely on gated content because it works...or at least it did.
For a very long time, marketers could reasonably assume that 15-20 hours worth of content development in their area of expertise could produce something that would motivate potential buyers to hand over their contact information.
In fact, we built the entire inbound marketing industry on this premise. Not only that, we also realigned sales and marketing teams, and integrated teams of SDRs (sales development representatives) to work leads that flowed through the website pipeline.
Gating content made sense because it was highly effective, for a time. But like with anything else online, fads and trends develop and die equally as quickly.
Leaving us with an all-too-common situation in digital marketing. The audience has left us behind and we’re more or less just making content out of habit -not because it’s particularly effective most of the time.
Case in point...
80% of B2B content marketing assets are gated (require registration to access).
82% of marketers who are trying to increase lead quantity are also looking to increase lead quality.SOURCE: SCOOP IT
These two stats, when taken together, paint an interesting picture of the content marketing industry, especially on the B2B side (though applicable to B2C in many cases as well).
In simple terms, most B2B content is gated, but most marketers aren’t happy with the quality of the leads they’re getting. That’s both confusing and ironic because the point of gating content is to increase qualified leads in particular.
So why isn’t this working any more?
Decreasing Conversion Rates
Only 22% of businesses are satisfied with their current conversion rates.Source: Econsultancy
The web is in a constant state of evolution and the audience is a moving target. The better question to ask would be, “why don’t we just assume our current tactics will be outdated next year?”.
The reality is that the landscape changes much faster than our map of the territory can be updated. In writing this post I went in search of a study that thoroughly researched conversion rates of gated content vs ungated content, but was unable to find anything of the sort.
There was, of course, plenty of personal case studies and anecdotal evidence...so, for now, I’ll settle for sharing personal experiences with ungating content in 2018.
In approximately June of 2018, two clients came on board with the agency I was working with at the time, with similar needs and situations.
Client A was scrapping their previous marketing campaign for not producing any results and asked us to help them drive leads in the back half of the year. Client B was entering the US market for the first time and launching a new lead gen campaign from scratch.
Our approach was similar in both cases. We developed buyer personas, produced a downloadable content offer, and built a nurturing workflow to educate, engage and convert prospects into leads.
We created advertising campaigns that drove traffic to landing pages promoting our content offers. We tweaked, tested, and optimized the campaign...but after 2 months the results were convincingly inconclusive.
Then, in a stroke of genius, someone of my team suggested implementing a popup form instead of a traditional gated landing page promoting the download for Client A.
We quickly set up an A/B test of a few variations of the popup form in HubSpot, built ads targeting blog posts instead of landing pages, and observed the outcome.
Perhaps most importantly, we removed all the form fields beyond a name and an email address (and only the email was required), which was built into the popup itself.
Introducing this form doubled our contact conversions, making the campaign’s cost per acquisition viable as a result.
The average conversion rate for all pop-up forms is 3.09%.Source: SUMO
The average conversion rate for landing pages is around 2.35%.Source: IMPACTBND
Encouraged by the results of Client A, we applied the same logic on Client B’s website, adding popup forms, expanding blog content, and observing the outcome.
The results were remarkably consistent. Client B’s contact conversion rate doubled within the first few weeks and sustained the increase over the remainder of the campaign.
The largest percentage of your visitors are bailing (leaving) within 0-8 seconds of briefly viewing your landing page.Source: Interactive Marketing Inc
The takeaway from my example is that even dabbling with this idea of suggesting, rather than demanding, the exchange of contact information for premium content almost immediately doubled results in both cases.
I was able to additionally convince Client A to ungate a significant portion of their webinar content (everything besides the most recent).
That tweak, combined with refreshing the old blog content, helped create a sustained 10% lift in organic search traffic in only a few months time.
So there are other, gentler ways to generate leads than unceremoniously dumping people on a gated landing page. But why does this matter all of the sudden?
There are over 1.7B websites which, together, produce more than 4M blog posts every day…Source: Internet Live Stats
Nielson data shows that the average U.S. consumer spends sixty hours each week consuming content across different devices.Source: SEgmetrics
These two stats suggest that we’re quickly reaching the upper limit of how much content we can consume as an Internet-enabled society.
The number of people online continues to grow but practically-speaking, within the confines of digitally-savvy countries, there simply isn’t very much untapped audience left.
Everything is competition. Read any article on content marketing in 2019 and you will find language like “focusing on the customer” and “providing value” to be nearly universal.
And, not-ironically, it’s because focusing on value to the consumer is what most content today fails to provide.
It boils down to a shift in the balance of supply and demand. A few years ago an Internet search might turn up helpful results right away, or it might not.
It still took effort to sift through results to find your answers. If no answers were readily available for free, people didn’t really have any other choice but to download eBooks and white papers to get their questions answered.
Fast forward to 2019 and there is no shortage of quality content answering just about every nuance of every question that might be asked.
Marketers have discovered the power of creating content to put them in the “right place at the right time” and filled SERPs (search engine results pages) with content as a result.
Now the issue isn’t finding content on a topic, it’s finding original content. So much of what’s out there is simply copy/pasted and paraphrased -but is essentially identical information.
And it’s to be expected because one of the leading strategies for competing over the top spots in search is to compile all the best information from your competition (sourcing where appropriate) into “Big List” and “Ultimate Guide” style articles, only contributing a small amount of new, original information in the post.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game…
This is a valid strategy because it works. It provides slightly better value to the searcher, breaks no rules about duplicate or copyrighted content (if paraphrased or sourced appropriately), and reliably causes a site to rank higher in search.
However, this isn’t good in the eyes of Google or searchers, because successfully ranking with this type of activity doesn’t add sufficient incremental value. In fact, it just serves to homogenize all the web’s content on a given topic.
Google will do what Google does best (frustrate SEOs) and they’ll make an algorithm change along the way that will suddenly render this strategy impotent.
The only question is, will you be positioned for success, or will you be scrambling to adapt with everyone else?
Staring at a massive disparity between how much content is being viewed vs how much content is being created, it’s clear that the future of content marketing is in making exceptional, original content that can’t be easily copied.
To put that another way; in the future, less people will visit your site and less people will enter your marketing funnel if your content is providing the same value as your competitors’.
Qualifying and nurturing these visitors is a moot issue if there are too few incoming leads.
Any experienced marketer knows that if your site starts generating less leads, the sales team will switch to complaining about volume instead of quality.
61% of B2B marketers send all leads directly to Sales; however, only 27% of those leads will be qualified.Source: Marketing Sherpa
Only 25% of marketing-generated leads are typically of a high enough quality to immediately advance to sales.Source: Gleanster Research
Only 5% of salespeople said leads they receive from marketing were very high quality.Source: HubSpot
You need prospects to fill out forms on your website so that they are entered into your nurturing and qualification process. Adding extra form fields may help the qualification process but it reduces conversion rates substantially.
Since gating content reduces visibility by up to 99% (worst case scenario), and adding form fields is guaranteed to further impact conversion rates, it’s very difficult to adequately qualify leads from a single form submission.
Reducing the number of form fields to 10 or less increases conversions by 120%
Reducing the number of form fields to 4 or less increases conversions 160%Source: SEarch Engine People
People don’t want to give up their personal information because they don’t want to end up in your funnel. They’re not ready to have a sales person stalking them on LinkedIn, filling up their voicemail and inbox, and asking them for micro-commitments.
So they don’t fill out your form.
If the end result is less leads, and the quality of the leads wasn’t all that great anyway, what’s the harm in ungating more of your content so that your prospects can learn about your company more easily?
Again, worst case scenario, the benchmark average conversion rate for new website contacts hovers around 1%.
If your site is doing a terrible job of converting customers and only the bottom 1% of your funnel are asking to be contacted by sales, the silver lining is that your lead quality is probably quite high.
If you artificially increase your traffic, with advertising for example, you’ll get more leads but your lead quality will drop.
But the same thing happens when you force people to provide their email address to see your content. Many of those leads will be unqualified, or under-qualified, but “becoming a lead” was the only way for them to see your content.
Imagine this scenario…
You’re going on a blind date. Like a Match.com blind date (I’m too old for Tinder) without even a trusted friend or relative involved.
What are the odds your date will give you his or her home address before actually meeting in person?
This is what the experience of clicking on an ad and landing on a page with a content offer feels like to a prospect.
In a world with live chat, customer success teams, and thought leadership; the act of being forced to give before receiving something feels increasingly out of sync with our culture.
But what if the question isn’t simply gated content vs ungated content?
“When should I gate content?” is a much better question than “Should I gate content?”. Gated content is a tactic, like any other, that is valid in certain circumstances and less viable in others.
Re-framing the question gives us the flexibility to update our tactics without throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
For all the reasons I mentioned, gating top-of-funnel (TOFU) content can bottleneck your incoming leads.
Providing more up-front value before asking for personal information will increase views, which generally leads to more sales.
However, there is still the question of qualification, and it’s usually a good idea to introduce a sense of urgency in late stages of the buyer’s journey, to help people prioritize making a purchase decision.
So if gating content at the top of the funnel is causing problems...where in the buying process can we introduce gated content offers to qualify leads and create urgency?
The “buyer’s journey” (typical buying process for the average prospect) is broken into 3 phases: Awareness, Consideration, and Decision. We just established that the awareness phase is often too early in the process to convert leads with gated landing pages.
But if you move further into the process, there are other, better opportunities to gather information and qualify your prospects.
On average, there are 6-8 touch points in the typical lead nurturing campaign, after a visitor converts to a lead. And the average B2B prospect will consume 3-5 pieces of content before they’re willing to speak to sales.
That means you have at least 10 opportunities to influence the average qualified lead. And here’s the kicker (salespeople please look away), prospects that don’t make it into the pipeline weren’t going to become qualified anyway.
Let’s look at some of the best, and worst, opportunities in the typical buyer’s journey for gathering data from prospects.
Good Qualification Opportunities:
- Popups on blog posts
Offer downloadable content in exchange for only name (optional) and email (required). Frequency is key here. Repeat visitors will see the offer each time they visit, without having to be driven to a landing page again and again.
- Bottom of blog post CTAs
Every post on your blog should feature 2-3 call-to-actions (CTAs), including one at the very bottom of the post that is essentially an ad for one of your middle or bottom of funnel offers.
- Checklists, workbooks, templates, and other tools
Many organizations possess home-baked solutions to common problems that live in spreadsheets or Google Docs which might be quite useful to their audience if stripped of proprietary data and slightly simplified.
- Reports, surveys, and market research
No content looks as ripe and juicy to a potential prospect as proprietary data, surveys or market research that helps them champion their internal initiatives. People in the corporate world live and die by the eye-catching stats they put in their decks. And consumers inherently trust independently verified data and their peers more than any brand. This is the kind of high-value content people are willing to give up their data to acquire.
- Request for contact form
Once a prospect is ready to speak to sales, you can ask any remaining qualifying questions. Just be sure to use a technology like progressive profiling from HubSpot, so that any information your prospects provided previously is conveniently filled-in on your contact form, to save them time.
Bad Qualification Opportunities:
- Case studies
Prospects are looking at your case studies to determine if you’re as good as you say you are...don’t get in the way. If they bother to read your case studies, they’re very likely nearing the decision stage and you want this to happen uninterrupted. Don’t gate these. Do feature CTAs with compelling bottom-of-funnel (BOFU) offers.
- Immediately upon arrival with a popup
We all know this is a terrible user experience, right? There’s really no way for a new visitor to have evaluated your website if they’re hit with a disruptive popup immediately upon arrival. I have never clicked on this type of CTA...have you?
I know this runs contrary to common practice...but it doesn’t seem like anyone is happy with webinar attendance. If you’re not getting the participation you’re looking for, consider not gating this content or only requiring an email.
- Subscribe to our blog / newsletter forms
The whole point of blog and newsletter subscriptions is to have an easy, no-friction opportunity to gather email addresses. Don’t get in your own way.
- Contests, promotions, etc
Again, the whole point here is to generate a bunch of short-term interest, capture emails, and then market to those emails (for essentially free) over the long-term to nurture these leads into sales opportunities. Don’t get in your own way.
There are many opportunities to gate content throughout the buyer’s journey, some good...and some not so good.
Beyond the examples I gave in the section above, here are a few guidelines to use when applying this logic to your own lead qualification process:
Do gate the content if:
- The content is primarily based on proprietary data that cannot be acquired in any other way.
- The content is highly valuable because it saves the prospect substantial time and effort (compiled statistics, survey data, graphics, templates, workbooks, etc).
- The content is a “deep dive” into an area of your specific expertise filled with verified and actionable information.
Don’t gate the content if:
- It will be more difficult for prospects to answer questions that might help them make a purchase decision.
- The content contains social proof / 3rd-party data that you are a credible, trustworthy provider (testimonials, case studies, reviews, etc).
- It has historically underperformed (white papers and webinars are potential culprits).
- The content is short or lacks original information.
This sounds like a caveat...but it really isn’t.
If your marketing funnel isn’t broken, i.e. has not experienced a decline in contact conversions on previously successful landing pages, then this article isn’t for you (but thanks for reading this far!).
Don’t fix what isn't broken. But do keep an eye on your landing page conversions. And maybe consider testing some of these ideas where it makes sense in your funnel.
Popups work like gangbusters when done right, so give them a try if you haven’t already.
In general, keep a keen eye on opportunities to apply this logic (or perhaps philosophy?), by asking yourself this question before every choice:
“Am I making it easier for my prospects to answer their questions and convince their peers and stakeholders, or am I trying to manipulate them into talking with sales?”
They’ll talk to sales when they’re ready. And sales won’t complain about lead quality when they do.
If, after analyzing your marketing funnel, you determine that you need to experiment with ungated content, you’ll need to iterate through this cycle several times to get the best results:
- Develop hypotheses
- Run experiments
- Analyze results
Looking at your performance over the last several months, compared to your goals, you should be able to spot problematic areas (conversion rates under industry benchmarks, insufficient traffic, underperforming CTAs, etc.) and develop theoretical solutions. This is your hypothesis.
It should sound something like…
“We could increase contact conversion rates if we implemented popups promoting offers on relevant blog posts.”
Simple, straightforward, and actionable...
Test one hypothesis at a time. Run experiments, ideally, until you generate triple digit results which are statistically relevant. Learn from your experiment, analyze the data, and develop a new hypothesis to start the process over again.
It bears repeating. Only test one hypothesis within a particular conversion path at a time. If you want to test A) reducing fields on your contact form, and B) popups on blog posts -that’s 100% OK. Those are 2 different conversion paths.
Don’t test A) adding popups to blog posts, and also B) adding more CTAs to the blog posts at the same time. Don’t test a new offer on a new popup position. Don’t change the color and headline of your popup in the same test.
Testing more than one variable at a time confuses the results. It “muddies the water”...
This goes for the entire conversion funnel. Experimentation upstream can impact conversions downstream, so be patient and test one theory per conversion path at a time.
And let your tests run until you’ve gathered statistically significant data. No hunches! No guessing!
Just let the data speak...
I rarely ever contradict HubSpot...for good reason. And to be fair, there’s quite a difference of opinion among HubSpotters on the issue of gated content vs ungated content.
And Hubspot has even created a cool flowchart to help you decide if you should gate your content, that I agree with in most circumstances.
But HubSpot, and other established brands, have audiences...and credibility. Marketers trying to launch a brand, or create growth in a new market, face completely different challenges.
As much as I love them, taking all of HubSpot’s advice can sometimes slow you down.
In the end it’s your website and your business and you have to assess your unique situation. Best practices are a great place to start, but there’s no substitute for firsthand experience.
So when HubSpot experiments with ungating content and generates completely different results than your personal experience...it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it means you both need to keep experimenting.
The takeaway of this article isn’t simply to ungate all your content and focus on the top of the funnel. Almost the opposite, actually.
If you only take one thing from this article, let it be the idea that you should consider giving away more content early on in the buyer’s journey and using multiple touch points to gather data in smaller bits.
It will feel more natural to your prospects and create less friction which will translate into better qualified leads and less wasted effort for sales.
Happy sales team, happy life...