To gate or not to gate?

That is the question. But it’s just one you should be asking about the exchange of content for user information. Here are four more to get you started.

BY Chris Blose
Imagination Contributor

You’re scrolling through LinkedIn or slogging through your email inbox when something catches your eye—a headline or call to action you can’t resist.

You click. You land on a page and see the beginnings of the promised content, but a virtual gate blocks your way: the form. You now have a choice. Is that piece of content hiding behind the gate worth a little extra effort and, more important, a little slice of who you are?

This scenario plays out repeatedly in our digital world, and the resulting interaction doesn’t have to be negative or intrusive. Shape your strategy by putting yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end of the interaction. (This should be easy, since you are a consumer of content, too.)

“We always ask ourselves, what content can we create that people would be happy to exchange their information for?” says Lindsay Kolowich, senior marketing manager for HubSpot, a marketing software company with a track record of experience and experimentation in the practice of gating content.

The gate debate doesn’t yield a simple conclusion. Every content program comes with its own business objectives, goals and audiences. A program designed around mass awareness may skew toward open access, for example, while a lead-gen campaign will use selective gating to gather information about your readers.

Still, a few deeper questions can lead you to a sound strategy. Start with these four.

Is your content better than what people can find for free?

“The biggest misconception I see is that you can gate anything and everything,” Kolowich says. “I see far too many companies gating content that is not valuable enough to gate.”

Even if you’re providing content free of charge, it needs to offer clear value. A transaction is taking place even if no money changes hands—X content for your information—and transactions work best when both parties walk away with something.

This mindset often leads to a “premium” approach to gated content. Comprehensive guides, data-rich whitepapers and similar premium pieces that promise to help readers in their professional lives feel more valuable and are less likely to be duplicated elsewhere.

For example, Kolowich says HubSpot has had its best results with e-books, live video webinars and master classes that feature subject matter experts—in other words, insider, high-level resources that help professional marketers do their jobs better.

So be selective with your gating, and when you create premium pieces, think about what perspective or practical wisdom only your organization can provide to set it apart from the free resources that are readily available.

Is it the right content type and format for gating?

When asking for personal information, short and simple content won’t cut it. “Gating things like infographics or short one-page checklists typically doesn’t work, especially in B2B,” Kolowich notes. “Those simply aren’t meaty enough for people to fill out a form.”

Hence the prevalence of guides, e-books and long-form reports that promise proprietary data or industry insights. For instance, a pay-per-click software company such as AdStage might offer a simple proposition: Give us five to six bits of information, and we’ll give you PPC benchmark data for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more—data you can use in your own work. The user gets value; the company gets a warm lead.

Consider this, too: That report or guide is still worth delivering as a PDF, even in 2019.

“Another major misconception I hear is that PDFs are dying,” Kolowich says. “Some of us might even wish that were true since there are more creative ways to deliver content—and how can something developed in the ’90s be the preferred format? But we’ve tested, and our personas still love and ask for PDFs.”

So while PDFs as magazine-delivery mechanisms may be dead, PDFs as premium content delivery mechanisms are not. More testing is required to know for sure, but Kolowich and the Hubspot team suspect it has something to do not only with the convenience of a downloadable PDF that can be easily accessed offline but also the experience of gratification one gets from the process: Fill out the form, click download, get a reward. (They’re even printable for people who still want to absorb their wisdom via hard copy.)

When HubSpot tested partial gating on long-form digital pages—an alternative to the traditional PDF delivery—it seemed as if the user experience would be one of instant gratification. If users filled out the form, the rest of the content would suddenly appear before their eyes.

“But we got feedback from our users that it didn’t feel as fulfilling somehow—didn’t feel like content accessed that easily was worth filling out a form for,” Kolowich says. “Some people just missed that they had gotten anything at all. So improving that pop—that feeling of ‘physically’ exchanging value, even if it’s still online—is important.”

And remember there’s one other benefit of the classic delivery-via-PDF process: the thank-you page. That’s valuable real estate for making a connection and delivering even more content based on a person’s stated interest.


Is it valuable to people who don't know you already?

This question comes down to the purpose of your content.

For example, associations often face the need to not only serve existing members but also cast a net to find new members. These two needs create a natural tension: You have the urge to gate all of your ongoing content as a pure member benefit, but if you do so, how will the people who aren’t yet members see your value? There’s an added challenge when you consider exactly how you’ll gather data on those prospective members.

Rand Fishkin, formerly of Moz and now of SparkToro, offers some helpful guidance in one of his iconic whiteboard sessions. For any content program (or individual piece of content), weigh the importance of audience size or reach and ongoing marketing benefits versus the need for detailed information on readers. If the former outweighs the latter, maintain open access. If the latter outweighs the former, consider gating.

Under that formula, your daily digital news and recurring magazine content are often going to be most valuable to you as a way to prove your expertise to readers. Then convert them with specialized, premium one-offs that help them do their jobs.

That’s good as a general rule, especially for associations, but as Fishkin also points out, open access and gating aren’t all-or-nothing prospects. There are always exceptions. Even Moz keeps one of its most valuable pieces of content, the ever-present and often-cited Moz Beginner’s Guide to SEO, in front of the gate, presumably because it is the company’s own gateway to authority.

So your end goals matter. And so does the funnel.

Is it part of a journey along the funnel?

Any strategic discussion about gating should also include a conversation about where content fits into the sales funnel.

As a basic guideline, it’s wise to keep top-of-funnel content open and free to all. You want as many readers as possible to find your expertise and industry insights—all delivered in ongoing coverage via articles, infographics and other content types.

But as you go deeper into the funnel, and as readers trust you more after increased exposure, limited gating opportunities open up. A mid-funnel article with detailed how-to advice offers the possibility for a newsletter sign-up, aka subscription-gen. And then, even deeper, a premium guide on a topic of interest to them is more likely to yield information via true gating such as lead-gen forms.

Even with those bottom-funnel pieces, there are ways to blend open and gated content to get users to supply the data you desire. You might offer a small portion of a whitepaper or guide for free, with a prompt to supply information to get the full guide, for instance.

With that said, Kolowich offers another note of caution on the latter “partial gating” approach. Testing at HubSpot has shown that it works best on content that already has some established search authority. In other words, if you run an ongoing program of reports and premium guides, choose the ones that are already performing well in organic search as candidates for partial gating.

And don’t forget that your form, and the amount of information you ask for, will vary based on your goals or content types and sometimes can be expanded in steps along a user journey. Kolowich gives the example of HubSpot Academy’s video series. The landing page has the entire first video available for free. If users like what they see, they sign up for more using a relatively simple form. Future interactions may yield increasing amounts of information.

“When it comes to how much information you ask from users, do you need more leads, or do you need more high-quality leads?” Kolowich offers. “That actually changes the length of the forms and also the approach to content. To get more information, we have to offer even more comprehensive, meatier content.”

Your own answers, and approaches, will vary based on your ultimate goals, needs and audiences. But in any case, be sure you’re asking questions before you ask too much of your audience.

published: February 01, 2019