Placing high-value content, such as ebooks and white papers, behind a gate (a web form that requires a valid email address) was once the go-to strategy for lead generation via content marketing. This tactic, while certainly useful for getting a list of email addresses, also hurts the content’s ability to rank in search results, produces relatively weak leads and can seriously alienate readers.
To avoid these pitfalls, you can remove the gates from 99% of your content and provide your readers with a variety of options for interacting with your content and message.
But are these steps really worth the potential sacrifice in email addresses and leads that will inevitably result in taking down most of your gates? The debate continues throughout the content marketing world, and to close out this article we’ve rounded up some insights from content marketers so you can get a taste for the arguments on both sides.
Negative Outcomes from Gating Content: SEO Complications, Weak Lead Generation, Angry Readers
Although still very common on websites of all sorts, gated content can have three significant drawbacks: negative effects on SEO, questionable lead generation results, and dissatisfied readers.
1. Gates + Search Engines = Problems
First, the impact on your content’s SEO: When you put your content behind a gate it means that the content is blocked not just from users who don’t fill out the form, but also from search engine bots. If a search engine can’t read your content, it can’t rank your content.
Some sites have tried to sidestep this problem by inserting scripts that will show the content to a search engine but not to a reader, leading to two distinct experiences of the website.
This process is called “cloaking,” and it’s something that Google seriously frowns on. If you try it and get caught, it could mean serious SEO content penalties.
Some websites try to maintain gates and rankings by creating a preview page for gated materials that provides optimized content for search engines and a good teaser for human visitors. This strategy can be moderately effective, but it’s just not the same as having the full content of your white paper or ebook available to bots and visitors alike.
The gate prevents the search engine from ranking all of your content, and it prevents readers from sharing it. People are highly unlikely to tweet a link to a signup form — how does that benefit them? But by sharing a great ebook with their network they can gain more followers, and you can gain more inbound links, increased website traffic, and better rankings.
2. All Leads Are Not Created Equal
Second, while gated content will undeniably generate more leads, they won’t all be equal. Some will be much farther down the sales funnel than others, but they’ll all be going into your system at the same point and will, therefore, be getting the same types of follow-up contacts.
Whether it comes in the form of an email drip campaign, a phone call or something else, you can’t expect that every single person who wants to download your white paper is an identical lead.
One way to address this problem is to create a secondary offer within your best content that further qualifies a lead (more on this in the next section).
3. Beware the Wrath of Your Readership
And finally, when you gate your content you can end up with hoards of angry readers on your hands.
Presumably, you are creating content, both gated and ungated, to build a readership and potential customer base. If instead you’re building an ever-growing list of people who are frustrated at not being able to read your ebook without submitting their contact information, you’re producing neither readers nor customers.
The solution to all three of these content gating problems? Moving beyond traditional gated content to secondary offers and a multitude of reader options.
Beyond the Gate: Secondary Offers, Email Digests and More Choices
So gating content has negative ramifications, but what can we do instead? By incorporating secondary offers and providing convenient alternative viewing methods, we can simultaneously help readers and our marketing ROI.
David Meerman Scott, the author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, hypothesizes that between 20 and 50 times more people download free content than content behind a gate, but you don’t get any traditional leads from it.1 He proposes the use of a secondary offer within your high-value content to alleviate all three of the negative outcomes addressed above:
Hybrid model with initially free content then a secondary offer:
(Tons of sharing / lots of inbound links / bonus = lots of traditional “leads”!)
10,000 people initially exposed to the no registration white paper content offer
x 50% download the no registration white paper
+ 10% of those who read it share on social networks
= an additional 5,000 people download the free content
RESULT #1 = 10,000 total people download the white paper. Inbound links created from social networks.
+ Secondary offer within the white paper offers a registration required Webinar
x 5% of those who download the free white paper register for the webinar
ADDITIONAL RESULT = 500 emails captured from people who to attend the Webinar
So you get the benefits of gate free content (better search engine rankings, highly shareable content, happy readers) along with the benefit most often cited as a reason for keeping gates in place: tangible leads.
Ian Rhodes, a business growth advisor & strategic consultant for SaaS companies, proposes another interesting compromise: offer to provide your longer content in convenient pieces via a daily email digest.
In terms of lead generation, readers who select this option are certainly willing to hear from you regularly, as they’ve explicitly chosen to get a daily email from you. But they also have the opportunity to read the content in its entirety without a gate, and/or share it via social media, and/or bookmark it for later.
These kinds of innovative solutions meet the needs of both readers and marketers; what other options have you given your readers to provide value while still optimizing your lead generation?
Content Marketers Weigh in on Gated Content
There are definitely some drawbacks to using gates as part of your content marketing efforts, but there is no denying that gates will produce a consistent stream of email addresses. I’ve argued above for moving away from this technique, but there’s still a lot of debate out there.
Here are a few viewpoints from some content marketing luminaries. Who do you side with?
Mike Volpe, CEO of Hubspot:
Mike comes down pretty squarely in the pro-gate camp, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been on the Hubspot website. Here are some quotes from a discussion he had with David Meerman Scott back in 2011:2
“Unless you have some forms in front of your content, your aren’t going to generate any leads.”
“Eventually, I would love to be in a place where I am generating enough free trials and demo requests and marketing audit requests that are enough to keep our Sales team busy and help us hit quota. In that case, I will be willing to take the forms off everything else and let that stuff spread and feed those more and more. I don’t think we are there yet.”
Demian Farnsworth of Copyblogger feels that a blog post and a download behind a gate are already a primary and secondary offer of sorts:
“The blog post draws in a crowd and builds trust – the download indicates someone wants more information. If it’s a valuable download, more trust is accumulated.”
I would add that that last sentence is a crucial piece. We’ve all given out our email address and downloaded the promised content only to realize the whole thing was a big bait and switch scam. Nothing will kill a lead faster than getting their email address and not delivering something valuable in exchange.
Co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg Neil Patel is not a fan of using gates in content marketing, and his reasoning is simple:
“From my experience, gating content creates a lot of backlash. Optin forms give me 3x the leads of any other method, but they tick people off … by a lot.”
LinkedIn’s Mike Weir is concerned about the value of leads that come in through gated content:
“You may get the lead, but maybe the customer isn’t ready to buy. Now they’re getting emails and calls they don’t want. As marketers, we have to be more scientific about distinguishing between the people who are ready for those emails and the people we might be alienating with it.”
David Meerman Scott, who came up with the nifty equation above, has this to say about leads generated by gated content:
“The Gated content approach simply generates email addresses from people who want a white paper. The hybrid approach generates email addresses from people who have already read the white paper and want more information about your company and its products and services and are eager to attend the webinar. With most lead scoring systems, the hybrid model leads are hot and the white paper leads are not.”
Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you prefer all gates, no gates, or somewhere in between?