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Should you still gate your content in 2021?

We were all taught to put our most valuable content behind forms – that's how you convert visitors into qualified leads. But is that still the case, or have times changed?

Should you still gate your content in 2021? Blog Feature

Liz Moorehead

Editor-in-Chief, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast

April 8th, 2021 min read

You've spent weeks (or maybe even months) slaving over a piece of gated premium content – an e-book, a whitepaper, an in-depth industry research report that required oodles of cross-department collaboration... now, finally, the day has arrived.

You smash the publish button on your landing page and start promoting it to the world. Then you sit back, kick your feet up, and wait for those qualified leads to start converting on your new content offer. 

That's how inbound marketing is supposed to work, right? 

You tease your audience with the depth of your expertise in blog articles that answer your ideal buyers most pressing questions about what it is that you do or sell. That brings in the traffic. Then, you slap relevant CTAs on those articles (or on other areas of your website) that drive toward premium content offers, which is where you get your qualified leads from. 

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One week later, however, your excitement gives way to disappointment. Yes, people are converting on your form, which is a good thing. But when you take a gander over the list of those "qualified" leads you were waiting for, you're met with... well... a big pile of garbage:

no@no.com

lakjflkjsadfljsadlfj@lkjadfj.com

nicetryfbi@lol.com  

johndoe@doedoedoe.com

My fellow marketers, I’ve been there and the struggle is real.

The reality is that the internet is flooded with ebooks, “ultimate guides to,” checklists and other content being tucked away behind form fills. 

Buyers have grown tired of shelling out their private information in order to get a piece of content only to be bombarded with sales calls and spammy email pitches - or worse, to discover that the content they requested doesn’t really answer their questions or solve their problems.

In short, forms have become a “necessary evil” in the eyes of buyers and they’ve responded by providing fake email address (often with a dose of snark) as a way of getting what they want without having to deal with unwanted sales pitches.

There are even tools out there designed to give you a temporary email address to use just to fill out forms then disappear.  

According to eMarketer, nearly nine in 10 business-to-business (B2B) companies in the US today use digital content marketing.

US companies using digital content marketing

As Gary Vaynerchuk has said, “Producing content is now the baseline for all brands and companies.”

With so many companies creating content, and many of them doing so without much attention to detail or quality, buyers have taken note and approach conversion forms with an increasing level of skepticism. 

This is with good reason, because — let’s be honest — there is a LOT of crappy content out there. In an environment where buyers are suffering from form fatigue and conversion rates are dropping, it begs the question, should you still be gating your content?

As with many things, the answer to this question is, “it depends.”

When you should gate content

Despite the fact that conversion forms often get a bad rap in the eyes of buyers, there are still plenty of cases when it not only makes sense to gate your content, but your buyers will also be happy to fill out a form (with their real email address!).

When your content is extremely high value 

There are definitely cases where buyers are more than willing to fill out a form to get content. Often, this happens when the content they are trying to get is extremely in-depth or contains unique or original information or data that they can’t get anywhere else.

🎓 IMPACT+ course: Fundamentals of ROI reporting in HubSpot

If you are producing original research or creating white papers with insights or thought leadership from sought-after authors, odds are that your website visitors will willingly fill out a form to get it. 

When gated content is already performing well

If faced with the choice of what to do with existing content, let your conversion rates be your guide. According to WordStream, the average landing page conversion rate falls around 2.35%. The top 25% sites are converting at 5.31% and above, while the top 10% are looking at 11.45% and above.

So, start by doing an audit of your content offers. Where your landing page conversion rates are less than 3%, try ungating them to see if the increase in traffic you experience outweighs the number of leads you were gating. 

By contrast, for those offers where your conversion rates are strong and there is a sufficient high volume of traffic coming to the landing page, it probably makes sense to continue to keep it gated. 

According to Chris Barr, head of marketing for Taradel and Every Door Direct Mail:

 “If gated content is performing well, never ungate it. This is especially true for content that is research-based or has a high value associated with it. If gated content has high visit-to-lead rates, it's working.

Conversely, if gated content is functioning as a bottleneck, or a detraction to users, then it's probably best to reduce the number of form fields or ungate the content completely.”

When you want to repurpose already ungated content

If you’re doing content marketing consistently, you’ve probably covered certain topics from several angles. This is especially true if you’re following Marcus Sheridan’s They Ask, You Answer methodology and using The Big 5 topics to guide your editorial strategy.

Where that is the case, you have an opportunity to make your content work even harder for you by compiling it together into a longer guide or ebook. 

Michele Aymold of Parker Dewey did just this and had this to say: 

“Where we had great performing blog post content, I packaged it up and offered it as a download (but kept the original post up and un-gated) - it gave me a new lead source and kept the content available for search.”

When you should not gate your content

While there are still a number of situations when it makes sense to gate content, there are also very compelling reasons NOT to gate it in certain circumstances.

When you need to generate more traffic

The purpose of gating content is to generate leads by requiring unknown visitors to enter their contact information in a form in order to get the content. 

This works well when your website — and your landing pages — are already attracting a high volume of traffic. However, if this is not the case, and your traffic volume is low, then even a high-converting landing page might not produce a sufficient number of qualified leads.

Why put a ton of effort into writing an incredible ebook if you can only expect to get a handful of decent leads from it every month? 

When content is gated, it is typically not accessible to search engines (though this is slowly changing), which means it does nothing to help your website rank organically and therefore isn’t going to help generate more traffic.

In this case, I would rather ungate that awesome ebook and put the content right on a website page so that Google and other search engines can crawl it. 

This approach helps improve search engine rankings and increases the likelihood that more people will actually see your content - which in turn puts you in a better position to generate leads.

David Roberge of IMPACT client Industrial Packaging did this and saw big traffic increases:

“We've done this with our first pillar piece and it is now not only one of our best performing pieces of content as far as traffic goes, but it also is becoming one of our top lead generators. It wasn't a hit overnight, but within 6 months it started to blossom! In addition, conversion rate is hovering just under 9% for already ungated content!”

When your gated offers aren’t performing well

It can be incredibly frustrating to create a great piece of content and then sit and watch as nobody converts or ever sees it. 

Most marketers have experienced this and while the culprit could be bad landing page copy or something else, it might also be that you simply haven’t proven to your visitors that it will be worth their while to part with their contact information. 

The best way to avoid this fate is to simply give away the content. Show your visitors how good it is without requiring anything of them. 

Here’s the trick, though. Even if you ungate it, you can still offer visitors the opportunity to download a PDF version by filling out a form. And guess what? If your content is really good, they’ll do it!

I know, because this is exactly what we’ve done here at IMPACT. We’ve taken a handful of existing ebooks and put them right on our website pages. We’ve also written a considerable number of new, in-depth guides that live ungated on our website. 

🎓 IMPACT+ course: Creating pillar content buyers and search engines love

These pillar pages are all available to anyone who visits our site and don’t require a form fill — BUT our visitors can request a PDF if they want to provide us with their email address.

Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 9.53.09 AM

Example of the form on our content style guide pillar

In fact, ungating our content didn't hurt our lead flow at all.

To the contrary, by sharing our content with our website visitors, we've been able to demonstrate the value that we provide through our content and if anything, it has resulted in a higher visitor-to-lead conversion rate, and more qualified bottom of the funnel leads.

Jennifer Shore of THOMASNET has also used this tactic to generate more leads:

“Huge ROI on this — even on bandwidth alone — taking that rich, long-form content we’d put so many calories into and using it for dual purpose (ungated for SEO, behind a wall for email).

Additionally, did some A/B testing on social in dropping folks on a gated page versus the ungated page with links to download it as an eBook (along with newsletter signups and other ebook CTAs throughout the piece) and saw a pretty even amount on conversions for both. That said, this strategy contributed to an all-time high of conversion numbers, qualified leads and page views.”

You can have your cake and eat it too when you ungate your content in 2021

Since we started ungating content in 2018 and early 2019, our pillar pages have driven more than 25,000 website sessions and over 900 new contacts for the company.

But that’s not all. They have also influenced more than $550,000 in revenue.

John Booth, the VP of Marketing at Cipher Systems, had similar results:

“Eliminating the requirement for prospects to give us their email address when downloading our Guide to Competitive Intelligence may seem like a risky move for someone, such as me, whose job performance is judged by metrics like lead conversions. The good news is that my bet paid off and in the month since I implemented this change on our form, the number of new contacts we’ve gotten from the offer has increased by 900%.

Yup - you read that right - that is a 900% increase in new contacts simply by removing the requirement for prospects to give us their email address. Needless to say, I plan to roll out a similar change on several of our other top of the funnel forms.”

What I love about both our and John’s success is that not only did traffic increase, so did the number of qualified leads. 

That’s right — qualified leads.

Anyone who is going to take the time to fill out a form and request content that they have already seen is virtually guaranteed to give you an accurate email address because the whole point of providing an email in this case is to get the content by email.

Bottom line — if growing top-of-funnel traffic is your highest priority or your current conversion offers aren’t performing well — ungating your content could actually kill two birds with one stone by improving your website’s organic visibility AND generating new, more qualified leads.

Keep that in mind as you continue to navigate your inbound waters this year.

Editor's note: This was originally published in 2020. It has been updated with new information, benchmarks, data, expert quotes, examples, and related resources. 

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