Gated content has got to go

Gated content is when you produce some content, drive people to it, then, just when they are about to consume it, a gate goes up. In order to read your report, watch your video, use your tool or whatever, they  have to give you some kind of information. Usually just a name and an email address, but I’ve seen some truly outrageous information requests.

It makes theoretical sense. If you’ve got a bunch of people engaging with your content, and you want to sell them something, then how are you meant to do so without getting their details? If you demand they part with an email address, you’ll scare some (most) people off, but those who make it through will be easier targets for your sales team, or for your automated marketing emails, because they’ve shown an interest in your content.

All makes perfect sense on paper - particularly if you’re a marketing manager with some stiff acquisition targets to hit. It can be excruciating to see 100, 1000 or 10,000 people look at your content, then disappear forever.

But here’s why it falls apart in practice.

It’s a big internet out there

One of the main problems with gated content is that it assumes your interaction with your audience is happening in a vacuum. They come to your site, they want to consume your content, and if they want it enough, they’ll pass on their details. If they don’t pass on those details, well, then they must not have wanted it.

But there’s a middle ground here - they may well want your content, but not want to give you their details. So they’re not going to just slink away with their tail between their legs. They’re just going to get that content from someone else. And odds are, they’ll find it.

The banks have figured this out with their mortgage repayment calculators. If you type in “mortgage repayment calculator,” you’ll get a result from essentially every bank. As far as I can tell, none of these are gated. If some bright spark at one of these banks decided to gate their mortgage repayment calculator, they’d find that their engagement drops down to (or very close to) zero. People would still use mortgage calculators, of course - they just wouldn’t use that bank’s mortgage calculator.

This is the case with almost everything you can think of. In an online world, you are aggressively competing for eyeballs. If you put even a little bit of friction between your content and those eyeballs, they’ll just go to someone who doesn’t.

You’re building a barrier

That’s the other problem. Even if your content is somehow unique, and unavailable anywhere else, you’re still putting a barrier between it and the people who you want to consume it. Remember that you’re not just competing with similar content - you’re also competing with anything else your audience could be doing.

So if you have a video that’s about your product, specifically, you could argue that it’s worth gating because your audience isn’t going to find that video anywhere else. And that’s true. But they can find something else to do with their time, and if you make it hard to consume your content, you’re inviting them to do so.

On top of this, you’re making it hard for people to share your content. They technically can share your content with a friend or colleague, but their friend now has to jump through the same hoops they did. So now you’re missing out on opportunities for your content to spread further and wider, for free. Are those email addresses really that valuable?

Bookstores and open homes

The bricks-and-mortar equivalent of this would be a bookstore demanding that you sign a sheet with your name and phone number before coming in to browse. Of course, this almost never happens. Retailers know that they’re competing to get you to come in and browse, so they need to make it easy for you to do so. If you run into a barrier, you’re just going to take their business elsewhere. Even if the bookstore is the only one around, you can easily just not buy a book today.

The converse equivalent would be the sign-in sheet that real estate agents demand you fill out when you go to an open home. They’re able to do this because they’re in a unique position. The home you’re looking at, in its specific location, is the only example of that home on the planet. What’s more, you probably drove out there for the sole purpose of visiting that open home. And a form is probably not going to deter you from buying a house entirely, because you do need to live somewhere. So you begrudgingly fill it out, although there’s nothing to stop you from lying when you do so.

My point is that most content has more in common with the bookstore than the open home.

A door, not a gate

So we’ve established that I am really not a fan of gated content. But I do understand the problem you’re trying to solve. You’re probably not in the content business, so having a bunch of eyeballs on your content, while nice, isn’t going to pay your bills. You ultimately need these people to buy something, and it’s a lot easier to do so if you have their contact details.

There’s a better way to do this: offer content in exchange for contact details, but don’t do it in gated form. This is a subtle, but important difference. The entire problem with gated content is that it’s a bit of a bait and switch. Your audience finds something they want to consume, and just at the moment that they’re going to consume it, the gate goes up, and holds that content hostage.

A better way to do this is to offer additional content, in exchange for contact details. This way, the content on your website establishes that you’re trustworthy and worth listening to. From here, it’s a choice to part with an email address to hear more from you.

Here’s an example. This guy named Patrick McKenzie has a website called Kalzumeus. That website is jam-packed with really solid blogposts (although he calls them essays), on things like salary negotiation, self-employment, conversion optimisation, and all sorts of other stuff. All of this content is wide open. Anyone can read it, and it’s very useful. At the top-right of almost every page on the site, there’s an email signup field, so you can get essays emailed to you. Since I have enjoyed the content I’ve read (at no cost) so far, I happily parted with my email address.

The difference here is that I parted with my email voluntarily, rather than as a condition of reading his content. He may be getting fewer email addresses than he would have collected by gating his content, but the email addresses he is collecting are from people who have indicated they want to hear from him, rather than people who begrudgingly gave their email address in order to read or watch something.

The other benefit of this approach is that you’re less likely to get fake email addresses and instant unsubscribes. In this situation, you’ll have contacts who legitimately want to hear from you. Each of those contacts are much more valuable than people who just wanted one particular bit of content, but don’t really care either way about you.

So think twice before you gate your content. There are better ways to cultivate an engaged audience. It’s a bit harder in the short term than just sticking a gate on your content, but it pays major dividends in the long term.

Photo by Robert Hickerson on Unsplash