gated content dilemma gated content vs ungated content

The Gated Content Dilemma

Gated content has come under fire in recent years.

What was once a near-universal play for lead generation has become a hotly contested debate. Which side of the argument do you lean toward? Do you gate your content or give it all away for free?

Luckily, we don’t have to decide on an all-or-nothing approach. You can make a decision about gated content on a case-by-case basis.

But still, we need to consider whether or not gated content is really the right play in 2020 and beyond.

Why the Gated Content Play Has Grown Stale

Gated content is a hallmark of the traditional inbound marketing strategy.

You create compelling blog content that builds trust with your target audience. Then, you use CTAs on those blog posts to drive people to your “premium” content—the kind that requires lead-qualifying information like email addresses, company names, job titles, and more.

This process has been the crux of inbound lead generation playbooks for a decade. You just keep creating blog posts to support monthly or quarterly gated content initiatives and hope you hit your lead gen numbers.

But times are changing.

The target customers you’re hoping to attract and move down the funnel know about this playbook. They know that you’ll be in touch with some kind of sales pitch. And they’ve been burned enough times by “premium content” that wasn’t so premium to be wary of filling out more forms.

In the past, a sheer lack of options prompted your audience to download gated content. They knew they needed more than the ungated content offered, and your downloadable pieces promised to fill the gap.

Now? Your customers are beyond inundated with great content. So much of the content that was once reserved for a lead gen strategy has moved out from behind the forms.

Want to learn how to do keyword research? You’ve got in-depth guides from Ahrefs and an industry expert like Nick Eubanks. Struggling with social media strategy? Buffer has you covered with a free in-depth guide.

The point is that your customers aren’t just getting tired of gated content—they’re often actively avoiding it thanks to an abundance of valuable free content.

This is why the gated content play has grown stale. And yet, it’s one that marketers just can’t quit.

But Gated Content Still Works!

One of the biggest roadblocks to quitting gated content cold turkey is that it still works.

If you were running the traditional inbound playbook and no one ever downloaded your resources, you’d have quit a long time ago. People keep coming to the website, finding those landing pages, and becoming quality leads for your company. (It’s why we haven’t changed the strategy for our Content Pricing Guide.)

The key isn’t whether or not you’re getting a few downloads here and there for your gated content. It’s whether or not target customers are abandoning pages because the content is gated.

Feel strongly about the performance of your gated content?

You could start running reports to track whether or exit rates spike when visitors hit a gated page. That way, you’ll get some concrete evidence that customers didn’t find the offer valuable enough to give up their personal information.

Or, you could take the Drift approach and just get rid of gated content altogether. This approach is more of a vote of confidence in the idea that forms aren’t necessary for lead generation. There are other ways to capture leads, but that’s a story for another day.

If you’ve invested heavily in the traditional inbound playbook, you might have a whole library of gated content. Why take an all-or-nothing approach if you don’t have to? Take the time to reevaluate with a few key steps:

  • Review which resources continue to drive the most inbound leads.
  • Look for opportunities to combine lower-performing downloadable content into larger, more valuable offerings.
  • Consider turning low-performing gated assets into freely available blog posts, infographics, social media content, and more.

Once you have your existing content sorted out, you have to deal with the real dilemma. Moving forward, what should you do? To gate or not to gate?

Gated vs. Ungated Content: Walking the Fine Line

As is the case for any marketing tactic, there’s a time and place for gated content.

From a content perspective, your North Star should be providing the most value to your audience and customers. That doesn’t mean sacrificing your marketing goals, though. Just that you need to find the intersection where you’re providing value with your content while also improving marketing metrics.

Sometimes that will mean gating content, and other times it won’t. Where you draw the line could make all the difference.

When Gated Content Makes Sense

Way back in 2014, some research showed that as much as 80% of B2B content marketing assets were gated. The inbound strategy was working, so it made sense that so many B2B marketing teams were following along.

Six years later and it seems like the marketing world is trending away from gated content. However, there are still teams making this play work.

Look at Engagio’s eBook, The Clear and Complete Guide to Account-Based Marketing, as an example. It’s your traditional piece of gated content—an eBook promising the massive value necessary to earn your personal, lead-qualifying information.

And you know what? It delivers.

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All you have to do is check out the table of contents to realize that this is a legitimate textbook. And it’s delivered to your email inbox in exchange for some company information.

More importantly, Engagio published this comprehensive guide to ABM right as the topic exploded in popularity.

Around when Engagio published its guide

Engagio got ahead of the demand for educational content about ABM and created a truly valuable marketing asset. The timing, combined with the quality of the guide, made for a gated approach that worked for both customers and Engagio’s marketing performance.

Does that mean that every piece of gated content you think of making has to meet these standards? No. But it should give you an idea of when top-of-funnel, educational content now works in a gated strategy.

In most cases, it makes more sense to gate content that’s geared toward later stages of the funnel.

This would include:

  • In-depth case studies that are created for specific industry use cases
  • Product comparisons between you and your competitors
  • Guided demos and webinars that revolve around product usage
  • Deep research that provides statistical industry insights

The last thing you want to do is throw a lead-gen form in front of a potential customer before they’re ready. Unless you’re sure they’re in the consideration stages of a purchase, think about taking the ungated route.

Trusting the Ungated Content Approach

At a time when marketing is under more pressure than ever to attribute actions to revenue, ungated content can feel risky. At least with gated content, you had a measurable way to report how your strategy contributes to the sales pipeline.

But just because you’re publishing what used to be “premium” content for free on your website doesn’t mean it’s not going to drive marketing results. Instead of thinking of ungated content simply as a stepping stone to lead gen forms, consider the different ways it can add value on its own:

  • Search Rankings: Pillar pages, topic clusters, skyscraper content, 10x content. Whatever terms you want to use, it’s clear that long-form, premium content has serious SEO power when it’s ungated. While individual gated assets deliver SEO value, new strategies revolve around the ungated approach.
  • Email Subscribers: High-value, ungated content can help you build more trust with your ideal customers. If you set up an exceptional email newsletter, you can make the most of that trust and capture lead information even though you aren’t gating content.
  • Audience Engagement: When you’re publishing all of your premium content without a gate, you open up new opportunities to spark conversations with your audience. Removing that barrier can help you attract new prospects and get quality feedback about the work you’re doing. It’s a qualitative metric—but one that can bring value to your marketing strategy.
  • Lead Gen: If you have a chatbot on your website, you can capture leads even though your content isn’t gated. It may not be the traditional approach, but un-gating content doesn’t mean sacrificing lead generation.

We need to get rid of the idea that gated content is the “premium” asset compared to ungated content.

Why? Look at what Katie Martell recently worked on in partnership with TriComB2B.

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Like Engagio, Martell and TriCom focused on maximizing value to their target audience. But instead of adding a paywall or a lead gen form, you can download this eBook immediately, with no strings attached. (They do offer a lead gen form after you download the eBook, but the point still stands.)

When you un-gate your content, you’re making a true commitment to brand awareness and its ability to propel marketing efforts. You don’t have to make a wholesale shift to this approach. However, it might help to start getting comfortable with a strategy that doesn’t rely entirely on lead gen forms.

Take the Time to Review Your Content Strategy

In the end, the gated content dilemma shouldn’t be so troublesome for marketers.

You don’t have to choose one or the other. And you can easily pick and choose when to gate and when not to. Even if you test out a gated asset and aren’t happy with the download rates, you can decide to publish it as an ungated post on your website.

Be flexible when approaching the gated content vs. ungated content debate.

But most importantly, start with a content strategy that focuses on publishing the highest quality work possible. Whether the content is gated or ungated, your goal is to provide more value to customers than the competition.

If that is the core value of your content strategy, you’ll have an easier time deciding if each individual asset should be gated or not.