Straight up: there is no simple answer to this question. If that annoys you or not, you should read on anyways to understand why that’s the case and how you might answer it for your organization and business case. It’s a rather long read but hopefully worth your time.
Asking website visitors to leave contact data in exchange for a piece of content is a long tradition in online marketing. Lately this sort of data paywall, sometimes referred to as “content gating”, is even more on the rise as countries and web browsers enforce increasingly strict regulations and limitations around cookie based visitor tracking. Express consent becomes a must for tracking while Safari, Chrome and Firefox ring hells bells for third party tracking, bringing an end to the current mechanics of online advertising and retargeting.
Does your content deserve my data?
Many business to business marketers appear to react with a defiant “Can’t track them? Collect them!” and raise walls around any content they deem worth a try to squeeze out an e-mail address and any other data they believe useful. Sometimes it feels like filing a government form just to get a feature listing for a piece of software.
If you are doing this you are sure to lose me and the majority of potential customers. You only get me to open my data purse if the following is true:
- I currently need the information you promise me
- I believe in your competence to deliver informational value in a meaningful way
- I trust you with my data
- I don’t expect your marketing automation and sales team turn into a bunch of stalkers once I hit submit
That might sound like a lot of expectation for the content you created with heaps of research and effort during long tearful days and nights of editorial madness. I evaluate content based on the value it adds for me at the time of reading not tears staining the paper. So if your effort doesn’t pay off in generated leads or people don’t return to convert afterwards you should think about strategy, placement and communication before and after you dive in the sometimes bottomless pit of content creation.
That being said let’s talk some more about the point just made because it explains the basic rationale behind a content gating decision. If added value at the time of exposure to the content is key you need to understand how this value is derived and how it differs for certain types of people or personaes. What it means is a solid understanding of buying behaviour in your industry or niche.
Listen to other perspectives!
I’m the first to admit that this isn’t easy to come by and quite often this results in lengthy internal or consulting projects with a lot of research and sometimes questionable outcomes. Not everyone has the time and budget to invest in this kind of venture. There are, however, a few things you can and should absolutely do. Spoiler: all of them involve other teams in your organisation and communication.
- Listen to Sales. Your sales team is out in front of (potential) customers all the time. They should have good insight in the decision process and know the questions that are being asked by whom before a deal is made. They also often have contact with actual decision makers and can tell you who usually needs to be influenced at a certain stage.
- Listen to Support. This team deals with product or service specific questions and issues all day long. Most of the time this results in a solid understanding of the challenges your customers face and how they can be approached (with or without your product).
- Listen to Product Management if you have this. They should know where your company adds value for a customer. After all, their job is to find solutions for typical industry challenges.
- Listen to Decision Makers and if possible the C-Suite in your own company. They face the same day to day grind of time and priority pressure as those in your target audience. Find out what information they need at which level of detail and how they prefer for informed decisions without becoming a subject matter expert.
Approach the topic open minded!
You shouldn’t expect to know everything about your customers after those conversations but it is a great starting point. It’s important to be open for any result. Even if content gating comes out as a bad idea in the end. Biased research always creates biased results and the people you talk to might feel pushed in a direction they don’t support. By being open and genuinely interested you can use the opportunity to create a good vibe with the other teams if that’s not the case already and try to get buy in and support on your venture. You will definitely need it along the way because awesome content doesn’t come easy!
Once you have an idea what moves your customers and how decisions are made by whom you can start thinking about content that helps along the way. When you have this sorted out you should assess where in the decision process it might make a difference. What does interest in the information signal? Is it acknowledgement that an existing issue in the industry applies to the reader and his current situation? Would digging this deep into a topic indicate a decision about to be made? Also, who would normally be interested? Is it a technical piece appealing to staff who prepares a decision by thorough research? Does your content provide guidance on the larger business perspective of the issue which a manager might need to understand before making an informed decision?
You see that there is a lot you need to ask yourself and that there’s not always a clear answer. You need to test it because thinking it through can get you only so far.
Should you gate or should you not?
Finally we have the first part of the answer if you should try to gate a piece of content: When you start with a persona based content strategy gating content is a viable test approach to see who interacts and if it works. But this only makes sense if you look at performance indicators in a scientifically curious rather than expectant way. Success here is measured in insights created not in leads and business opportunities! Business success is what you are preparing for.
I know from experience that this can be tough to sell to management if the company culture is not exactly test driven. Try anyway or tell the story with a different twist to make it more appealing. One thing: Do not gate your first piece of content. You won’t have anything to say afterwards which results in a lost relationship. Have something at hand to communicate in the follow up. That’s a point I get back to further down.
The second part of the answer is not as straightforward, unfortunately. There is no clear yes or no. From here on it all depends on your business type, your vertical (or industry), the decision process and the products and services you sell. I can only give you a few indicators. Let’s start from the last one mentioned because that’s probably the easiest one.
The trickier part of the answer
Content gating is only worth the effort when decision making to buy or not to buy is hard. No one would provide their data to find out which apple to buy because they are cheap and don’t carry consequences. Expensive products or long term obligations like contracts are of more consequence. If something needs informed decisions or typically involves more than one decision stakeholder you might be able to provide valuable content that is worth providing some information in exchange.
Your business type is also an indicator. Sometimes this refers only to the branch you are creating content for. A consultancy or heavy machines manufacturer usually requires high or long term investment from their customers. This automatically requires a good information backed rationale at different levels. If you are turnover driven seller of goods at scale your audience is mostly interested in price, volumes and conditions. There is hardly anything worth gating.
The decision process and the stage where it provides value is probably the most important aspect. If your content addresses very early decision stages like the revelation that a decision needs to be made at all should not be gated as a general rule of thumb. This is where you begin building trust in your ability to deliver meaningful decision support and potentially a solution as well. Here you provide a newsletter form around your content with nothing but an email address. This is a low barrier and if people like what you have to say they usually sign up to see if there is more valuable stuff.
Do not only send periodical newsletters with excerpts of the latest press release or similarly boring stuff. Do a welcome series that provides information about your virtues as a business partner and other pieces of potentially valuable content. Based on what people react on you might be able to identify the current stage of the buying process they are at. If they turn out to be further down the funnel they might have an interest in expert advice. That’s a point where you can try to trade expert content for data.
Do it – but only if you can!
And that leads me to my last and probably most important point: Only gate content if you have more to provide than just the content you just gated! If you don’t do anything with the collected data but look at it you would have to delete on short notice under many countries’ regulations because you lack a purpose for data collection. If you use it to set the sales hounds on my heels you become the annoying stalker business I mentioned earlier on. If you send me e-mails afterwards I expect them to be of equal or increasing value with regards to my current challenge. This requires a good store of content structured along the decision process.
You kept reading to this point, you deserve a synthesis of the above:
- Never gate content for the sake of data collection alone.
- Create a pool of free content that you can refer to in the aftermath of a conversion before you gate your first piece of content
- Only gate content where you see a chance to drive a decision by providing informational value
- Do your homework to understand or at least guess and test how you can provide value with content before you start asking for data!
… and you’ll succeed at last!
Jimmy Cliff, thank you for the title inspiration!