To Gate or Not to Gate Your Content?


Ding!

You hear that all too familiar sound. You look at your phone and see a text from someone in your contacts: “Would you do me a favor?”

That’s all you see. No blinking dots. You wait. You wait some more. It’s getting awkward. It’s a game of chicken. They’re waiting for you to say yes. You’re waiting for them to say what the favor is.

You don’t trust the requester. (It’s not an absence of trust because, interestingly, the absence of trust might propel you to respond right away.)   

You likely have a default “yes” for only a few people. You will do the favor because you have a robust record of trust. After 30 years, when my wife says my name with a particular tone, I know I’m about to be asked to do something, and I’m going to do it.

But what about answering others? The request is a question with friends, colleagues, bosses, customers, etc. Who blinks first comes down to one thing: How low is trust?

Trust is an emotion built on uncertainty

Researchers Claire A. Hill and Erin Ann O’Hara define trust as “a state of mind that enables its possessor to be willing to make herself vulnerable to another – that is, to rely on another despite a positive risk” of harm.

Put simply: Trust is an emotion with varying degrees of willingness to be vulnerable against an uncertain outcome.

Trust requires a willingness to be vulnerable against an uncertain outcome, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

If no vulnerability is required or the outcome is certain, trust is irrelevant. Think of the classic trust exercise where you fall back into someone’s arms. How would the necessary trust differ if you did that exercise over a pile of pillows vs. a bed of sharp nails? If you did it for the 30th time with the same person, would you still need to trust them?

But, yeah, that text is still just sitting there. Waiting for someone to establish trust first.

Back to that text for a favor that’s just sitting there. The requester may trust first: “Let me tell you exactly what the favor is.”  Or you may trust first and reply, “I’d be happy to. What is the favor?”

Or a bargaining might occur. The requester might write, “I promise it’s no big deal,” to reduce your uncertainty. Or you might say, “It depends on what the favor is,” to reduce theirs.

Someone has to trust first.

Gated content with shocking transparency

I’m frequently asked about whether to gate content in B2B content marketing. The people focused on content marketing usually prefer ungated. The people focused on lead generation usually want to gate everything.  

The result? Most B2B businesses gate their content. It’s the equivalent of the text: “Can you do me a favor?” It sets up the same kind of tension. Who will trust first?   

Gating B2B #content sets up tension: Who will trust first, asks @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Imagine most businesses were transparent about bargaining for your data so you could access their latest white paper. The introduction might read something like:

Hi. In return for your personal data, we’ll give you a thought leadership paper that explains why our approach to this business challenge is best.

After you register, you’ll receive at least three phone calls and one email per week from our sales team. You won’t be able to miss them because they’ll all mention some level of urgency or follow-up. They’ll congratulate you on your wisdom in downloading our white paper and ask about your current buying status and challenges, even though your intent should be painfully obvious from the contents of the white paper.

If you respond to this outreach, expect to be pestered by phone to validate your purchasing authority and to know whom on the team we should speak to because it’s almost certainly not you alone.

If you don’t respond, you’ll be subscribed to our newsletter until you unsubscribe or your email becomes invalid. And let’s be honest, we’ll probably continue sending emails to it even after it becomes invalid.

At any time, you can stop this onslaught of communication by simply purchasing our product.

Laying out this kind of notification would be the pinnacle of the brand trusting first. It could be reasonably assured anyone who filled out the form after reading that is a serious buyer.

So, what if you detailed what really happens in your business when someone accesses a gated digital asset? What favor are you really asking from prospective customers?

Should you gate content?

To be clear, I don’t suggest B2B marketers must go to an extreme level of transparency or never gate an asset again. Appropriate times and reasons exist for both. The trick – and this is where most marketing and sales teams fail to agree – is aligning on what relationship you want to establish when someone converts through a piece of gated content.

Fortunately, only two possibilities exist. You want a relationship to:

  1. Move a buyer to the next step in their journey.
  2. Create a customer of your content – an audience member – as they move and take pauses along their journey.

You can’t do both at the same time. When you try to count the prospect as both a lead and a subscriber, mediocrity arises.

You can’t create #content to both move a buyer in their journey and create an audience member of your content, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

B2B marketers must realize the difference between an audience member and an entry in the marketing database. It’s not that an audience won’t ever become a lead or an opportunity, and it’s not that a lead or opportunity can’t ever be an audience. The difference lies in the trust established in the beginning.

Are you moving customers or creating audiences?

When you’re creating an audience, your brand trusts first by giving away valuable content, trusting that people who see the value will become subscribers. Subscribers – the committed audience – then show trust by signing up for what they’ll get down the road. They trust you will provide future value based on the value you’ve already shown.

Developing and maintaining this trust in future value separates a subscribed audience from entries in a marketing database.

However, moving a buyer in their journey can be just as successful. It still requires the company to trust first by providing some value that convinces the buyer to provide accurate information during the gated content transaction. And that means the buyer trusts your brand at least enough to feel emotionally, if perhaps not intellectually or financially, ready to move to the next step of a buyer’s journey.

So, if you’re trying to move someone directly into (or through) a buying journey, tell them that. Don’t obfuscate on your form. Tell them exactly what’s going to happen once you get their information.

When to gate, ungate, or mix your content assets

By defining these two paths, B2B marketers have more flexibility in terms of where and how to place calls to action on free content vs. gated assets. You could:

  • Gate some content: Tell the content consumers they are entering a marketing and buying journey. Let them know that if they don’t want that, they can become an audience member.
  • Ungate some content: Make assets available and offer a call to action for recipients who want “extra” or “consistent” value from your company by signing up for a newsletter or getting access to exclusive content. You are selling a subscription to the marketing content.
  • Mix your approach: Require registration for some content, such as hot-of-the-press research, that enters the person into the buying journey. Then, once that research has cooled off, make it available for free. Or maybe you publish an executive summary for free and send the detailed e-book in exchange for their signing up for your newsletter.

No matter which option you choose, you must be the first party to establish trust. And that starts with removing the uncertainty about what happens when the buyer trusts you.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.” In marketing, when you establish trust first, you go beyond counting favors and start building a valued relationship.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute





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