What You Gain (and Lose) With Ungated Content

For a brief time in college, I spent my days working at Gap. As far as summer jobs go, it was pretty agreeable. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than getting paid to fold giant stacks of faux-vintage t-shirts.

I also found out that you can learn a lot about marketing while working on the front lines for a big retailer. We were instructed to ask shoppers for email addresses or zip codes as they checked out, and I noticed that many customers seemed taken aback. They were hesitant to give away any type of information, even something as innocuous as a zip code.

This was one of the first times I realized that for consumers, any exchange of information with a brand is a transaction.

No such thing as a free e-book

Just like my customers buying the latest dad fashion, B2B consumers have become wary of giving away their email address for an e-book, checklist, or guide. They know that if they enter their email address, they’re going to end up in a drip feed (or, worse, a sales call queue) for a product they may not need.

That’s not exactly a customer-centric experience.

But can you really blame marketers? They’ve been tasked with building audiences and delivering leads to hungry sales teams. Eighty-five percent of B2B content marketers report that lead generation is the most important KPI for their organization. Can they reliably hit their goals without lead forms?

Drift, a business-centric messaging app, made headlines this summer when it ditched email forms on all premium content, and the digital marketing community reacted in a big way. The announcement became one of the company’s top posts as it burned up the charts in marketing discussion groups. Drift has been perhaps the loudest voice in this movement—spurring others to experiment as well—but companies like MailChimp have been quietly giving away their best content for years.

New or not, these experiments have spurred a much-needed discussion (and a few hot takes) about the ubiquitous email form: how and where it’s used, and what could be gained (or lost) by adjusting the strategy.

The problem

Digital marketers seem to have wised up when it comes to relying on social media distribution platforms. Marketers got fat on free traffic from Facebook and Twitter, only to see the organic reach of those platforms collapse as social networks began to monetize their user base.

Email came back in vogue, and with it a hunger for ever-growing lists.

This could be seen on the front pages of discussion sites like Inbound.org and Growth Hackers, where hundreds of articles bragged about how marketers could growth-hack their way to thousands of email subscribers in a matter of weeks.

But lost in all this was whether the content itself was actually effective. After all, “lead generation” isn’t a measure of content quality.

“If someone gets this big promise on a landing page and converts into a subscriber, but the piece they then open is terrible, why would they want to hear from you again?” said marketing writer, speaker, and podcast host Jay Acunzo. “So many marketers lose sight of treating people like people instead of leads.”

Just because a visitor converts doesn’t mean your content delivered value (not yet, at least). Without value, is that reader likely to buy? Lead forms may drive an increase in email addresses, but they can cause a decrease in the overall quality of leads.

“You may grow your email database faster with gated content, but you’re probably getting a lot of leads that are going to churn right away,” said Luke Kintigh, global content and media strategist at Intel. “It comes down to quality versus quantity.”

Many marketers point to lead scoring as a way to help their sales team focus their energy on high-quality leads and sort out the duds. But lead scoring doesn’t fix another big problem that gated content can present: Some strong leads may bounce from landing pages, wary of giving their email address to yet another brand. Everyone knows what to expect when they fill out a form on a squeeze page, and it’s often not the kind of brand experience marketers idolize.

In his influential post about lead forms, Dave Gerhardt of Drift invokes Apple’s brand experience (a surefire way to get a marketer to listen) at the Apple Store. The company meticulously designed the store to get people inside to play with the latest products. Apple knows a vast majority of visitors aren’t going to buy anything, but it doesn’t matter. The Apple Store has become the most popular shop in nearly every mall it enters, driving an experience central to the brand’s marketing plan. Employees aren’t jumping in front of you, asking you to subscribe or fill out a form to learn more about your interests. They just deliver a great experience and trust that you’ll remember it when you need a new phone, laptop, or tablet.

No amount of ad retargeting can overcome a poor first impression brought on by a bad brand experience.

A shift in motivations

The ungated content movement isn’t about ditching email signups altogether. Email marketing has survived dozens of ballyhooed threats in the past and will likely play a major role in content marketing for years to come.

Ultimately, ungating content shifts the motivation from a promise to satisfaction.

“There’s a ton of research that goes into buying one of Intel’s products, both on the consumer and enterprise side,” Kintigh said. “We know we’ll need multiple touch points. To ask for an email address right away would be going from chapter one to chapter ten of the story.”

An immediate email gate on e-books, webinars, and white papers hooks leads with the promise of delivering on an expectation. Readers don’t know if the piece will actually answer their question, just that the landing page copy and headline were enticing enough to give it a shot.

“Oftentimes users are underwhelmed by the content,” Kintigh added. “And this hurts the chances of returning.”

Measuring success, sans form

Instead of hooking prospects on the anticipation of value, the ungated strategy hooks them with delivered value.

At Intel, Kintigh explained success hinges on building relationships. New readers come in from paid and organic channels, who are then retargeted with increasingly specific content based on previous behavior. From there, forms exist to move subscribers from paid acquisition channels to an owned channel like email.

So the email form hasn’t disappeared, it’s just re-contextualized to be more customer-centric. Rather than force users to give up an address before reading, proponents of this ideology can simply place subscription forms within the piece itself, trusting that readers who find it valuable will opt in to hear more from the brand.

(Editor’s note: This is a strategy that clients such as Microsoft use through Contently’s Document Analytics technology.)

“In the long run, it pays off more than trying to collect email right away from a reader,” Kintigh said. “That hard sell can turn them off.”

Adjusting your strategy this way also requires you to modify success metrics. Top-line audience and marketing-qualified lead (MQL) growth will likely still be the main goal, but ungated content could result in fewer conversions. However, these conversions should align more closely aligned with your desired leads, simply because you eliminate people who are really there to just read a gated piece of content.

What you stand to lose

Any shift in strategy will likely come with positive and negative consequences. An ungated approach takes the power out of the marketer’s hands and puts it squarely in the palms of the consumer. This could result in lower numbers of new contacts as well as a slower timeline for converting readers into email subscribers.

But, again, more leads are only good when those leads are all qualified.

“Many marketers have slipped into gaming systems or get-rich-quick schemes for some kind of false god metric, like leads or subscriptions,” Acunzo said. “When we do that, we lose sight of what content marketing is actually for: solving a problem or fulfilling a desire for your audience.”

So what does an ungated strategy look like in practice? Here are three primary areas for you to consider before experimenting:

  1. Retargeting: Just because we’re trusting leads to voluntarily subscribe when they’re good and ready doesn’t mean we’re leaving it completely to chance. Instead, think of it as a “rent-to-own” strategy. To get non-converted readers back to a site, an ungated strategy relies on well-planned retargeting campaigns. Visitors who bounced from a piece of content without subscribing can be retargeted with related topics, bringing them back until they’re ready.
  2. Rethinking the form: The risk with ditching gated content is people will just consume all of your work without ever converting. Combat this by making it easy to subscribe, request a demo, sign up for events, and more. You can offer optional lead forms. Just because you’re no longer putting premium content behind a gated form doesn’t mean you need to hide the form altogether.
  3. The post-conversion approach: After putting so much consideration into the pre-conversion relationship, it’d be a waste to fall back into standard digital marketing practices after someone subscribes. Have a plan in place to use the data you’ve collected on new subscribers from their previous visits to deliver relevant content focused on their interests. The ungated strategy is customer-centric, from the start of the relationship to the finish.

As a teenage Gap sales associate, I learned that “retail is detail.” I’d translate that for the content marketing world to “content is contextual.” Why take that context away from users by hiding your best work behind a wall?


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