I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about gated content best practices. And they’re overwhelmingly positive. But there are some potential downsides, and you need to be aware of them in order to make an informed decision about how to use gated content.
Once upon a time, having gated content meant you had hit the content marketing big leagues. It meant that you had enough traffic and authority that people would line up to read your content even when you put obstacles in their way.
There were two main arguments for gated content:
- It could be a source of revenue (when the content itself is the product)
- It helped you build an email list for lead generation
And, while those two things are still true, the downsides of gated content have become much more apparent over the last few years. So let me put my content marketing heretic hat on, and we’ll take a look at why that is:
You fill your email list with junk subscribers
My content writing “specialty” is business. That’s a pretty big umbrella, and I’ve found myself researching things that I didn’t even know existed before getting the assignment. That research has often included exchanging my email for gated content. To this day, my inbox overflows with marketing emails about products that I will never, ever buy: cold water survival gear, rooftop equipment and supports, HVAC systems, construction supplies, etc.
Sure, it’s annoying for me, but it’s also expensive and wasteful for the companies sending those emails. Many email marketing services charge by the number of subscribers, and people like me are just a waste of money.
In addition, many people have junk email accounts that exist solely to provide a destination for marketing emails. The accounts may be real, but nobody ever checks them, so your outreach emails just sit there and stagnate (while running up your marketing budget). Some of these people may eventually convert, but they’re going to do it in their own time and on their own terms. Until that point, your emails are just falling into a black hole — and you’re paying for the trip.
And I saved the biggest for last: When the EU’s GDPR goes into effect on May 25, 2018, using gated content to build your email list might be illegal. When it comes to gated content, you can only use those email addresses for the download, not for marketing purposes.
Don’t gate your content to build an email list unless you have a way to figure out which are qualified leads and which are people like me, just stopping by to do a bit of research. It can be hard to tell the difference on the front end, but it’s easy to weed those junk leads out later on. Use your sales data to identify a timeframe after which conversion is unlikely, and delete those records once that time has passed.
You gate content too far up the sales funnel
If you belonged to a gym in the 90s, you might remember that getting a price quote over the phone was like pulling teeth — from a velociraptor. You had to go in person and endure the tour and the sales pitch before you could find out whether the price of membership was even in your budget.
It was irritating as heck — and so is content that’s gated too far up the sales funnel.
Don’t put obstacles in the way of people who are still trying to figure out whether or not they’re interested in what you have to offer. Think of it as being on your best behavior on a first date: Wait until you know they’re really interested before you start revealing the little quirks they’ll have to put up with if they want to be in your life (like the fact that you always wear one blue sock and one purple sock).
Your gated content is available somewhere else
As unbelievable as this may seem, it happens — especially on sites like Medium. A lot of their content is syndicated, meaning it’s published somewhere else first (or simultaneously).
See for yourself: Next time you run into Medium’s paywall, try Googling the title of the article to see if it’s posted publicly on another site. It might not happen all that often, but the point is that there’s nothing in place to keep it from happening, which undermines Medium’s value proposition for their gated content. And it will do the same to yours.
Check to make sure your gated content isn’t available free somewhere else.
Your gated content is crap
I’m not trying to pick on Medium, but it’s the perfect example for this one. There’s no quality control for what goes behind Medium’s paywall. It’s completely up to the writer — and some of them aren’t as good as they think they are. It’s another flaw in the platform’s business model: A lot of the members-only content is crap, and people will only pay for crap for so long.
If you are going to gate something, it has to be extraordinary. It has to be so great that readers are willing to buy it, whether the price is in dollars or personal information.
In other words, if you’re going to put a price tag on your content, make sure it’s worth it.
You make it too hard or ask for too much
The value of your gated content has to equal or exceed the price of admission. And, since readers won’t form an idea as to the value of your content until after they’ve read it, err on the side of caution. You don’t want them to end up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.
Do as much as you can to reduce friction.
- Allow readers to use one of their social accounts to log in rather than making them start from scratch
- Use progressive profiling, where you ask for the minimum information (email address) the first time and gradually request more as a reader shows continued interest
Your gated content damages your SEO
All those bots constantly crawling your site aren’t going to hand over their credit card or give you their email. When it comes to SEO bots, your gated content doesn’t exist. And, since gated content is usually (or should be, at least), your best work, that’s a big problem.
If your content marketing strategy really depends on gated content, at least offer a keyword-optimized summary in front of the paywall.
While there are certainly situations where gated content makes sense, it’s losing favor as a one-size-fits all content marketing tactic. The downsides are big enough to warrant asking yourself some tough questions, not the least of which is, “Are we just gating content because all of the cool kids are doing it?”
As with anything else in content marketing, “everybody else is doing it” is a lousy — and potentially costly — reason. It’s critical to make sure that any content you gate serves your strategic goals and doesn’t undermine them. If any of the points above made you feel a little squirmy, that’s a good indication that your gated content might be doing more harm than good.
I want to give a shout-out to Rob Howard for his Medium article, “Why paywalls don’t work,” for inspiring this post. Thanks, Rob!