Leading consulting firm marketers are more likely to selectively gate their thought leadership content. This article outlines 4 reasons gates work for lead generation and 5 recommendations for when, what and how to gate your content.
In the world of content and thought leadership marketing, nothing evokes more vocal opinions than the idea of gating content. The two camps often face-off in the social arena arguing in favor of one strategy or another:
- All Content Should Be Free. Advocates of this regime see gates as a personal affront to their vision of the web as an open, free medium. They frequently cite the efficacy of sharing content freely and inviting readers into a relationship via a well-placed and well-timed subscription offer (a sentiment we’ve largely agreed with and have seen work well for us). Members of this camp stand their ground by pointing to the objective of getting content read, shared, liked and distributed as far and wide as possible — clearly gates hinder this objective.
- Gates Are Pivotal to Lead Generation — At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of gates see them as important tools for lead generation and to exercise a bit of control over the firm’s investment in thought leadership. They see the gate like a small barter transaction. A small bit of information in exchange for a firm’s substantial investment in high quality content seems logical and warranted in certain situations (a solid point that we also largely agree with that has also worked well for us). Members of this camp point to the objective of generating leads from their investment in content.
The push-pull of this discussion plays out fairly frequently on message boards and presumably inside digital marketing teams with some degree of regularity. I’ve certainly added my voice to the dialogue at least a few times — most notably in this 2014 article on free, gated and paid content. But, while both arguments are strong in experience and perspective, they usually lack much in the way of data.
This was something we hoped to rectify in the recently published Thought Leadership Best Practices Report, we completed in partnership with AMCF and The Bloom Group.
As it turns out, the consulting firms that generate the most leads from their thought leadership marketing are more likely to selectively gate their content and less likely to “give it all away.” Also of note, none of the leading firms were found to be gating all of their content.
Here’s a quick look at the comparison of leaders and followers:
The 4 Things Gates Do
So, if lead generation is a core objective of your content marketing efforts, then it appears that selectively gating your content is a good strategy. But, why? Why are leaders more likely to selectively gate? Why are followers more likely to give it all away?
For answers to those questions, we have to fall back on experience and intuition. I have a number of opinions on this topic, and they all relate to the psychology of the gate itself — why the gate exists, how it’s used, its role in your client attraction strategy, and how it can potentially influence future behaviors both on the site and off.
#1 — A Selectively Applied Gate Implies Value
I argued this a bit in my 2014 article, and I’ll do it here again. When we gate a piece of content we send a clear message to the web visitor that says, “this content is valuable, it’s worth your time, and it’s worth your exchange of information.” As human beings we regularly infer value based on cost. A $3 cup of coffee is perceived to be better than a $1 cup of coffee or a free cup of coffee. It just is. Something that costs more is believed to be better. This same principle holds true for a content gate. When a small subset of content is selectively placed behind a form. That content is perceived to be of higher value relative to all the freely available content on the site.
#2 — A Gate Establishes an Exchange of “Compensation”
Simultaneously, the gate tells the visitor that the content is important and potentially worth a small information exchange. Logically, this perceived value falls down when a firm gates everything and is heightened when a firm only selectively gates content.
I can read all the free content and gauge its value to me. I can easily infer that the gated content will create incrementally more value and determine whether it’s worth the exchange of information based on that. Also, the fact that only a small bit is gated increases my perception that it’s good content; it’s worth my time. So, to start, selectively applied gating is likely to increase the perceived value of the firm’s expertise.
#3 — A Gate Feeds the Psychology of Commitment and Consistency
Anyone who’s ever read, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini will instantly recognize this argument. Essentially, the psychology looks something like this — small affirmations of intent now often lead us to larger affirmations later. Often, this holds true even when the two affirmative actions are seemingly unrelated.
To make his case, Cialdini points to a 1960s study in which researchers, posing as volunteer workers, went door-to-door asking California homeowners to place a public service message in their front yard — a massive, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Each resident was shown a photograph of an attractive house that was completely obscured by the sign and asked to place it in their yard. Residents were split into 3 groups:
- A Control Group — For these homeowners, the researcher simply went to the door, showed them the photograph and asked them to place the sign in the yard. Not surpisingly, only 17% said yes.
- A “Related Small Ask” Group — In this group, a different volunteer worker visited the house 2 weeks earlier and asked homeowners to place a small 3″ sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER in their window. The vast majority of people said yes to this small initial request. When the researchers came back 2 weeks later and asked homeowners to place the massive sign in their yard, astoundingly 76% said yes.
- An “Unrelated Small Ask” Group — In this third group, a different volunteer worker again visited the house 2 weeks earlier. But, this time they simply asked the homeowners to sign a petition that favored ‘keeping California beautiful.’ Virtually everyone agreed to this small request. And, 2 weeks later roughly 50% of them said yes to placement of the massive sign.
Cialdini calls this the principle of Consistency and Commitment. Once, we commit ourselves to a point of view (even in a small way), we’re much more likely to stay committed to that point-of-view over time — even in the presence of new information. Essentially, we’re hard-wired to remain consistent in our actions once we commit ourselves in a direction. This is true both of large actions and of small ones. And, sometimes those commitments keep us headed in a direction even when they’re not closely related.
It’s my belief that a gate has the ability to evoke that small anchor in our minds. Site visitors who agree to share their information in exchange for content are stating an implicit yes that could eventually influence their future behavior. “Yes, that content looks like its valuable” today eventually leads to, “Yes, this new piece of content you wrote will also be valuable” a few weeks later, and eventually to “Yes, I’d like to speak with someone about working with you” a few months after that. Completing the site form may very well be just the first in a series of small commitments that trigger the principle of consistency that ultimately leads to a conversation with your firm.
#4 — Gates Help You Identify Qualified Leads
One of the most often cited concerns with gates is the fear that they will push away potential clients. This concern has some clear validity. One facet of the AMCF study included client research. Specifically, the AMCF leadership team, in partnership with Research Now, asked nearly 700 buyers of consulting services a variety of questions related to how they interpret and interact with consulting firms’ thought leadership and websites. One of the questions I inserted into this piece of the study was about gates. Specifically, we asked “When a consulting firm’s thought leadership content is of interest to you, but gated (it’s hidden behind a required form), what are you most likely to do?” This chart summarizes the responses:
When faced with a gate, a substantial percentage of clients claim they will exit the website. A reasonable percentage say they will provide false information to access the desired content (as an aside, this may not be a bad thing because completing the gate with false information still likely triggers the principle of consistency and commitment).
So, the data supports what we’d expect. Gates will push away some clients from your thought leadership content. But, is that necessarily a bad thing? If a potential client doesn’t trust your firm enough to provide even a small snippet of information in exchange for your highest value thought leadership, what type of client are they likely to be? The best clients trust your firm implicitly. They seek your input, direction and guidance. What is the likelihood that those client relationships start from a place of distrust? My experience says 0.
Now, there could very well be some very good clients that choose not to complete a form, but my sense is that a good client understands the exchange of value and is unlikely to be pushed away by the request.
So, When and What Should You Gate?
At my talks presenting the research findings in New York City and San Francisco, I offered a handful of best practices in gating thought leadership content:
- Less than 5% — Gate no more than 5% of your thought leadership content.
- Market + Role-Specific Content — Content that applies your firm’s perspective to a specific market or functional role are prime candidates for gating. While it might not make sense to gate a broad research study on innovation, it might be perfectly valid to gate a research study on Best Practices in Innovation in the Retail Industry or a CIOs Guide to Driving Innovation Into Enterprise Technology Teams.
- Use Progressive Profiling — Only ask for information you need and use progressive profiling to request it in small snippets from a prospective client over time. Use these snippets of information to give you a more complete view of the prospect and improve the site experience for the user.
- Get What You Need Then Clear — Once you’ve collected all the information you value, clear the gates to simplify the site experience.
- Don’t Carpet Bomb With Sales Calls — Be clear about what you’re not going to do with the client’s information. Most importantly, you’re not going to instantly release a torrent of unwanted sales inquiries on the prospective client.
Keep in mind that your objective with a gate isn’t really to collect the information or try to accelerate the client’s buying process. Ultimately you’re just looking to establish a small value to your intellectual capital to influence clients’ perceived value of it, to trigger the principle of consistency and commitment, and to begin to identify quality clients from your sea of web visitors.