[Study] Content Gating: Require Emails or Give It Away?

by Allen Day on 8/7/15

Content gating: necessary evil or the best way to use content marketing to grow your business? We wanted to find out, so we asked a simple question:

Is it better for your business to require email addresses to read your content,
or better to give it away for free?

We tested it ourselves and were surprised by the results.

Introduction to Email Gating and Content Marketing

At 9 Clouds, we believe the best way to sell is to teach. We invest a lot of time and energy into creating valuable training resources for business owners, marketers and individuals. We effectively open source our expertise, giving these resources away.

Of course, we can’t completely give them away. We’re trying to run a business. The primary technique we’ve used to recapture value without charging for our resources has been email gating. If someone is interested in our resource, we give it to them in exchange for some basic contact information up front — name and email address, generally.

We have enjoyed reasonable success with this technique. Our submission rate on landing pages ranges from 25% to 50%,with an average around 30%.

Signal Integrity summarizes the thinking: “In principle, if people like your ideas (eBooks etc.) they’ll want to do business with you, and they’ll contact you. But sometimes they need a little gentle follow up.”

At 9 Clouds, we work with businesses to build their leads and database using this precise technique.

While the virtues of this topic are always up for debate, gating content is by no means trickery — or at least it shouldn’t be. The key to effectively using this technique is offering potential customers more than you’re asking of them. We’re simply starting a conversation: taking the first steps to build a relationship, not twisting arms.

A More Progressive Approach to Content Gating

We are by no means stuck in our content marketing ways at 9 Clouds. We’re constantly learning, always on the lookout for new methods to try. When we met the cofounder of Docalytics, Steve Peck, and started talking to him about what he was doing, we got excited about the possibility of Progressive Information Gathering (PIG).

The most important characteristic of content marketing today is not quantity or quality. It’s insight. (Lee Odden, TopRank)

What Is PIG (Progressive Info Gathering)?

Docalytics specializes in two things that interested us.

First, they have a unique approach to lead capture. Instead of an opt-in before the document, they can capture information throughout the document as the reader flips through pages. Docalytics refers to this as Inline Progressive Lead Capture. That’s descriptive, but a bit verbose; we prefer Progressive Info Gathering, or PIG for short.

Second, Docalytics provides analytics and insight into your documents as they’re read, identifying how engaged a reader actually is. With documents hosted with Docalytics, we can see what platform readers were on, how long they spent with a document, how far they read (or how quickly they abandoned) — even whether they read it online or downloaded the document.

This got us thinking:

  • Are potential leads more likely to convert if we ask for a little information at a time?
  • What if we acquire all the info at once — but instead of gating them at a landing page, we gate after giving them a chapter out of the book (like Amazon does with eBooks)?
  • What if we just give it all away for free — will they still value and read the publication?

We decided to put together a little experiment to put these questions to the test.

The Content Gating Experiment

We started with about 10,000 participants to distribute our content to. We segmented this group of participants into four subgroups, ranging from a classic content gate with HubSpot to a completely optional form midway through the document.

Group 1: The Gated

Our first group got the same gateway treatment they’ve come to know and love.

They were delivered to a landing page, where we gave them a quick pitch on what the document contained and asked them for some basic information. In exchange for that information, we directed them to the promised resource.

This document wasn’t a conventional PDF, however. It was hosted on Docalytics so that we could measure interaction as users read online. They still had the ability to download a PDF or print, too.

Group 2: Gated, Docalytics Style

As with the next two groups, these users were taken directly to the eBook rather than a landing page. Their reading experience was unimpeded through page five, giving them the table of contents and roughly the first two and a half chapters.

Once a reader got this far, they were presented with a gentle popup asking the same questions as our landing page. Until they completed the required fields in the form, further reading, downloading, and printing was prevented.

Group 3: Progressive Information Gathering

Like group two, group three was taken directly to the document. They were left uninterrupted through the table of contents, at which time we asked for their name — still no email address required. A couple pages later, we asked for their email address; a few pages later, their Twitter handle; and so on until we exhausted the questions.

Like with the previous groups, only name and email were required. Further reading, printing, and downloading was contingent on completion of the mandatory fields.

Group 4: The Volunteers

Our final group was presented with the very same experience as the second group: all questions asked on page 5. There was one significant difference for this group, however: their form was 100% optional. We asked for all the same information, but users were welcomed to skip it and still read, download, print, and enjoy the document.

The Content Gating Results: Optional Works

First, we’ll get this out of the way right off: moving the gate from a landing page to part-way through the content did not result in any significant difference in conversion rates. In fact, readers asked questions on page five were considerably less likely to give us their information than those presented with a gated landing page before they started reading.

Simply moving the form position wasn’t the only factor. While our mandatory page-5 gate group was by far our worst converter, our optional page-5 gate group came out on top, beating out even the traditional landing page.

Making the form fields optional increased the conversion rate by almost 25%.

Those users were asked exactly the same questions on exactly the same page, but when they were given the option to skip, they filled out the form. 61% of users presented with the optional gate converted (93% who started ended up finishing!). That’s a tremendous improvement over the 37% conversion rate on the mandatory page-5 gate.

Content Marketing Engagement Results

With Docalytics, unlike with our traditional distribution channels, insight doesn’t end when the user views the document. When looking at the Progressive Form, we can observe real-time lead fall-off.

90% of the people who viewed the document advanced to the first of the required fields. When we asked for their name, we lost about 15%. Most people who gave us their name had no problem giving us their email address; we only lost another 11% when we asked for that.

Surprisingly, our highest drop-off rate came when we asked them, optionally, for their Twitter handle. Perhaps tired of being interrupted, 30% abandoned the document.

With a 50% conversion rate, the progressive gather was essentially the same as our control — the gated landing page. However, it was more than 10% lower than users who arrived at the optional page-5 gate.

On our optional page-5 gate, only 7% skipped the form altogether, anonymously reading online or downloading. Ultimately, 61% of our unique visitors filled out the optional form. That’s 97% of the people who started filling it out.

While conversion rates were highest with our fully optional form, reader engagement (measured by downloads and reading progress) was an entirely different story.

Of readers who fully filled out the mandatory progressive form, 100% of them continued reading to the end, and nearly 80% of them downloaded and saved it. While people did fill out our optional form, fewer of them downloaded the document than any other group, and almost no one read through to the end online.

Content Gating Data Is Fine…But What Really Works?

Our initial question was: If we give the readers a taste of the content before we ask for their information, will it outperform a landing page?

The answer to this question is simple. No. Stick with the landing page. If your objective is building a big list, put the form out front to get the impulse conversions.

In his book The Content Code, Mark Schaefer challenges marketers to “tear down those walls.” He writes:

Business relationships are built on trust. They always have been. The social web is an incredible gift to business people everywhere. For the first time in history, you can create relationships and build trust with people far and wide . . . through your voice, your views and your expertise. But the only way to do that is by giving them enough free content to know and trust you.

Perhaps this is why our optional form outperformed all others for conversion. But how valuable are these leads? Our conversion rates were inverse our reading/downloading rates. It’s almost as if we assigned greater value to the content by compelling them, rather than just asking them, to fill out the form.

To quote HubSpot CEO Mike Volpe, when arguing on behalf of email gating:

If I can get 100,000 people to see that page and I can get 28,000 people to fill it out, 28,000 contacts may be more valuable than even 50,000 people seeing the content.
That is really what the debate comes down to. The question is what is the value of a view or a download versus someone who has actually filled out the form?

Email Gating Best Practices Differ Based on the Audience

In our experience, does email gating work? Yes — it’s an industry-standard operating procedure for a reason. Whether or not it’s the best practice for your brand is a highly nuanced question.

  • A freemium software company looking to gain as many leads as possible would do best to put that form out up-front, perhaps even making it optional.
  • A company with a higher-priced product looking for a small number of highly qualified leads, like a lawyer or automotive dealer, may do better with progressive information gathering, isolating and reaching out directly to only the most engaged leads.
  • A blogger looking to establish their brand may actually see more value from their content if they just give it away, building trust with readers. It’s certainly worked for Mark Schaefer.

Create Your Email Gating Strategy

What’s the best marketing strategy for you and your content? The answer will vary greatly based on your brand, your customer personas, and your objectives.

We ask and answer these questions every day for ourselves and our inbound marketing clients. If you made it this far (in our free, un-gated content), we invite you to a free Inbound Marketing Assessment (IMA). We’ll take a look at your website and content and chat on the phone with you to help optimize your content distribution. Contact us for your free IMA.

Originally published at 9clouds.com on August 7, 2015.

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