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To Gate or Not to Gate? Is That Really the Question?

When it comes to B2B content marketing, a tension typically arises between marketing and sales teams over how much (if any) content should be gated. How much content should be accessible only to those willing to provide contact information?   

The debate about gating content has been hot for more than a decade. Sales teams rage that content should be gated because that’s the only way the business can drive qualified leads and opportunities, and it’s the only way content marketing can be measurable. This, of course, is wrong. It’s not the only way.

Some content marketers rage back and say gated content always loses because it makes engagement more challenging, can’t be indexed for SEO purposes, creates false impressions with people, and acts as a barrier between audience building and selling. This, of course, is also wrong. There are engaged buyers who come through gates.

Despite the right answer lying somewhere in the middle, most B2B content marketing teams try to balance the high number of short-term, demand-gen, sales-enablement content requests that lead to gates and the “free” content to build the brand’s owned media publishing experiences. Simply put, they attempt to balance the creation of assets that fuel lead generation and nurturing campaigns with editorial content that builds differentiating owned media experiences.

That balance doesn’t work in the long term. And so #TheStruggleIsReal.

The balance between gated and ungated #content doesn’t work in the long term, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Let’s be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with gating some content (though GDPR, CCPA, and other compliance issues abound – but that’s the topic of another post). Gated content can produce its fair share of leads, opportunities, and sales. Gated content often is the very first step in a successful buyer’s journey. Awards have been given, case studies written, and budgets increased all because content marketing campaigns that lead to gated assets have produced results.

But, so too, have positive results come from content marketing with the intent of building an audience journey. These audiences may be filled with people who provide their contact information because they are genuinely interested in a future relationship with your brand through your consistent delivery of valuable content.

Wait a minute, if these people aren’t destined to become buyers, why should we care about their audience journey? Because audiences can be one of the most valuable assets managed by a marketing organization. In some instances, an audience member can be even more valuable than a singular purchase-making customer.

Sometimes an audience member can be more valuable than a single-purchase customer, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

For example, when I was the chief marketing officer of a B2B software company, we had one audience member (let’s call him Dan) who not only never became a customer, he never once matriculated to a lead or an opportunity. Dan never once spoke, had lunch, or played golf with one of our sales reps. But because Dan was such a fan of our thought leadership program, he recommended us for more than $1 million of new business in less than two years. Our content helped him get promoted and become a leader in his organization. Dan was one of the primary reasons we became so well known in an industry vertical. He was one of our biggest fans.

Dan was never part of our buyer’s journey. But he was an integral traveler on our audience’s journey.

This is what is important to understand. Gates are not wrong nor is the promotion of content downloads through short-lived, paid, promotional campaigns (advertising). However, the better question to ask is: How can you balance content creation, distribution, and promotion for the different journeys you are designing for your business?

3 laws of audience motion

As a part of our consulting and advisory practice, one of the first questions I ask a client that seeks to balance content marketing value is their focus. Do they want to build audiences or move them?

These are the two customer journey goals enabled by content experiences. Put simply: Some content efforts feed short-term, usually external campaigns to move audiences from one part of their journey to the next. And some content efforts build and consistently satisfy an audience along one step in its journey.

To be clear, it’s not an either-or choice. It is a “yes and” choice. We have to acknowledge that they are inherently different goals, and so the question that remains is how to balance our efforts between them.

To begin to create that balance, we can look to what I have (with my tongue firmly in cheek) come to term the “three laws of audience motion.” Similar to Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, these are three foundations to better understand (and measure) how audiences behave when entering and traveling along either the buyer or audience journeys.

We call them laws not because they are absolute, but because in the world we choose to live in, we would recognize this as “normal.” So, yes, there are exceptions to these laws.

Let’s explore.

1st law of audience motion

A content consumer will remain unreachable or move further away from you at a constant rate unless consistently acted upon by clearly valuable and consistent content experiences.

As discussed recently, your marketing database is not your audience. Personal data is emotional. You don’t build audiences with gated content, you move them, (hopefully). When you get accurate, trusted information from a simple gated content transaction, it’s because the content consumer is emotionally, if perhaps not intellectually or financially, ready to move to the next step of the buyer’s journey.

You don’t build audiences with gated #content, you move them, (hopefully), says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Audiences, on the other hand, are not necessarily ready to move. When they provide their information to subscribe after free and unfettered access to content – it means they are NOT subscribing to what they just received. They are subscribing to the unknown future value inherently promised in the value of the content they received. In other words, they just became customers – not of your product, but of the ideas you are evangelizing.

Once the initial relationship has been set, your success in keeping it depends upon you continuously building upon that journey. If your first action after someone signs up to your thought leadership newsletter is to have a sales representative call, you violated the first law of audience motion and you can bet the content consumer will be set in motion away from you.

Example: When technology company SAP wanted to launch Leonardo, its new artificial intelligence product, to the world, part of its effort was to educate people to the benefits of AI. The company launched a nine-episode podcast campaign called Searching For Salai. The free podcast download was focused on motivating audiences to move into the buyer’s journey and visit the SAP blog. The blog was filled with more detailed articles and links to assets that were further along the buyer’s journey and gated for lead generation. With more than 33,000 downloads of the podcast, the company moved 65,000 views of their blog and a high number of associated gated Leonardo content assets.

2nd law of motion

If the initial experiences move the content consumer into a buyer’s journey, then the likelihood of the buyer to become an audience member is equal to the sum of linear movements forward in the journey.

The true benefit of building an audience is that either you engage a pool of people who can help you reach others who are willing to move (i.e., my story of Dan, above) or you and your brand will be top of mind for when they are willing/able to move.

One of the main purposes of advertising, cold calling, or any sort of external campaign to move audiences is to find (as quickly as the campaign is designed to run) the number of people who are ready, willing, and able to move into the buyer’s journey.

But additionally, as we move buyers forward, there are many things that may stall their progress. And providing the ability to move them into an audience to “rest” can be productive. Audiences move back into the buyer’s journey when they are ready and not before. And while your amazing, persuasive ad copy, brochure, or campaign call to action may convince someone to be ready to move sooner, the further along in the buyer’s journey they are, the more likely they are to become valuable audience members.

EXAMPLE: We recently worked with a global enterprise B2B software company. It launched a thought leadership email newsletter. And at the end of each newsletter the call to action directed people to its website to speak with a consultant who would give them a quote. That effort fell flat on its face.

Then, the company noticed that a high number of cold leads from its other sales campaigns was subscribing to its newsletter. It switched the newsletter content slightly to be more how-to and stopped selling to this audience. Instead, the calls to action led to other thought leadership platforms such as webinars and physical events. The company found that this cold-lead audience shared the webinars and physical events at twice the rate of customers. This group also answered polls and provided excellent data for both keyword and SEO benefits. And, over the long term, many of those cold leads came back to become buyers again.

3rd law of audience motion

If the initial experience moves the content consumer into an audience journey, then the likelihood of the audience to influence a purchase is non-linear and multiplied by the audience’s size and quality.

One of the main benefits of audience building is that it establishes a more trusting relationship from the outset. By delivering valuable content, you immediately position your company as more differentiated and valuable from the beginning.

But the value of an audience as a corporate asset has many facets. We’ve discussed at some length the examples and definitions of these audience values. But the key, generally speaking, is that marketers can look at the value of audiences as a multiplier of value to influence purchases. Engaged, subscribed, and measured audiences typically buy faster, buy more, stay longer, and evangelize with more frequency.

Example: Frontline Education Software created the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, a separate website with the company’s original research and thought leadership for educational professionals looking to improve the operations in their schools. The audience-building effort is focused on a long-term strategy of pooling likely customers and letting them become leads on their time. It is part of Frontline’s broader content marketing efforts, which have grown into an immensely popular platform for Frontline’s audience. In fact, 32% of the company’s new business over the first year could be attributed to leads generated by its marketing department. In one area of the business, Frontline’s content marketing that same year led to a 195% increase in email open rates and a less than 1% opt-out rate.

Establishing the balance of audience motion

If we build distinct business goals for the types of content we create, we can segment and balance against the types of value expected from each approach of moving and building audiences.

This chart illustrates the value across the two approaches of moving an audience or building an audience:

Each conversion point illustrates the business value to measure across the journey. Of course, moving an audience follows a classic direct marketing funnel value, where we measure:

  • Optimized behavior
  • Number of leads
  • Lead value
  • Opportunity value
  • Average selling price (ASP)/transaction value
  • Customer value

Then, if our goal is to build an audience, we can deliver similar conversion points where we can measure the value of the audience as it grows:

  • Contribution value – multiplier effect on extended reach or influence
  • Competency value – ability to leverage data to provide insight into marketing
  • Campaign value – multiplier effect on pooling willing but not ready prospects
  • Customer value – creation of better, higher value customers through extra value
  • Cash value – ability to generate revenue or cost savings through the audience asset
  • Audience value – value of the audience asset monetized in multiple ways

Ultimately, the culmination of both journeys terminates in a business asset called either a customer or an audience. And, they fall into three categories: audiences who will never be customers, audiences that are customers, and customers that aren’t audiences.

That gets us back to two questions: Where could we add the most value? Where do you add the most value?

If we can balance both moving and building an audience, the answer to those questions would ultimately make the overlap of those circles so big that it becomes one large group of customers and audience members.

So, take your time. Figure out where the business needs the most value now and how you might begin to reinvest in a better balance between the short-term benefits of moving an audience and the long-term benefits of building an audience.

Join us for ContentTECH Summit, a free digital event on May 15-16, 2024, where industry leaders will share expertise to help you unlock the potential of content technology in your organization. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute