Sticking an opt-in gate in front of your content and counting how many people go through it has become the go-to solution to measure lead generation and marketing success. But is inundating people with pop-ups that promise mind-blowing contentin exchange for their email address really the best way to go about building your brand/business?
The short-term mindset: "It’s all about the leads"
One of the problems with gated content is that businesses often ignore the person behind the lead. They crunch the numbers, think: “It’s successful. We’ve got X leads,” and do not pay any attention to wider questions:
Was the content any good? Did people enjoy it? (How) did having to give out their data impact their perception of the brand? Will they care about your brand in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 weeks?
The answer is often: no clue. And so the potential for building a long-term relationship usually gets overlooked in favor of a short-term gain.
These days, content is a currency. Handing over an email address in exchange for content turns the experience into a transaction—and users will rightly expect a substantial amount of value in exchange for the effort. In our opinion, however, that’s rarely what you get. Here’s what our co-founder Johan Malmberg has to say about it:
Most gated content is bull — , because it’s all about sales: you share an email and get nothing in return. And then after that, they might call you, or email you… You should get leads because you deserve it, not because you tricked [people].
~ Johan Malmberg, Hotjar Co-founder
It’s all about leads, leads, leads, when it should be all about value and trust instead.
Building trust by opening the gate
Our 'Big Hairy Audacious Goal' is to have 10 million websites using Hotjar. To build this kind of business and achieve our vision, we don’t want to trick people into using our product: we want them to trust us. We want them to trust us so much that they are willing to invest their time and money in our product. That’s a pretty big ask!, and not one we take lightly.
Trust-building doesn’t happen overnight: it’s an ongoing process where we must prove the worth of our product and team over and over. We do it by empathizing with our users, being there when they need help, and creating value. Producing useful, valuable, open-access content is one of the routes we have chosen. For example:
we produce a lot of technical documentation and continuously update our practical guides to help users both get started and get the most out of our tool;
we recently organized a 2-day event with international speakers including Basecamp, PriceIntelligently, and Pipedrive, and we are getting ready to share all video content from the event, to help and inspire our users and followers to start and grow their businesses.
The list could go on, but here is the common denominator: we believe that treating people as people, and not as leads, will ultimately generate respect and thought leadership for our business. By giving content away for free, we want audiences to pay attention to Hotjar and trust what we have to say.
How reciprocity works
In psychology, the practice of giving away content triggers the “rule of reciprocity”, which Robert B. Cialdini popularized for marketers in 1984 in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Back then, he observed that people feel an obligation to repay, in kind, what another person has provided them, for example return a favor, a birthday gift, an invitation to an event, etc.
[O]bligation has an equally active but sweeter sister —gratitude— that operates to stimulate returns not so much because recipients of favors feel a sense of debt as they feel a sense of appreciation. Although both feelings reliably spur positive reciprocation, gratitude appears to be related to the intensification of relationships rather than just the instigation or maintenance of them.
~ Dr. Robert Cialdini
With this in mind, we have been working hard (and will be working even harder) to produce phenomenal content, content that inspires, helps, and gives our readers ‘wow’ moments . And we make sure that it is freely available. It’s the first step towards our long-term goal: we give something valuable away and, in return, people come back for more.
And it’s not just us...
There are plenty of examples from other brands who chose the open-access route. An interesting one is Drift, a messaging app that one year ago decided to make all of their content “form-free”. Their Director of Marketing, Dave Gerhardt, explains how the move was inspired by brands like Slack and Mailchimp:
I’ve never had to jump through any hoops to get something from [them]. No gated content. No content upgrades. In fact, I don’t really remember filling out any type of form for either product, other than when I initially signed up.
[W]e’re taking a bet that if we [also] focus on building our brand, telling our story, and creating products that people actually want, that we’ll be better off in the long run — instead of spending all of our time trying to figure out ways to hack our way to more leads.
~ Dave Gerhardt, Director of Marketing at Drift
Kanbanize, a Kanban project management software company, also use a similar approach for their blog resources on Kanban, Lean and Agile. Head of Marketing, Monica Georgieff, explains why they tend not to gate blog content:
We nurture leads differently before they decide to try our software and after they register for a trial. Before their commitment to try our product, we act as coaches, guiding them towards “yes” with fresh content on a topic they are still only just interested in.
Eventually, they become confident enough on their own to sign up. Adding more gated content just creates friction along the learning path.
~Monica Georgieff, Head of Marketing at Kanbanize
The snowball effect
Imagine your marketing team created a useful, 30-page industry report, and a targeted campaign will bring 1,000 visitors/month to the landing page.
You could publish it in two ways:
Option A: place the report behind a gate, to generate as many leads as possible. Let’s optimistically guess that 10% of page visitors become leads.
Option B: the report is accessible and anyone can read it without completing a form.
What happens after 12 months?
With Option A (gated content, in grey), 1,200 people had access to your industry report. It’s a high number, as all of them are potential leads.
With Option B (open-access content, in orange), 12,000 people had access to the same content. That’s ten times more people.
Cumulative readers - Gated Content (grey) vs. Open-Access Content (orange)
In this example, the decision to gate content or make it open access says a lot about who you are as a business, and what you believe in: are you prioritizing short-term leads, or long-term audience growth? To us, this is a no-brainer. We view open-access content as a long-term investment in trust-building: the more people experience value through our content and trust us, the more likely they are to recommend us to others—and help us reach even more potential customers.
This positive, self-reinforcing snowball effect happens through something Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz describe as the “viral coefficient” in their book Lean Analytics:
Virality is all about getting the word out.… The key metric for this engine is the viral coefficient—the number of new users that each user brings on. Because this is compounding... the bigger the coefficient, the faster you grow.
~Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, Lean Analytics
If you want to go much more in-depth on viral content, there is a very comprehensive guide by Kelsey Libert on Moz. But the gist of it is: the more people access and like your content, the more they will share it, and in turn more new people will access, like and share it themselves. This cannot be achieved with gated content, which is not optimized for sharing and loses the potential for viral growth.
...and did we hear “SEO benefits”?
Another advantage of open-access content is that search engines just love it. Rand Fishkin from Moz argues that, when you avoid gating content, you get:
SEO benefits via links that point to these pages, via engagement metrics, via their ranking ability, etc. etc.
We do much better with the Beginner's Guide to SEO on Moz than we would if it were gated and you had to give us your information first.
~Rand Fishkin, Founder and 'Wizard' of Moz
This goes hand-in-hand with the concept of ‘evergreen content’ that is always relevant and continues to bring value to its readers. To us, this is yet another benefit of publishing great open-access content over gated content: it’s a gift that keeps on giving for months or even years to come.
Is gated content ever worth it?
We’re not saying gated content is always a bad idea. For example, gating premium content can make it easier for sales outreach teams to do their job properly, and possibly create a perception of high value around a brand and its services.
Receptive.io, a product demand intelligence platform, make most of their content open-access, but chose to gate a webinar series and 62-page ebook. CEO and Co-founder Hannah Chaplin explains why the decision works:
We balance [gated content] out by ensuring all related resources and blog posts are free to access and share. By consistently ensuring the content is high quality, people are more than happy to share some details such as their email address.
As an organization, you should always be adding value, and content is a fantastic way to do that. If you’re producing great content with a good balance of free materials, then asking for an email address is incredibly reasonable.
~Hannah Chaplin, CEO and Co-Founder at Receptive
And we are testing it, too
If you navigate your way to our pricing page (for the first time) and decide to leave the website, you might see this pop-up:
Look: it’s gated content!
It's a test we are running on our website to see how this specific gate performs. Our Director of Marketing, Nick, explains how it works:
At exit on our pricing page we have what’s called the Hotjar Action Plan, which is usually available as a guide on our website. We packaged that into a little e-book with one of our designers and added an exit intent pop-up when somebody was about to leave the pricing page the first time they ever come.
~Nick Heim, Director of Marketing at Hotjar
So how is this example of gated content providing long-term value?
It’s an exit intent pop-up on a very specific page. Visitors will only ever see it once, as they are about to leave, making sure it does not disrupt a user’s journey.
From video recordings and analysing user experience, we know this page is where visitors tend to go towards the end of the experience. So we empathize with their needs, and say ‘hey, you haven’t made up your mind yet and that’s ok: here is something else from us in the meantime, see if it helps.’
The email provides a 17-page Action Plan, plus a free 30-day subscription to Hotjar Business. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and one that gives a sense of who we are and what we do.
Our “A gift from Hotjar” email. And YEs, I really do read every reply!
The preliminary results of this experiment: 18% of the email recipients became Hotjar users, 4% became active users, and a little over 3% are now customers. We are now deciding, as a team, whether the outcome of the test is worth the risk—we will take a closer look at the users we generated from it before making any final decision.
Thumbs down to gated content as a tactic purely to capture leads: it shouldn’t be your core strategy, you need a lot of value behind the gate, and there should be the right context and a reason for doing it.
Do you have content that users might actually want in their inbox, so they can store it for future use? Think about turning the gate into a useful website feature instead, for example: reposition it as a ‘send this to my inbox’ or ‘download now’ feature. Allow your users to choose.
As always, it comes down to value and empathy. Put yourself in your user’s shoes: if you’re going to gate something, think first: “how would I react to this being gated?”.
If you made it this far, I'd like to hear from you & your experience with gated vs. open-access content. Where do you stand on the ‘to gate or not to gate’ debate? Have you got any examples you can recommend?
Bonus track: this post was inspired by a conversation between Hotjar co-founder and CEO David Darmanin, Johan Malmberg (CRO and co-founder), Jon Malmberg (Director of Demand Gen), and Nick Heim (Director of Marketing). You can listen to the full 22-minute chat below: