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How we're using non-gated content for trust and growth at Hotjar

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What is gated content?

A piece of content is gated when it's 'locked' behind some kind of electronic gate. To access a gated resource, a reader will usually need to opt-into a form and give some type of personal information (such as email, social media account, phone number, etc).

Gated content can be any type of content piece—from a blog post to a PDF resource, to white papers and ebooks, or even podcast episodes.

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:

Johan-Hotjar-1

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 revealed the behind-the-scenes of how our journey started and how the business is growing, and openly admitted to our mistakes so readers can learn from them;
  • 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 pieces of content away for free, we want audiences to pay attention to Hotjar and trust what we have to say.

How content 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.

Let’s be clear about one thing: we don’t want any of Hotjar’s (prospective) users to think or feel they owe us anything. Luckily for us, in 2016 Cialdini wrote a follow-up book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, where he added that: 

Hotjar-cialdini-1

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:

Hotjar-Drift-1

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:

Hotjar-Kanbanize-1

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.

Hotjar-gated-content
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:

lean analytics book

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.

Ungated content can have 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:

Hotjar-Rand-Fishkin-1

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 worth it?

We’re not saying gated content is always a bad idea. For example, gating premium content can make it easier for sales 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:

hannah-chaplin-1

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:

Hotjar-gated2

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:

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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 analyzing 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.

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.

Final thoughts

  • Thumbs down to gated content as a tactic purely to capture leads for sales funnels: it shouldn’t be your core content marketing 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, don't force content gating.

  • 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 here.

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