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To gate or not to gate, that is the B-to-B content marketing question

There’s a spirited debate in B-to-B marketing about whether it’s best to give away information (aka “content,” like white papers and research reports) to all comers, versus requiring web visitors to provide some information in exchange for a content download.  In other words, to gate your content or not to gate.  The debate involves aspects of both ROI and philosophy.  Myself, I lean toward the “gate it” camp, and here’s why.

I know that plenty of very smart and well-respected Internet marketing experts line up with dear old Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who famously said in 1984 that information “wants to be free.” The underlying assumption there is that people buy from companies that they trust—a valid point, to be sure.  Casting a net through free—unimpeded—distribution of content encourages both trust and, perhaps more importantly, wide dispersal and sharing of information.  You’ll get to a much bigger audience, who will be educated on the solutions to their business problems, will be grateful for the free info and, one hopes, will think of you when they’re ready to buy.  So far, so good.

The problem is that this model—which lives under the umbrella concept known as “inbound marketing”—leaves marketers in a serious quandary.  We don’t have any way of knowing who is reading our informative, educational and helpful content.  We are left sitting on our thumbs, unable to take any proactive steps toward building relationships with these potential prospects.  All we can do is wait for them to contact us and, we hope, ask us to participate in an RFP process, or, more likely, give them more info and more answers to their questions.  Is that any way to sustain and grow a business relationship—not to mention meet a revenue target?  In my view, it leaves too much to chance.

Let’s look at the numbers.  The ROI model for inbound marketing says that distributing the content to a wide audience will eventually result in more sales than gating the content and marketing proactively to a smaller universe.  Let’s look at how these numbers might actually work:

To start the conversation, say that wide distribution would put your content in front of 10,000 prospects, via free downloads and pass-along.

In contrast, we might similarly assume that by gating, and requiring some contact information in exchange for the content download, we would only get 1% of that distribution: 100 prospects.  These are now legitimate inquirers, and we can conduct outbound communications to them.  By applying typical campaign conversion rates, we could predict that of 100 inquiries, 20% will qualify—producing 20 qualified leads.  Of those, we’ll be able to contact 50% (or 10), and of them 20% will convert, resulting in 2 sales.

But how many sales will we get from the 10,000 with whom have no direct connection?  It’s hard to say.  When inquiries come in, we can ask where they heard of us, and certainly some will say they read the white paper, or whatever content we put into circulation.  But this data tends to be unreliable.  Inquirers usually don’t remember how they heard of you, or they just make up an answer to get the question out of the way.

This is exactly why business marketers debate the subject with such vigor.  We have data, and thus proof, on the gating side.  But we only have conjecture on the other.  So it boils down to which side you believe.  It’s tough to do sustainable marketing on faith.

Myself, I grew up as a marketer in the world of measurable direct and database marketing.  So it’s no surprise that I favor the gating side of the fence.  I like marketing campaigns that provide predictable results.  Where I can stand up in court and show a history of my campaign response rates, conversion rates, and cost-per-lead numbers.  And most important, where I can reasonably expect to deliver a steady stream of qualified leads to my sales counterparts, who are relying on me to help them meet their quotas.

So that’s my argument for gating content in B-to-B marketing.  I understand the logic of the other side.  And I see clearly situations where it makes sense to let the information run free—as a teaser, for example, to persuade prospects to come and get the richer information that is so useful that they’ll be falling all over themselves to give me their name, title, company name and email address.  But what about you?  Where do you sit in this debate?  It’s a biggie.

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Ruth Stevens

Ruth Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, for both consumer and business-to-business clients. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the ERA business accelerator in New York City. Ruth is a guest blogger at AdAge, HBR.org, and Target Marketing Magazine. Her newest book is B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results. She is also the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, Trade Show and Event Marketing, and co-author of the white paper series “B-to-B Database Marketing.” Ruth is a sought-after speaker and trainer, and has presented to audiences and business schools in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM. She studied marketing management at Harvard Business School, and holds an MBA from Columbia University. Learn more at www.ruthstevens.com.

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Discussion

  1. Avatar Holger Schulze

    Great post, Ruth. I have been successful with a dual strategy that makes certain marketing content freely available (say, a report showing highlights from a recent market survey) but includes in that same content prominent calls to action that require registration (e.g. to watch an on-demand webinar discussing the survey results in detail). This way, you can combine the reach and attractiveness of free content with the conversion benefits of gated content.

    Holger Schulze
    hhschulze@gmail.com

  2. Ruth Stevens Ruth Stevens

    Great idea, Holger. A one-two punch. I like it! I think publishers do a lot of this, offering tiered content where some is given away to all, and deeper info is gated in exchange for a fee or for membership. Thanks for the idea.

  3. […] To Gate or Not to Gate, That Is the B-to-B Content Marketing Question BIZNOLOGY | WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2012 […]

  4. Avatar Sherry Nouraini

    One strategy would be to make the content freely downloadable, but put action items within the document to encourage people to sign up for the outbound channels. It is kind of like the difference between open rate and click through rate for an email campaign.

  5. Avatar Giles Farrow

    I think it depends on the product and industry.

    Some B2B products are more similar to B2C. They have lower price points, a simple sales process. The key here is volume and sales efficiency. If there is a chance you can help customers through the whole buying cycle without a sales person, then you should do everything to reduce friction. No gates.

    Where you absolutely need sales involved then you want them in the sales process as early as possible. Gate your content.

    In almost all case you need both e.g.
    – competitors offer rich ungated content, so you need to
    – you have a mixture of lite and rich content
    – self-service is only possible for some customer segment

    1. Ruth Stevens Ruth Stevens

      Great ideas, thanks. I especially appreciate the competitive angle. If our competitors are establishing stronger brands through active thought leadership via content, then we must do better–or go to market via another strategy.

  6. […] you are selling something very straightforward where sales needs to come in at the very end of the buying process, it’s best to adopt a largely free for all approach (thanks, Giles […]

  7. Avatar Mike telem

    Its true that gating will convert a few but if your gating because you cannot otherwise interact, you might be missing something.
    With real-time inbound marketing is engaging and interacting with anonymous top funnel prospects in based on their industry, behavior etc. in real time, while you have their attention.

  8. Avatar Daisy Nosh

    Thanks for sharing this amazing post Ruth

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