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Why Gated Content Can Be a Barrier to Marketing Success

On a recent trip to another part of the country, driving through a residential area, my 12-year-old daughter asked me, “Why do all of the neighborhoods here have gates?” Her words, clear and inquisitive from the back seat, hung in the air for a few moments before I was able to respond. “Well, that is a complex question,” I said, “and requires an answer where we can sit down, face to face, and talk about it.” (Yes, it was a classic “parent hedge” to buy time.)

Thinking about it over the remainder of that car ride, I realized that her question directly addressed something in marketing that has been on my mind for a while: Why is so much content still gated, and why do so many marketers want to set up gated content? How is it possible, in today’s era of democratized information and customer-driven engagement, to still gate content and make customers jump through hoops to get it?

This is a big debate, and the arguments for both sides are strong. Many marketers contend that gated content is the most powerful tool available to get customers to turn over contact information. These marketers believe strongly in a very transactional model, where digital marketing helps facilitate the transaction and the currency is personal information in exchange for valuable content.

This model rests on the very shaky assumption that the content is valuable. I believe that most marketers seriously overestimate the value of the content that they want to put behind gates. This biased perception often is rooted in the history of content being more difficult to get (before the ubiquitous Internet), and in companies having a monopoly on ideas and the ability to publish them.

Today every marketer and every industry has a different perspective on this issue. In highly technical product categories, for example, there often is great value to the proprietary content put behind gates. Likewise, paid gates for news and other unique content make economic sense (as frustrating as it is when you see a publication post an enticing link on social media, which leads you straight into a paywall). Overall, however, I believe that more gates must open and marketers must find non-transactional models for customer engagement.

How can you decide if gated content makes sense for your business? Here are three questions to ask yourself:

1. Is the content truly unique, relevant and highly valuable to my target audience?

2. Can I consistently put content of this type behind the gate to ensure that my audience returns?

3. Do I have enough valuable content outside of the gate to keep visitors from feeling forced into paying the toll?

Gates work both ways: They keep things out and they keep things in. When you gate content, you’re often missing an opportunity for that content to spread your message across the wider Web. Are the leads that you get when you put content behind a gate worth more than the exposure that you get when people consume and share your content freely?

The question that my daughter posed was a tough one, having many social and political implications that are probably beyond the comprehension of a middle-school child. The impulse behind the question, though—What do those gates represent?—is something that should be on every marketer’s mind in today’s information-rich environment.

Norman Guadagno is senior vice president of marketing strategy at Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency based in San Francisco, Calif.