Should you lock marketing content behind forms?

June 11, 2015 Asaf Rothem

According to CMI, 83% of B2B marketers are using content marketing, and they now spend 28% of their marketing budgets on it, and more than half see higher expenditure ahead.

With all this investment in content, is it better to leave content free or lock it behind forms in order to generate leads? The question is more complicated than you may think.

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According to marketing strategist and author David Meerman Scott, free content gets 20 to 50 times more downloads than content that requires the visitor to fill a form with their contact information to gain access (i.e. “locked” content).

However, there are other critical considerations in favor of locking content:

The pros of keeping content free

Shareability: increasing readership by allowing everyone to view your content increases the likelihood that your content will be shared online, in part because of the higher number of potential sharers and in part because visitors are unlikely to share a link to a form. The more of your content that is shared, the wider the audience your message can reach.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): locked content is not only unavailable to online visitors, it also locks out search engines. The more free content you have, the more pages and content engines can index – potentially improving your search rankings and traffic.

Inbound Links: the more free content you have, the more other websites are likely to link to your content or mention it as a reference in theirs– increasing both your audience exposure and your popularity with search engines.

The pros of locking content

Leads: with free content, there’s no way to assure you’ll ever be able to connect with a visitor or pursue the lead. Placing content behind a form practically guarantees that you will get at least some leads from it. It will reduce your overall readers but likely increase your net leads.

Intelligence: lead data lets you analyze who signed up for what and use that information to improve your lead generation and nurturing decisions. Knowing which content a lead unlocked can guide your follow-up marketing, helping you provide relevant messages and materials.

Mix and match

Most businesses that rely on online leads take a mixed approach. A great way to decide when and if to gate your content is to examine the objective of each piece of content you offer. Most organizations have three types, and each should be treated differently:

Thought-leadership content items such as blog posts are designed to demonstrate your expertise and promote awareness of your business. Keep it free.

Product overview content such as brochures or customer case studies helps new visitors understand what you do. Keep it free.

Purchase-intent content such as a demo, white paper or free trial offer is designed to help the seriously interested visitor make a decision about purchasing from you. These visitors are further down the funnel and more likely to be good leads. Consider locking on an asset-by-asset basis.

Other considerations

Your business or vertical will also influence whether you want to lock content. An author selling books, for example, may offer online a chapter of his book and reader’s praise for free, using an order form or a phone number for orders.
An emerging brand wanting to raise awareness may offer online articles and content for free to become familiar to audiences and take on the values and quality the content asset promoted.

Software Sector micro study shows 87% use locked content to generate leads

A BrightInfo survey based on data collected from small to medium software companies2 reveals that the majority of businesses leverage premium content locked behind forms as a way to generate online leads. The study surveyed more than 30 companies that leverage online content marketing across over 350,000 monthly page views.

Here’s how much content companies actually lock:

13% keep all their content free: These are typically either very small businesses that don’t automate marketing lead generation processes or businesses that are very focused on a single call to action such as a download or free trial, leaving the rest of their content marketing product free.

26% lock 67% or more of their content: These are typically sophisticated lead-generation organizations that work hard to drive audiences to premium content. These organizations may offer free blog posts, but the majority of their marketing content (i.e. webinars, eBooks, white papers etc.) is locked.

The largest group locks 33-66% of content: About 35% of businesses surveyed locked 1/3 to 2/3 of their content. This is the most diverse group, as it comprises more sophisticated small businesses and fast-growing companies that are continually adding locked content. This latter group will likely move quickly into the 67-100% locked group alongside older businesses that are not as aggressive in their content strategies. 

Can you have it both ways?

A middle path is to utilize BrightInfo’s Virtual Locking for occasions where you are not sure if you want to lock a content item or not. Content can remain free if accessed directly via your site pages, but if it is accessed through the BrightInfo Content Recommendation tool, a form is required.
So, for example, a website using BrightInfo can detect that a new visitor is about to bounce and can encourage the visitor to stay on by recommending relevant content to the visitor before leaving (possibly forever). If the visitor responds to the free content offer, a BrightInfo form can be displayed as a way to ensure the website gets the visitor contact information in exchange for the content offered. This is a way to get the best of both worlds while reducing risk of losing new anonymous visitors forever. 

Conclusion

Most businesses leverage content marketing for awareness and to generate online engagement. Businesses that sell products with a clear value proposition such as office furniture or a blog writing service don’t need to develop sophisticated content to accompany multiple buyer journey stages, hence most likely don’t need to lock content behind forms in order to engage buyers. However, businesses that sell complex value proposition products such as software solutions or marketing strategy services need to engage with the online prospect throughout a phased buyer journey, making a mix of locked and free content more effective.

Our mini survey revealed that most companies surveyed lock content in order to engage with prospects early in the buyer journey. If you are marketing a sophisticated product, look to create a balanced content strategy that will encourage visitors to explore your brand yet engage anonymous visitors before they decide what and where to purchase.

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