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Should you make consumers register for your free content?

December 9, 2010

As a marketer, you often have to spend too much time thinking about granular, unsexy topics — topics that might actually cause you to conduct on-the-spot existential examinations of your life. Am I really spending my days thinking about this? Is this what my life has come to? Why didn’t I stick to Plan A: Become a superhero? Then again, this can probably be said of most jobs (superheroism notwithstanding).

That’s what happened to me as I sat down to compare the pros and cons of gated content — to add a registration form or not? To cure cancer or not to cure cancer? Nevertheless, I’ve sacrificed quite a few brain cells to this topic over the years, and it’s one that’s pretty important to my day-to-day client work — on both B2B and B2C accounts. So let’s get to it.

The general idea surrounding the debate for free content is whether marketers should require people to register in order to capture visitor information for future sales or marketing purposes, or simply give away the content in order to build brand equity and audience good will.

Proponents of the registration form believe that offering up contact information is but a small price to pay for good (and free) content. They also see it as a validation of the visitor’s interest in the content and by association, their brand or value proposition. In other words, the form acts as a filter that separates the serious from the not — even if some of the serious ones are competition and the seemingly not-so-serious ones are actually solid prospects who just detest forms.

Opponents of gated content, on the other hand, often find registration forms limiting, insulting, or just not worth the hassle. This might be because they place more value in quantity of downloads than quality of leads, or because they have the luxury of not needing to collect names for future efforts (or the confidence that they’ll capture them another way).

The ultimate decision on whether or not to use a form should really revolve around your program’s objectives rather than your personal preferences or biases. If the goal of your program is lead generation (B2B) or collecting contact information for use in future marketing (both B2B and B2C), then the program won’t be successful without names. So, it makes sense to include a form. If your goal is to make the content ubiquitous through syndication methods, such as social media sharing, inbound linking, and media mentions, then a registration form will limit people’s willingness to share it, so be careful.

The primary pros and cons for each method are listed below.

Registration forms

Pros:

  • Offer built-in lead filters (relevant mostly to B2B programs)
  • Helps companies/brands build their databases for future marketing efforts
  • Depending on the website platform you’re using, a contact form could mean future alerts and access to user history information that will help you customize your approach and target specific needs. Done well, a gated content program can maintain a constant flow of contacts into a database that sits at the center of your sales process or marketing program

Cons:

  • Less likely to spread virally or get “shared” by others
  • Content will get fewer downloads
  • Visitors can see forms as a cheap way to get their contact information, rather than as a small price to pay for the value you’re offering

No registration form

Pros:

  • Can result in up to 66 percent more downloads than gated content
  • The company/brand might be viewed as more generous or accessible
  • Higher likelihood of viral spreading and sharing
  • More visibility for the company or brand

Cons:

  • Inability to contact leads and visitors at will, and limits future communication opportunities
  • The content is 100 percent responsible for driving intended behaviors
  • If you’re not building your database with each new piece of content, you will be tasked with creating a new audience for each forthcoming initiative

Is it really so straightforward as to lead to the conclusion that a program dedicated to database growth should always get a form, whereas a program that emphasizes ubiquity shouldn’t? Not really. According to Joe Pulizzi, founder of Junta42, “A sound content marketing strategy should include aspects of both gated and non-gated content, with 99 percent of the content being non-gated.”

To take advantage of the benefits of both formats, marketers should consider launching their programs with non-gated content in order to cast a wide net. In other words, use non-gated content as the bait to drive in as many visitors and as much visibility as possible upfront. And from there, offer a supplemental piece of truly valuable and exclusive content so that the interested people (or qualified leads) will offer up their contact information in return. This approach yields a wide audience, a way to filter leads, and a means of growing your database.

A good strategy might include starting with a non-gated e-book, which includes (or coincides with) an offer of more in-depth content that people register to receive. Done well, this could mean getting the best of both worlds.

A few rules of thumb:

  • In my experience, a good portion of the marketers never do anything with all the contact information they collect. If you don’t plan to put that information to use, don’t limit your content’s distribution and the opportunities and visibility it can produce by hiding it behind a form.
  • When using a registration form, use as few required fields as necessary. Name and email address are usually more than enough.
  • If you require visitors to do even a little bit of work for your content, it needs to be really great. Actually, it should be really great either way.