“To gate, or not to gate – that is the question.” So wrote Shakespeare during his marketing gig at The East India Company. (I swear I read this on Wikipedia somewhere….)

to gate or not to gate - that is the question

Just kidding. At the time, Shakespeare didn’t believe in gating his content. He wanted it to be shared far and wide, kinda like the tea. And so he allowed no forms to hinder it.

A more modern marketer, David Meerman Scott, would have supported this approach. Scott believes that ungated content gets 20 to 50 times more downloads than gated content. In his free book, “World Wide Rave,” he writes:

Make your Web content totally free for people to access, with absolutely no virtual strings attached: no electronic gates, no registration requirements, and no email-address checking necessary.

But what about lead generation? He addresses this a few paragraphs later:

You’ve got to think in terms of spreading ideas, not generating leads. A World Wide Rave gets the word out to thousands or even millions of potential customers. But only if you make your content easy to find and consume.

All of you with marketing and sales quotas just thought: “Lovely. Let David spread all the ideas he wants. I need the leads, thank you very much. I will continue to gate my content.”

But here’s the radical idea: What if not gating your content actually resulted in more leads – and better leads, too?

We know from a recent survey by Ascend2 that marketers are now more focused on lead quality than lead quantity. What if the solution for those better leads was not just to add even more fields to your lead gen forms, but to make the gated forms entirely optional?

Pretty freaky, huh? Stay with me. There’s a case study to prove it.

The agency Ion Interactive tested their own beliefs about gated and ungated content a few years back. They did it with two interactive white papers. In one version, the “ungated” white paper did not require people to fill out a form to see and read the white paper – but if they wanted to get a PDF version of the content, they had to fill out a lead gen form. You can see the call to action for this in the upper right-hand corner of the “ungated” – version. It’s the little blue button that says “Get the PDF”.

The other version Ion tested was a standard gated content set up. You can see it on the right side of the graphic below. The lead gen form had to be filled out before users saw any of the content.

So what was the result? The “ungated” or optional gate approach won. And won by a lot, too. It got more than three times as many readers (that’s what the “engagement rate” refers to). And it got 20.4% of the people who saw the page to hand over their contact information.

This graphic from Ion Interactive shows their results of testing how to gate your content. For more thoughts on the issue, read the post.

That’s absolutely a good start, but we’re missing information about the quality of these leads. Presumably, the people who filled out the form – particularly when it was optional – were more interested in Ion’s solutions. We could hypothesize that they were more likely to become clients. But – we don’t know how many of those leads actually converted into clients. In other words, we don’t have information about the quality of the leads generated from these two different approaches.

At least not for this study. But there is another test that suggests this optional gating – or completely ungated content – doesn’t generate higher quality leads. It’s from Debra Ellis, founder of Wilson & Ellis Consulting, as quoted in an article from Entrepreneur.

We’ve conducted multiple tests to see which provides the best opportunities for our business. In one test, we offered a white paper as a download. We alternated daily between having it gated with an e-mail address requirement and ungated. On the days that it was ungated, downloads were 47 times higher. The initial response was that we shouldn’t gate. That changed when we measured the people contacting us; 100 percent of the leads generated [had] downloaded the guide on a gated day.”

The emphasis is mine. But this disputes the idea that ungated or optional content is always best.

Feeling confused? I sympathize. But the key takeaway here is to look beyond the downloads and engagement metrics. Whether you gate your content or not depends on:

  • The quality of leads you’re expecting or need.
  • How widely you want your content shared or consumed.

Is this a big research study that you want everyone in your industry to read? Might be better to not gate it, or to provide an optional gate like Ion did.

  • Where the content is in your buyer’s journey, or where it’s placed in your sales funnel.

See Nathan Isaacs’ blog post, “When, Why and How to Gate Content Along the Customer Journey,” for more information about this.

Think outside the lead gen form (or at least the one that’s placed in front of your content)

There’s even more to gating your content than the three points I raised above. Why? Because all those points all assume we’ve only got two options: To gate, or not to gate.

It’s not that cut and dried. Take Ion Interactive’s example again – they added an optional gate in their white paper for people who wanted the PDF version. So that’s one option: Offering your content in a different format, and then gating that alternative format.

Marketers do tend to use different gating strategies for different content formats. According to the 2015 Benchmark Report on B2B Content Marketing and Lead Generation report from Starfleet Media, infographics and case studies are almost never gated. But 75% of white papers are.


Where to put the gate: Before the content, after it, or in the middle?

Another option is where you put the gate in the content. We see a lot of variety in gated videos, for example. While it is possible to put the content gate right at the beginning of the video, you can also put the gate a few seconds into the video. That way people get a taste of the content before they’re asked for more information.

The video platform company Wistia actually recommends these types of staggered gates. In their research about how to use their lead gen tool, Turnstile, they write: “Based on data alone, it appears that required Turnstiles 20-30% of the way through your video or 60-70% through your video will garner the most conversions.”

Wistia has also experimented with making their video lead gating optional or required. As you can see below, even when the gate is optional, roughly 10% of viewers are still filling out the form. But alas, Wistia doesn’t have information about the quality of the leads for these different options.

This graph shows the results of Wistia's test on “Turnstile” which is their proprietary term for their lead generation mechanism.

“Turnstile” is Wistia’s proprietary term for their lead generation mechanism.

You can offer these staggered gates with other content formats, too. The most widely seen examples of this are the “Executive Summaries” of some research studies. Often, the Executive Summary is available ungated, but if you want the full version of the report, you’ll have to pay for it. Or, alternatively, you’ll need to complete a lead gen form for the Executive Summary, and pay if you want the full study. In yet another play on this, the first sections of an ebook or white paper might be ungated, but anyone who wants to read through to the end needs to give some information.

How strong a gate will you use?

We’re not done yet. Not only do you have to decide whether or not to gate, and where to gate: You’ve also got to decide how strong a gate to use.

What do I mean here? Well, when we think of content gates, we generally think of forms. But you can also gate your content by requiring people to share it on social media. WordPress plugins like OnePress Social Locker and Social Share & Locker Pro WordPress Plugin offer this kind of functionality.

How long the form is that you use to gate your content can also have an effect. As you know, generally the shorter a form is, the more likely people are to complete it. So requiring people to fill out a 20-field opt-in form is going to suppress engagement and leads more than a form that’s only three fields long. (But the people willing to jump through those many hoops might be the ones who need your solution the most.)

There are even more options for how you can gate: by “paying” with your information, or with money. Charging for content is something publishers are more likely to do, but it’s not impossible to imagine that some brave B2B marketer might try to “pay gate” a piece of content. In fact, many B2B organizations do “pay gate” pieces of content – if you think of events like conferences as a form of content.


We need to be more sophisticated about how we decide to gate content. This comes down to two major aspects of content gating:

  • The quality of the leads generated
  • Where and how the content is gated

Which options you choose will depend on what your particular business goals are for each piece of content you consider.

Back to you

What’s your content gating strategy? Are you gating everything or just some things? Have you done any tests of which gating tactics work best, either in terms of downloads or lead quality? Tell us about it in the comments.

Read more: