Sparkling content is the currency that oils the cogs of online commerce.

It’s a simple value exchange. Offer potential customers valuable information and, impressed by your in-depth knowledge of their pain points (as demonstrated by your insightful eBooks and blogs), they’ll see you as trusted experts in your field. When they need the kind of services you offer, you’ll be top of the list.

So your instinct may be to let your glorious content roam free, cavorting across blogs, social media and third party websites with impunity, generating interest wherever it goes. But it’s not quite that simple.

Sometimes the best policy is to keep some of your best content gated safely away, limiting access to a self-selecting group of uber-keen targets. Here’s how and why.

The buyer’s journey

To understand what and when to gate, you first have to understand the buyer’s journey, which is typically made up of three stages.

  • Awareness stage. At this stage, software buyers are only aware of their potential problem or pain point.
  • Consideration Stage. At this stage, buyers have defined and named their pain point. They are researching ways to solve it.
  • Decision Stage. At this stage, buyers know the solution or approach they need (your product). They are looking to make a final decision.

Different content is targeted at leads in each stage of that journey, helping to nudge them along the path to an eventual sale.

Keep it free

At the start of that journey most of your content – if not all – should be as free as fox cubs in springtime.

Put simply, it’s easy to lose targets at the awareness stage. They may be only vaguely aware that they have a problem. Present them with an obstacle and they’ll bolt.

Content at this stage will generally be blog posts and infographics, designed to build trust and engagement. Avoid the temptation to push a hesitant lead towards sales-ready status at this stage, whatever the commercial pressure to do so.

By all means, include a call to action – “click for more!” – but hiding this sort of information behind lead capture forms risks losing leads who want quick, easy access to information, and for whom a form filling exercise may appear unnecessarily burdensome or spammy.

Gate it up

But at some point, it’s fair to lock at least some of your content behind lead capture forms. After all, this is a content exchange and a little quid pro co is an accepted part of the deal.

By the Consideration stage, and even more so by the Decision stage, your target is interested and, if your content is doing its job, increasingly attracted by your offer.

Not only will a serious lead now be content to spend a couple of minutes filling in a form, he or she may even consider it advantageous to do so, for three reasons.

  • An interested target may sense that there is commercial advantage to be garnered from information not freely available.
  • By this point in the sales funnel your target wants to act. He or she will be genuinely interested in receiving detailed information that will help achieve mental resolution. They want to think, “I have solved this”.
  • Your target will be aware that any offers that act as a final nudge towards purchase will likely arrive by email.

But don’t gate everything

Consideration and Decision stage information is valuable to your lead, and potentially game changing for your relationship.

But not all information is unique. Even in the later stages of the sales funnel, you may be filling out your offer with general content readily available elsewhere. That’s fine, especially if your sales cycle is a long one.

As a general rule, ‘paid-for’ content provides new value and something tangible to take away. It’s content that readers will want to share.

If your eBook, guide or webinar reiterates a message easily found for free elsewhere, keep it accessible.

What information to gather

You have valuable information that a well-nurtured lead would be prepared to trade information for, but don’t make the price too high.

The detail you request through a lead capture form will vary depending on your target, but at first contact it’s best to ask for nothing more than a name and email address.

Later on you can qualify leads further with phone numbers and job titles, but for now the priority is to make the download process as seamless as possible, while opening an avenue for conversation.

Later, smart content forms can stop the lead capture process becoming overly burdensome.

For now, the takeaway is this. Don’t rush the lead capture process. Send early stage content out into the world, creating interest and good will and expecting nothing in return.

But don’t undervalue your offer. You have a product or service that will cure a business headache. As targets become increasingly aware of that, a little information in return is a fair price and one serious targets will be prepared to pay. They may even expect to.