Does this scenario sound familiar? You work hard on a new e-book or guide. You write, edit, design, obsess over the details, send it around for review and finally load your new content to your website behind a lead form. You click Publish and wait for the leads to roll in.

While a lot of successful content marketing teams still follow this basic strategy, I’m seeing a shift. More marketers are ungating content — removing the lead forms to make content open to everyone. The strategy behind ungating: Get your content in front of the widest audience possible, instead of blocking it from your potential buyers with a form.

What’s interesting to me is the intersection between ungating content and having a strong lead-gen strategy. Rethinking lead-gen forms and getting great leads don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I wrote on Velocitize about how marketers are experimenting with ungated content. For this post, I talked to a few more marketers about how they’re thinking about gating content and lead gen. Here’s what they shared.

Buyers Are More Skeptical About Filling Out Forms

“There’s definitely been a shift,” says Justin Talerico, CEO of interactive content company ion interactive. Over his many years in lead gen, he says, he saw that marketers were starting to get diminishing returns in lead quality. B2B buyers have been burned by bad content, and as a result we’ve all become more skeptical about what’s waiting for us behind the form.

“The quality of the person who’s willing to fill out a form keeps going down,” he says. “The highest-quality prospects are more discretionary and cynical. They’re less likely to convert. Trust has gone down.”

Janet Driscoll Miller, founder of digital agency Marketing Mojo, describes a lead form as an “exchange of goods.” The exchange: Marketers give a great piece of content and the reader gives her information in return. But, she says, “the person at the other end has to perceive that exchange as fair.” Marketers have to hold up their end of the bargain by giving the reader really useful content.

B2B buyers also don’t want to be pestered by the inevitable follow-up they get after filling out a form. As Rodrigo Fuentes, the founder of ABM vendor ListenLoop, wrote in a recent e-book:

“Few prospects want to give their dance card these days, and even when prospects provide their email, it’s either bogus or so flooded with other messages such that yours doesn’t get through.”

Buyers are doing more research online, but they want to do it without being hammered by sales emails and follow-up calls. I like the way ListenLoop describes that feeling: “Buyers want to know more, but they don’t want to ask you.”

Not One-Size-Fits-All: Marketers Can Test Different Kinds of Gating

While it’s true that marketers fall on both extremes of the gating debate (some are gating everything, some are gating nothing), there are a lot of possibilities for marketers in the middle.

Red Hat: Ungating Almost Everything

Open-source software company Red Hat is leading the way in ungating content. Then-CMO Jackie Yeaney told me about the logic behind the company’s ungating plan:

“We’ve been working hard to ungate as much of our content as we can — require NO input from the user, and when we do require something we make it minimal. Yes, sometimes using more traditional lead forms is appropriate. If someone signs up for your webinar, you get fairly detailed information. But it’s about engaging them before you ask. Don’t push for the information the first time. Let them raise their hand instead of demanding it from them.”

“We started ungating about two years ago, and now we’re approximately 70 percent ungated,” Jackie says. “We’re also bringing content out of our partner portal so it’s available to everyone. My argument is, you spent all this energy on this new content, so don’t you want the world to see it? Wouldn’t you rather 1,000 people see it versus 20?”

WhatUsersDo: ‘Flipping’ the Lead-Gen Process

Timi Olotu, a copywriter and marketer at UX testing company WhatUsersDo, decided to start ungating all new content. He wanted to improve the user experience and get his content in front of more people. The experiment worked — he shared the ungated content on sites like GrowthHackers and “hit the jackpot.” “If you don’t gate content, you can share it widely and let the quality speak for itself,” he says.

Since he removed the initial gate on content, Timi says he has found creative ways to convert readers into leads, “flipping” the lead-gen process. “Instead of tricking people into giving you their email address, you give them value first,” he says. “Once you’ve delivered, you can persuade them to take the next step.” For WhatUsersDo, that means adding calls to action to sign up for a free trial or to subscribe to the company’s email newsletter.

Turning the process on its head has worked for WhatUsersDo. Timi says the quality of leads has improved, because “it’s strictly people who have gotten a taste” of what WhatUsersDo is offering and want more, instead of “people who are projecting they might be interested.”

Ion interactive: Testing Gating for Each Asset

Justin Talerico has worked with major brands in many industries, and he’s learned that success rates for gating is contextual. “Some assets work better gated up front,” he says, “and some work better gating much later” (with a call to action after the user has read some content).

“It’s not like you can say, ‘I’m going to ungate and it will perform better,’ ” he says. “You have to test gated versus ungated, and test how content performs for different traffic sources.

“Content doesn’t perform consistently across different kinds of traffic,” he says. “If people trust you, they’re willing to fill out a form. But in other contexts, you have to prove worth and value before they’ll give you their information in exchange.”

He also advocates a nuanced gating strategy. “We don’t say ‘ungate everything,’ ” he says. “Even something that’s fully ungated will have a gate somewhere — if you want the premium content, or to email it to yourself, or get a PDF takeaway. It doesn’t keep you from getting the content; we just ask you to trade your data in exchange for the premium version.”

What’s Next: Creating a Better Content Experience

Just as buyers are becoming more discerning about the content they’ll download, they’re growing less tolerant of bad content experiences and outdated formats (I’m looking at you, PDFs).

Justin thinks we’re going to see a massive change in expectations over the next few years, as the web-buying audience gets younger and younger. “They’re not going to tolerate content in old formats. They have no patience for it,” he says. “People are accustomed to elegant app-like experiences that are extremely usable. They want to switch easily between phone, tablet and desktop.”
But the PDF is horrible, and it offers marketers little measurement, he says. So ion is experimenting with more interactive content experiences, with content hosted on responsive web pages instead of locked away in PDFs. “We’ve seen good results,” he says. “It’s heartening that the landing page with the form is not the ultimate user experience.”

He says marketers should ask themselves: “How can we have a digital dialogue with people and give them information that helps them? How can we turn content into something they would have paid for?”

In the end, he says, the success of any content strategy boils down to usefulness. If you ungate bad content, he says, no one will convert. But if you ungate great content that’s valuable, people will want to save it for later, send it to themselves and link back to it later.