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    February 22, 2012 // 12:30 PM

    The Pros and Cons of Form-Free Content (And Which to Choose)

    Written by Corey Eridon | @

    free content debateintermediate

    There's one thing that absolutely all excellent inbound marketers have in common. Can you guess what it is?

    It's that they are all remarkable content creators. That means they create and publish high quality content -- webinars, ebooks, blog posts, case studies, etc. -- and they do it on a consistent basis.

    But where some inbound marketers start to diverge is in their decision to deploy that content behind a form, or keep it form-free for all the world to see with no exchange of information. There are pros and cons to each method, and inbound marketers are still discussing which method is best. Let's outline the pros and cons of form-free content, and delineate when exactly it makes sense to choose one method over the other.

    The Benefits of Form-Free Content

    When your content isn't gated behind a form -- like this blog post, for example -- it is going to be consumed by more people. Why is that a good thing? Let's break down the benefits of more eyes on your content.

    • Enabling Content Evangelism: The more eyes you get on your content, the more people will share it socially and via email. Not just because the probability increases that someone will read your content in the first place -- thus a corresponding higher rate of sharing -- but because people are less likely to tweet, email, or post a link to a form for their friends and colleagues. It's not unheard of; it's just less likely. David Meerman Scott, an advocate of form-free content, has noticed that content assets actually have a 50x higher rate of download when they are form-free. This means your content and ideas will spread faster and further without the barrier of a form, and by extension so does your thought leadership.
    • Better SEO: Typically, marketers don't search engine optimize gated content, since the goal is visitor-to-lead conversion, not SEO ranking. But if you publish more form-free content, you'll have more keyword-optimized indexed pages that can appear in search engine results pages.
    • More Inbound Links: Other online publications are more likely to link to your content if it's form-free because they don't want to send visitors to a part of your site that requires them to fill out a form. And we all know why inbound links are important, right?
    • More Site Traffic: Better SEO and more content sharing means you're going to drive more traffic to your site -- both new and repeat visitors as your reach grows and you build a loyal audience.

    The Drawbacks of Form-Free Content

    More site traffic, better SEO, constant social sharing? Sounds great; let's do the form-free content, right? Well if the title of this section wasn't a dead giveaway, there are some drawbacks to the form-free marketing lifestyle. Consider these reasons why gated content may be the way to go.

    • Lower Quality Leads: You might be getting more, raw leads by keeping your content ungated -- that outcome is business-specific. But you're more likely to get qualified leads through gated content. There is a higher barrier to entry with content behind a form -- it has to be interesting enough for someone to want to give over their personal information to retrieve. But because of that, you know the lead is truly interested in your company's content. Like Mike Volpe notes in the video debate, what's the value of a view versus a contact? If your business runs on leads, 2,800 qualified contacts are more valuable than 50,000 views.
    • Inconsistent Lead Volume: It's harder to get a consistent volume of leads with form-free content, because you simply have fewer sources from which to collect leads. It's hard to be a marketing executive that not only can't set realistic lead generation goals, but also can't guarantee a set number of leads to the sales organization every month. No marketer wants to hope for successful lead generation -- gated content gives more opportunity for an accurate forecast that can be scientifically executed based on past performance.
    • Fewer Conversion Events Means Poorer Lead Intelligence: Every time a visitor or lead fills out a form, you have the opportunity to both confirm/update information you already have about them, and learn more about them. There's usually a higher lead-to-customer conversion rate for leads with multiple conversion events; part of that can be attributed to the fact that Sales has more information about the leads, and that information is more accurate. Knowing more about their leads lets them prioritize who to contact first based on which leads are more sales-ready, and historically have a higher likelihood of closing quickly at a high price point.
    • Less Control Over Lead Nurturing: With form-free content, you have to relinquish more lead nurturing control -- you didn't ask for their information, so how can you get back in touch with them unless they either bookmark your site (good job, your content must rock!) or passively come across your site again? That's often not enough control for a hungry inbound marketer looking to educate people who are interested in their company. When leads fill out a form, you can provide more educational content that is targeted to their needs so they move more swiftly through the sales funnel.

    Deciding Whether to Put Content Behind a Form

    One takeaway marketers could walk away with from this debate is that there are simply some content assets that lend themselves better to being form-free than others. And the rationale behind determining which assets to gate and which ones to leave ungated boils down to establishing a purpose behind each content asset. When you publish something -- a blog post, a case study, a whitepaper, an ebook, a webinar, a video -- what are you hoping to achieve with it? What's the point? Let's break down how to decide whether to keep your content assets form-free.

    The clearest example of a content asset that should remain form-free is blog content. Unless your end goal for blogging is something other than site traffic, more indexed content, establishing a thought leadership position, and better SEO, blog content should remain ungated. Your blog is one of the most powerful tools you have for organic search success, and putting that content behind a form is seriously compromising your website's success. That being said, you don't need to sacrifice lead generation from your blog entirely. Just be sure to add relevant calls-to-action for your form gated, lead gen content to each blog post you publish -- as well as to the top and/or sidebar of your blog (for an example, just scroll to the bottom of this post).

    There may be a few instances of businesses gating some of their product or service information -- and there might be a good reason (leave it in the comments!) for that decision. But content assets centered around your product or service like data sheets, FAQs, and case studies are more examples of content that should be available for everyone to read without a form. Do you really want to hinder someone's access to information about your company's solutions? Inbound marketers almost never get to talk about themselves -- this is your chance to do it guilt free, and to someone who actually wants to hear it! Don't make it harder for interested prospects to learn why they should become a customer of yours.

    So when would you use a form? If you look at the content assets most often associated with the first and last stage of the buying cycle -- 'Awareness' and 'Purchase' -- they generally seem to align with the instances in which marketers should gate their content if they're in the business of generating a consistent volume of leads.

    buying cycle content assets

    In the 'Awareness' stage, the content assets are purely educational, and not promotional of the company's product or service. Not everyone will want to provide their information in exchange for reading an ebook or watching a webinar, but the fact is, you're providing free education. Those that are invested enough in learning more about the solutions your company helps solve are going to be willing to fill out a form to retrieve that information. And that's what helps you distinguish who is a qualified lead, and who is still in the low-commitment phase of browsing your website, reading your blog, and checking out your social media accounts to get information.

    In the 'Purchase' stage of the buying cycle, there's a little less gray area. You're offering high-commitment content that frankly requires the exchange of information. It's pretty hard to give a free estimate to someone, for example, without a form being filled out. Prospects understand that, and are more often than not willing to comply.

    All this being said, inbound marketers know that this isn't an exact science. We wouldn't be debating it if it was. That's because some businesses sell a product or service that is more complex than others. In the debate on this subject, Volpe and Scott discuss Dropbox as an example of a company successfully generating customers without using gated content. Leads simply sign up for a free trial, download Dropbox, and then decide whether to purchase after the trial expires. If you have a less complex product or service like Dropbox, this approach of largely form-free content may work. For companies whose products and services require more education and explanation -- often those with a longer buying cycle -- a mix of form-free and gated content is most appropriate. Form-free content drives the traffic, and gated content converts that traffic, multiple times, so Marketing and Sales can properly nurture and prioritize those leads.

    Finally, keep in mind that using forms means your content should have a reputation for being consistently remarkable. Leads will be less and less willing to part with their personal information to redeem your content assets if there's not sufficient return in content quality.

    On which side of the form-free content debate do you fall? Share your reasoning in the comments!

    Image credit: garryknight

    lead-gen-ebook

    Topics: Lead Generation

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