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Tear Down Those Walls

  |  May 9, 2012   |  Comments

Is walling off your content hurting your business?

If you're a news junkie, you've probably run up against The New York Times' paywall at some point. I certainly have. And usually I just give up on the article I wanted to read and move along to the next website demanding my attention.

The New York Times spends a lot of money to create the high-quality content it has, and its business model depends on getting people to pay for that content. That strategy seems to be working for the newspaper so far.

Still, that paywall turns plenty of people away, and your site may be doing the same if you make users fill out a form before they can access your content - even if you're not asking for payment. Many businesses do it, and it's time to examine whether it's really the best strategy.

Why Do Organizations Wall Off Their Content?

Reasons vary. In the case of a paywall, the reason is pretty obvious - to make money through subscribers. This approach is taken by sites whose sole purpose is producing content: newspapers, online magazines, and other sites with high-demand content. (Whether this is a good or bad business strategy is a discussion for another time.) There are also sites that simply don't want all their content to be visible to the public. This can include membership organizations, corporate intranets, etc.

Other businesses ask users to register for content because they use their content as a tool for lead generation. Often, they also view registration as a way to keep their content from falling into enemy hands. It's this group that should think hard about whether content walls are really helping them achieve their goals.

How Do Walls Hurt?

On a basic level, a registration wall means your content will be seen by fewer people. In his book "Lose Control of Your Marketing," David Meerman Scott states, "I have evidence from several companies that have offered information both with and without a registration requirement that when you eliminate the requirement of supplying personal information, the number of downloads or views goes up by as much as a factor of fifty." People looking for information online are generally busy and task-oriented. They often don't have time to jump through your hoops - and they don't have time to take your sales calls, especially if it's early in the prospect's buying cycle.

Also, web users are becoming increasingly wary about who they give their information to. Even if people are willing to take the time to fill out your form, they may not be willing to give you their personal information. The result is you'll get less traffic for your content, which means less sharing on social networks, less linking, less commenting, and less reach for your brand.

When Should You Use a Wall?

Some businesses decide they're happy to reach fewer people, as long as they get information from the people they do reach. If you have content that is truly unique and very high quality, you could make a case for putting that content behind a wall for that reason.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn't build an open relationship between you and your prospective customers. Instead, it sets up a tit-for-tat exchange, where you only give visitors access to your content if they implicitly consent to receiving a call from your salespeople or streams of email. What might people then assume about your company and how open and helpful you will be with your paying customers?

You need to look at why you are creating the content on your website. If it's to serve your customers, show your expertise, or publicize your brand, then making your content free to all will best serve those purposes.

You can also consider less painful ways to gather information about your users. Ask for contact information after a user has read your content (as David Meerman Scott does with his own ebooks). If they found value in it, then they'll want to get updates from you and will be more likely to give you their information. If you must use a registration form, ask for as little personal information as you absolutely need (name and email address at most).

Content can indeed be used for lead generation, but it doesn't have to be coercive. Instead, you can use your content to build a relationship with your customers. If they find your content valuable, they'll return to your site again and again. And eventually, when they need your services, they'll feel confident doing business with you and will willingly give you their information. This approach invites your customers to see you as a partner, rather than a predator.

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Sarah Negugogor

As a senior information architect in Siegel+Gale's Simplification practice, Sarah Negugogor creates clear, user-centered communications that connect with their audience.

Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.

As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.

Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.

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