Content marketing for colleges—To gate or not to gate your content

Michael Lofstead

Associate Vice President, Digital Marketing Services

March 25, 2015

Previous posts on higher education content marketing:

1) Using content marketing to support online marketing campaigns
2) Paid interactive marketing for colleges
3) Six steps for effectively packaging content you already have
4) Content marketing: The psychology of the click

Gating content allows campuses to capture information from prospective college students and measure the success of their campaigns.
Gating content allows campuses to capture information from prospective college students.

In my prior blog post on using content marketing approaches as a tactic in higher education online marketing campaigns, I discussed a question I often get during consultations with campus partners I’m working with: “Why not just put the e-deliverable PDF download link or even the content within the e-brochure offer on the landing page, instead of making it available only following a form submission?”

In the prior post, I shared my main reason for gating an e-brochure: to only allow access to the offer once someone has submitted the contact form on your landing page. In this post, we’ll talk about the possible reasons higher ed marketers might consider delivering “ungated” content to test if that approach yields better outcomes.

Lower the barriers to generating student leads from landing page forms

When we broach the idea of “better outcomes,” we first need to define some terms so we have agreement on what our goals are. For the examples I’ve covered in this content marketing blog series, I’ve been making the assumption that inquiry or “lead generation” is the primary goal of the campaigns. If lead generation is the goal, there are two ways we can define a conversion to become a lead.

The first is the way many colleges and universities have historically defined inquiries (or “leads,” as I’ll refer to them here) as fully-formed records in their student information system. This may require only thinking of a student lead as an official inquiry if the school has captured a good deal of that student’s contact data, sometimes even including date of birth and social security number. However, that sets a very high bar in terms of the completeness of a contact record. It also does not match the approaches I’ve been describing in this blog series for using content marketing as a “carrot” to capture student data. Simply put, you are usually not going to want to ask for many data fields on a landing-page form, because it may discourage students from completing the form and making contact.

Instead of requiring a high number of data points for defining what constitutes an inquiry/lead, I recommend lowering the threshold for the purposes of online advertising. You want to have just enough to be able to continue marketing to that lead, or perhaps hold a follow-up telephone conversation with the student. Generally first/last name, email address, phone number (not required) and mailing address are recommended contact fields, and start term and student type are other common fields I recommend including on landing page forms.

Gating content provides metrics for success as well as points of contact

Now that we’ve defined our online campaign’s goal as being lead generation and we’ve defined what constitutes a lead (from a data capture perspective), we now have the ability to examine the main challenge introduced by “ungated” content marketing approaches: How will you measure the performance of your lead generation campaigns?

Gating content provides a clear measurement of both student interest and the effectiveness of a specific piece of online content. We can measure that success like this:

# of form submissions / total visitors (or clicks) to landing page = conversion rate

If we ungate the content, we lose our numerator to this key performance metric.

Now, you may be saying, “Yes, but isn’t our key measurement of success how many applications and enrollments we get from these marketing campaigns?” Again, we have two possible answers. The simple answer is, “Of course our goal is to influence enrollment.” The more accurate and strategic answer is: “Application and enrollments are not really the primary goal of a lead generation campaign, but instead an important step on each student’s path to application and enrollment. Once we capture the leads, then we can begin to send marketing information to them and have our counselors call.”

If you “ungate,” be sure you can still measure key goal metrics

Others of you (especially those familiar with Google Analytics) might be thinking, “There are ways to measure all the way to application completion.” You are correct; however, for many campuses, that involves heavy lifting to set up their web sites for that advanced flow tracking.

If you sit on a campus that has the ability to do such advanced web and marketing campaign analytics integration all the way through to submitted application, count yourself fortunate and then go ahead and move forward with that ungated versus gated content test!

If you sit on the majority of campuses that aren’t quite there yet, you now see why we are fans of gating content in most circumstances. I would recommend keeping your content gated so you can test what’s working, keep gaining information from your leads, and start building relationships with those students.

As always, I invite your questions and opinions in the comments, or send me an email. I also will be discussing how you can get students to those landing pages at a free webinar, Expanding Student Recruitment Through Paid Search and Online Advertising (April 9). I hope you will join me.

About the Author

Michael Lofstead offers more than  20 years of experience in higher education marketing and communications. His areas of expertise include interactive marketing (e.g., PPC/SEM, and social media paid strategies), online lead generation, content marketing, conversion...

Read more about Michael's experience and expertise

Reach Michael by e-mail at Michael.Lofstead@RuffaloNL.com.

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