Debate: Free Content vs. Requiring Registration

June 22, 2011
Should your content be free, or require registration?

Should the content you create for your website be free to anyone, or should users be required to register (ie. fill out a form) before they can read it? Let's take a look at the issue from both sides.

The case for free

Definition - Free content is content that can be viewed by anyone at any time, no sign-up or registration required.

The value - Registration forms can scare people away. If your goal is to have your content spread as far as possible, and be seen by as many people as possible, having it be free is the easiest way to do that.

The downside - No ability to track or nurture leads. You can set up a URL parameter to see how many people clicked on your content, but that’s about it. You don’t know their names, and you have no way to contact them again as part of a lead nurturing campaign. All you can do is hope they like your content enough to give you a call or send you an email.

The case for registration

Definition - Users will be required to give you their information (most common is name and email address) in exchange for the content you’ve written.

The value - Chances are good that the people you “chase away” with a registration form would not become qualified leads quickly, if ever. Better to weed out the lookie-loos and concentrate on those users who are more seriously interested in your content (and your business).

Also, by requiring that users register before viewing your content, you can place them on lead nurturing campaigns, which allows you to continue developing a relationship by providing them with content even after they have left your website. The benefits of lead nurturing are numerous, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

The downside - Chasing off potential leads by requiring more information than they are willing to give means that less people will view or share a link to your content, and it will be seen by far fewer people. From his research, David Meerman Scott estimates a 50:1 ratio of content that is free versus content behind a form; in other words, if a behind-a-form offer generated 1,000 downloads, that same content would receive 50,000 if it were free.

The case for compromise

Definition - Have a balanced mix of content that is free (blog articles, certain whitepapers) and content that requires registration (more complex whitepapers or case studies). David Meerman Scott has a great for compromise: Have your first offer, like an ebook, be totally free. Then within that ebook, have a secondary offer that requires registration, and will give you more qualified leads that you can then nurture.

The value - You get the best of both worlds: users who want free content can have it, and you have a way of capturing the information of more qualified leads.

The downside - Users might download and read all your free content, and simply never take that next step by filling out a form in exchange for an offer that is a bit further down the sales funnel. As I see it, however, that’s a risk you’ll always have to take, whether your content is free or not. There will always be users who take in your content and never become customers — don’t let that keep you from trying lead generation.

Your turn

So which is the "right" answer to this debate? Is there one at all? Give us your thoughts in the comments.