Here’s an experment for you to try.
Open your web stats app and check out which pieces of content are your top performers over the past month. (By top performers, I mean on key ‘attention measurements’ such as time on page – these are the things that tell you if people are really interested and engaged.)
What comes out top?
If you have a blog, or if you’re in the habit of publishing white papers or opinion pieces then my money’s on them. Am I right?
Here’s my hypothesis: for B2B web sites, the content that really matters in terms of positioning and prospecting isn’t your ‘markitecture’ pages – your product and services descriptions, corporate histories and such…. it’s your ‘thought leadership’ pages – the places where you express opinions and ideas rather than features and benefits.
More to the point, having done detailed analyses of a mass of B2B technology web sites, I can tell you that this rule holds firm for our entire industry, without exception (and, I’d hazard a guess, it does so in any information-hungry B2B market).
To give you a feel for it, here’s our top content stats for the year to date… (Note: we measure our content performance by establishing an ‘Attention Index’ – average time on page x number of page views…. and we only include those pages that have held people’s attention for more than two minutes.)
(Click to open!)
Putting the blog aside for a moment, this is interesting because unlike most of the B2B technology industry, we make a point of giving our most interesting content away for free. Most firms take a strategic decision to lock prime content such as white papers away below a subscription line, and often within secure ‘walled gardens’ that render it almost completely inaccessible to all but the most motivated of site visitors.
The consequences are obvious. If you lock your most valuable, compelling content away beneath a subscription line, then you’re missing a proven opportunity to help your prospects select you.
The rationale for ‘content locking’ is straight forward. You hold out the promise of access to an interesting piece of content in exchange for a visitor’s personal information – usually a name and an email address. This is the concept on which ‘web-to-lead’ forms are built to support the growth of CRM ‘lead’ databases.
I think this approach is fundamentally flawed, and also detrimental to driving quality sales leads.
Why? Because if you lock your content below a subscription line, it’s not just sales prospects that you’re hiding from: you’re also hiding from Google.
Put simply, if your content is sat behind a firewall, then Google’s spiders can’t reach it. This means a big loss of SEO traction, since your ‘thought leader’ content is likely to be your most valuable in SEO terms – it’s going to be stuffed with all the key phrases and concepts that you want search engines to associate your site with. Also, if it’s sat beneath the subscription line then you’re discouraging other sites from linking to it – which is illogical from an SEO point of view (good SEO practice means helping sites to link to you).
Furthermore, what of the people that you lose along the way? To me, a commitment to form-filling is no great measurement of the quality of a sales lead. A far better tactic is to set your thought leadership content free and give people more ‘opportunities to engage‘ with who you are and what you stand for. In this way (and this is the flip side of ‘web-to-lead’ thinking) you give yourself more opportunities to convince the skeptics – the people who until this point believe in your competitors not you, or those who have chanced upon your site during some desk research. Let’s face it, most of us are commitment-phobes when it comes to the web anyway. Why not just accept this fact and move on?
Instead, we ought to be finding better, more intelligent and subtle ways of establishing leads. There are better deals to offer our prospects than ‘give me your names and I’ll give you some content’…. deals that don’t carry an SEO penalty. We can divide our content in different ways, and base a ‘lead generating’ offer on a really big ticket content item, after we’ve provided people with the opportunity to see all our other great stuff. For example, an offer for a piece of industry research can be embedded in a free white paper. Isn’t this a better place to pop the question? Wouldn’t the quality of resulting leads be better?
Whatever – my point is that a bog standard web-to-lead form slapped on as a firewall to the content that people (and Google) really care about is clumsy and negligent.
Here’s some questions to ask yourself:
- What’s your most valuable and engaging content?
- Do you make you accessible enough?
- What’s the upside of providing more opportunities to engage with it?
- What’s the downside of removing a subscription line?
- How scientific is your answer to the previous question? (Gut feeling, conventional wisdom, or based on small side-show experiment and validated by stats?)
I’d encourage you to play around with these thoughts and, if you’re not a fully paid up member of the free content brigade, to tweak the presentation of some of your content and see what it gives you…