The term "gated content" most often applies to a content product, such as an eBook or PDF available to download, that a customer must "pay for" with their email address.
Here are some examples:
I hate gated content. I don't want to give you my email address as payment for content I haven't seen yet (and might not even like), with no idea of how you're going to use it in the future.
I didn't sign up because I wanted you to email me.
I gave you my email address because I wanted your content, and you required my email address as payment.
What kind of brand loyalty have you built up with me now? None. In fact, if the content I downloaded is not amazing, or even if it's just not applicable to me, I'm going to regret giving you my email address. I'm going to look out for emails from you so I can unsubscribe, because I didn't want them in the first place. A lot of people in my situation won't unsubscribe, but they won't read your emails, either. You'll pay to send them email after email, and every time they'll see your brand's name in their inbox and think, I wish I didn't get those emails anymore, but it's such a pain to unsubscribe.
Is that how you want people to think about your brand?
I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing. — [Title of Show]
The reason marketers "gate" their content behind an email subscription form is to grow their mailing lists. They often boast about the huge numbers they have. Do they boast about their open rates? About their engagement? About how every one of those 50,000 subscribers opted-in of their own volition because the newsletter is that good, and they can't wait to get it every week?
I don't think they do.
Because that's not true. Gimmicks like gated content will grow your list. There's no doubt about that. They will not improve your brand perception or grow the number of loyal subscribers you have—at least not noticeably.
How many times have you been stopped by a chugger on the street and talked into making a donation? Have you ever walked away with a good feeling about that charity? It's pretty rare. The experience of being stopped by a chugger is so confronting, uncomfortable, and obviously insincere (how many people's shirts can they "just looooove" in one day?!) that they're getting names and money without improving their brand loyalty. When you walk about from a chugger with a new recurring subscription (Sucker! Yeah... I've done that twice), it's a pain to get out of, just like unsubscribing from an email newsletter. Sure, you're paying money every month now, but how do you justify not contributing to charity anymore? And can you really be bothered calling them up and going through the cancellation process?
Nah, too much effort. Better just let them keep charging you and quietly resent them forever. Like all those gyms that got a year's worth of fees out of you for two visits (Sucker! Yeah... I've also done that before).
Is that how you want people to think about your brand?
Here's the thing about gated content (by which I specifically mean content that is only offered as part of a transaction, where the payment is offering up your email address): putting your content behind a "gate" makes you a gatekeeper. Those people we're all excited to be able to get around now? That's you. You're the person everyone resents for limiting access.
And you're implying that you don't trust your customers. If you trusted them, why would you put up a gate? Why would you make them pay with their email addresses to get your content?
You might say they're not your customers yet, since you don't have their email address. Guess what. They're not your customers after you have their email address. They're your inbox prisoner.
Stop taking prisoners. Love the customers you have.
None of us wants to have prisoners on our email lists. We might like to boast about how big our lists are, but if someone really doesn't want our emails, we don't want to keep sending them. We definitely don't want to pay to send emails to people who don't want them.
So how do you grow your list with just loyal (or, at least, potentially loyal) customers? Start out with an upside-down funnel. Pour love into your existing audience. Thank them for the loyalty they've already shown. If you have people on your mailing list who've stuck with you for months or years already and always open your emails, thank them! They deserve it. And talk to them more. Get to know them, because they're exactly the type of customer you want more of on your list.
Secondly, take down the gate. Don't freak out yet—I'm not suggesting you give away your super amazing life-changing whitepapers for free. Rather, give them to people who sign up to your list, as a thank you. Use that awesome content you have to thrill and surprise people who already want your emails. Rather than tricking them into being on your list, let them decide your emails are good enough for their inbox (if they're not, this is where you should be focusing, rather than on gated content), and then reward them by giving them great stuff for free that they can't get elsewhere.
Imagine someone gets one of your emails forwarded from a friend, and visits your site as a result. They got a lot of value out of the email, and they spend half an hour reading your blog and decide that you've got lots to teach them and they want to keep up with everything new that you're putting out. They sign up for your mailing list, and a few minutes later they get a welcome email that thanks them for trusting you to respect their inbox by only sending great stuff, and offers them a free, exclusive download of a relevant PDF guide or eBook.
Not only did they get a warm welcome to an email list they voluntarily signed up for, but they were rewarded for trusting you with their email address. They were already happy to sign up for your list. They didn't need convincing that it would be valuable—you'd done that part already. You went above and beyond to share more value with them and thank them for making the effort of signing up. What a valued customer they must be, and what a respectful company you must be.
Isn't that how you want people to think about your brand?