Determining Whether You Should Have a Free, Gated, or Members-Only Content Model

Kabzamaloney_determining_whether_you_should_have_a_free_gated_or_members_only_content_model March 7, 2022 By: Mary Kabza and Kate Maloney

Associations produce lots of content relevant not only to their members but also to their broader industry or profession. Deciding whether that content should be completely free or locked down to generate revenue or leads can be difficult. One association’s process may offer advice on how to better make those decisions.

For many associations, their content has been available only to members as a benefit or to nonmembers through a subscription. However, as marketing efforts have moved almost entirely online, free content became a critical component for driving interest in an association’s area of expertise and for generating traffic to its digital and social channels. The tradeoff for doing this has often been a reduction or complete loss of revenue generated by the content.

In today’s environment, most associations understand the value of both free thought leadership content and revenue-generating content. But less clear is when a piece of content should be designated as available at no cost and when a piece of content should be part of the association’s revenue model.

Our organization, the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), set out on a journey (we called it a “content lock-down strategy”) to determine which audiences should have access to different types of content. We knew some content should be totally open, some should be available only with a login, and some should be members-only. Here’s a look at what went into determining our strategy.

Involve Stakeholders in Decision-Making

To kick off our process, we inquired with a half-dozen colleagues at other associations about their approaches to this challenge. However, no one that we talked with painted a “soup-to-nuts” picture on how to get buy-in from all stakeholders and how to avoid repercussions from within their organizations for locking down content.

Next, we built a cross-functional team at AAPA to facilitate maximum buy-in and feedback as we went through this transformation. In addition, we leveraged our in-house research team to conduct a survey of our users and members to factor in their perspectives. Finally, we conducted a full site audit and asked each site section’s stakeholders if content should be fully open, available with a login to generate new leads, or available only to members with a login as a benefit of membership.

Ultimately, each association will need to decide the right mix of paid and free content on their site, depending on the value of their content, type of membership, and organizational goals.

Trial-and-error experimentation has been the key to successful execution. We have increased the number of locked-down webpages, and with each newly created webpage, we ask stakeholders if the content should be open, require a login, or members only.

Our marketing team uses gated access to selectively lock down webpages for generating leads. This is an ongoing effort that requires the team’s active engagement. Response to leads needs to be timely and accurate to be successful. In addition, requiring visitors to login helps to facilitate content personalization, a benefit to them. Currently, members receive tailored and similar content, but moving forward web personalization will become more sophisticated.

Different Approaches for Different Sections

For the News Central section on our site, which features news, PA and PA student profiles, career articles, and other audience-specific stories, we metered the content much like the approach adopted by major news publishers. We did not want to lock down all content only to members, as some of the content provides information about membership products, benefits, and events.

In addition, News Central content could entice new members to join, helping the organization with lead-generation goals. Plus, since much of News Central’s traffic comes from social media, we did not want that audience to hit locked content with each click.

With this metered approach, we allow visitors to access three articles per month before they must have a member login. Visitors are reminded that they need to log in on each of the first three articles by a banner at the bottom of the page. The banner counts down the articles that they have left and includes a “create account” option, as well as a “sign-in to your account” option.

When visitors reach their monthly quota, the first part of the content (a sneak peek) is displayed before it starts to gray out and a friendly login/create account message prevents them from accessing the content in full. Meanwhile, sponsored content and press release content is fully open for the benefit of all visitors.

Ultimately, each association will need to decide the right mix of paid and free content on their site, depending on the value of their content, type of membership, and organizational goals. In our experience, a cross-functional team, a nuanced and flexible approach, and some trial and error resulted in a successful strategy.

Mary Kabza

Mary Kabza is web strategy director at the American Academy of Physician Associates in Alexandria, Virginia.

Kate Maloney

Kate Maloney is director of internal communications at the American Academy of Physician Associates in Alexandria, Virginia.