Want to increase sign ups? See an increase in your subscriptions? Generate extra income? You should consider implementing a content gate.

Gated content is probably most recognisable in the media. For example, if an online newspaper grants only a certain number of free articles or gives a partial read before requiring a subscription, they are employing a content gate.

Broadly speaking, however, anything which restricts access to content in some way can be classified as a gate. Get this tactic right, and these can be an effective way to gather additional income, subscriptions, or contact details.

Get it wrong and your customers will feel alienated and be put-off by the restricted access.

If you’re thinking about enhancing your content efforts with a gate, then there are a variety of considerations to bear in mind. Yet, the most important one is the following:

Understand your audience

Now, let’s discuss this in practice using one of the most recognisable fictional characters in history – Darth Vader.

The dark side of content gates

Full disclosure – I’m a huge science fiction geek and one of my favourite franchises is Star Wars. Although I never got to pursue my childhood dream of becoming an X-Wing pilot, video games offered me – and the legions of fans – an opportunity to take down the Empire.

When EA (Electronic Arts) announced the video game Star Wars Battlefront 2, fans were delighted. Especially because the gameplay looked incredible. However, it soon emerged that all was not what it seemed. In the words of a popular character turned internet meme:

The game was launching with a controversial gate system where, to unlock Darth Vader as a playable character, a purchaser would need to play the game for around 40 hours. Alternatively, they could pay real money to speed up the process. Then, repeat for more ‘hero characters’ such as Luke Skywalker.

To many of the game’s customers, this was a mistake as it failed to fulfil their expectations of what the product should represent. When implementing a content gate, the restriction must be fair. Putting arguably one of the most iconic parts of Star Wars behind a gate was not something the customers expected and, consequently, they reacted angrily to the news.

The news created so much controversy that an EA representative took to Reddit to explain the company’s motivations stating the long unlock times were to provide ‘a sense of accomplishment’.

The fans did not accept this reasoning, generally feeling the ‘sense of accomplishment’ was rendered void by being able to speed up the process with real money. As a result, that comment is the most downvoted in Reddit history.

You don’t know the power…of your customer base

Usually, outrage has limited consequences – especially online. However, this then started to translate into the real world when thousands of fans started cancelling their pre-orders for the game. In response, EA attempted to soften the blow by cutting the cost of hero characters by 75%.

Once the game launched, it was not nearly as successful as it could have been. Almost two weeks after the game’s release, EA’s stock value had decreased by around $3billion. Walt Disney, which owns the Star Wars brand, even weighed in on the disaster with executives concerned how this “reflected on their marquee property”.


Star Wars symbol of the Rebel Alliance

Rebellions are built on hope

Nearly four months after the game was released, EA relented. The payment system for Darth Vader and the other hero characters was scrapped and customers would now only be able to pay real money for cosmetic items.

What can we learn from this?

Regardless of how big your company is, you can never afford to alienate your customer base. EA implemented a content gate so unpopular that it adversely affected their stock and arguably almost cost them a corporate partnership. It didn’t even make sense as executives didn’t consider the game’s primary audience:

  • Star Wars fans are not a group of kids or teenagers. In fact, the average fan is actually a 34-year-old male. An adult in his thirties likely has commitments, kids, a job, family. Regardless, they probably don’t have 40 hours to spend on a video game.
  • Although the stereotype of a gamer is a teenager sitting in a basement, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The average age is actually 35 and they can be either male or female. Consequently, they also have commitments and dont have the time to spend unlocking characters.  

Therefore, understanding your audience is vitally important to determining if a content gate is going to work. As well as this, you should adhere to the following:

Is the content available elsewhere?

In media, content gates work effectively  when dealing with niche industries. For example, due to its reliable business-focused coverage, the Financial Times exceeded 900,000 paying subscribers in 2017. Yet, this system collapses if big news occurs because the information is available from a variety of free competitors.

While EA implemented their content gate probably feeling only they have access to the Star Wars brand, there are a variety of competitor video games which offered similar experiences – just in a different setting.

If an alternative is available, either or free or for a fairer price, your customer base will likely go elsewhere instead of subscribing to the content gate. Therefore, when implementing this strategy, ensure your gate is offering something exclusive.

Would I be tempted by this?

When deciding whether to implement a content gate, decisions must be made as to its fairness. I advise putting yourself in the shoes of your target audience (again, this requires a good understanding of your customer base) and determining if you would be convinced.

EA’s example is a relatable one because our time is precious. 40 hours is an entire working week. Would you be willing to spend that amount of time unlocking something and then repeating it? Chances are, EA’s executives wouldn’t. Alternatively, would you pay money to get something you were probably expecting for free?

Simply put, if your gate doesn’t even tempt you to convert, chances are it won’t be successful.

Is my content worthy of a gate?

Content gates only work if what you’re producing is the best. It’s time to be honest with yourself and decide if what you’ve put together is worthy of exclusivity. For example, arguably due to their excellent Donald Trump-related coverage, gated publication The New York Times saw their number of digital-only subscribers increase by 25% YoY (Year-on-Year) during the first quarter of 2018.

If you’re regularly producing the best, a content gate is easier to swallow. Otherwise, your consumers will go somewhere else – probably a competitor which offers it for free.

What value is my gate providing?

A content gate must always provide an incentive. EA failed because they were restricting access to something which customers thought they would get for free. Therefore, it is  generally advisable to use a partially gated system so subscribers can have the first part of the piece. A content gate provides extra, surplus value.

What am I using my content gate for?

In EA’s case, the organisation used a content gate to generate income. Although this backfired, content gates can be used for a variety of different purposes. For example, they can be used to generate subscriptions, capture an email address, or notify users about similar content.

Not all content gates have to be financial. For more information on this, I’d recommend reading Scott’s blog post regarding giving content away for nothing.

Come to the light side

You might be interested to know I was planning on purchasing Star Wars Battlefront 2 on release until the content gate was announced. I believed the restriction was unfair and spent my money somewhere else.

Instead, I recently purchased it in a sale for £15. This is much cheaper than the £50 I would have happily paid for it months ago. Therefore, this should bring hope if your content gate has the opposite effect and drives readers away. Listen to your customers, repair the damage, perhaps offer an enticement to come back (such as the cheaper price) and your audience might return.

A content gate, if implemented well, can be an effective tool to boost a variety of different metrics. If you’re interested in learning more about these, get in touch with with the content team at CandidSky today. We have experience in implementing these and we’d be happy to help.