Is ‘Voluntary Registration’ Smart Marketing for White Papers?

By Michael Stelzner

Are you using white papers to collect business leads? Are white paper registration forms ‘old school marketing?’  Is it better to let white papers roam free with the hope that they’ll magically draw opportunity?

These are very important questions you should ask yourself.  And perhaps nothing has spurred the debate more than the mass adoption of social media marketing.  Many businesses are experiencing the viral marketing benefits of unleashing their white papers.  Some of the benefits of letting the paper free include:

  • Quick access for readers
  • Less barriers to the actual paper, increasing the number of readers
  • Greater likelihood people will share the white paper among their social media fans

Heck, I’ll be one of the first to say that the value of this method really does work IF your primary objective is exposure. Case in point,  the Social Media Marketing  Industry Report  was read by 40,000 people in mere weeks and did not require registration.

However,  marketing isn’t just about numbers of readers.  Yes, numbers matter.  However, if your objective is to generate quality leads then you really need to ask yourself what’s more important, lots of unknown readers OR many qualified names, e-mails and phone numbers.

Here’s one thing I can share about the success of the above report: Among its 40,000+ readers, less than a few dozen voluntarily e-mailed me and said this is really great, we’d like to work with you.  In fact, I can only recall three or four strong prospects from among those tens of thousands of readers.  If my goal was lead generation, it would have been a dismal failure (that was not my objective).

The real fine balance we face as marketers is:

1. Do we focus on collecting the lead by gating a paper with a registration form, or

2. Do we focus on exposure by providing free immediate access to a white paper.

Now it seems, a new idea has emerged, known as voluntary registration. What follows, is my assessment of the value of voluntary registration.

So here’s the deal, I came across an article from MarketingSherpa that introduced the concept of voluntary registration.  Simply said, voluntary registration asks readers to fill out a form prior to reading a white paper, but says the form is optional.

The theory behind voluntary registration forms is: you can increase your readership and increase the number of quality leads.  So, in not so many words, the claim is you can have your cake and eat it too.

The practice is to drive someone to a landing page where they are presented two options. Option one is to fill out the form to receive the white paper. Option two is to simply hit the submit button on the form, leaving  all the fields blank and also receive the white paper.

MarketingSherpa presented Australian-based PharmOut  as a case example. I was able to locate their optional registration form and take a close look at it. Click here to view the form.

At first glance, it looks like any other white paper registration form, but the words “(no registration necessary)” are included.  Beyond the obvious flaws of the page (not tied to a specific white paper, …), I have some major concerns to share.

But first, did the page actually improve readership and lead generation?  According to MarketingSherpa, click-through rates on the registration form increased 15.38% when prospects were told registration was optional.  In addition 16% of people visiting the page provided contact information over the course of six weeks.

Does this prove that optional registration is a viable option for white papers?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  And the reason I’m not sure is because of all the flaws on the registration page.

For example, the page says, “If you think the downloaded document is useful and would like to be notified when others are available, please fill out the form below. But only is (sic) you want to…….. We’ll send you an email when a new white paper, protocol is available.”

So it’s not very clear how this form was used in the sales cycle.  It seems that they’re referring to something that already was downloaded based on the above text.  If that’s the case, then you have to question how people are finding the landing page in the first place.

My guess is that this company drove people to this landing page, telling them they could register for a specific white paper.

One of the other problems is that after the submit button is filled out, they dump you to this page—simply a long list of stuff you can download.

What does this mean?  It means that there really is no connection to any specific white paper going on here.

Summary: MarketingSherpa picked a really BAD example to introduce an interesting concept.  I think the jury is still out on whether voluntary registration is viable.  And, I have one last concern.  Some folks might not realize the form is optional because they are skim readers.  So I think the right case study needs to make it ultra-obvious the registration is not required.  It’s my guess that most folks will skip registration when given the option, ultimately lowering the number of qualified leads.

What say you??

Receive email updates when new articles are posted.

  • http://twitter.com/Jonathan_Kantor Jonathan Kantor

    Hi Mike,

    I'm in the middle of the road on this issue, since there are a lot of 'grey' areas on both sides:

    First, I'm against the lengthy registration forms that ask for a series of personal information. If lead generation is goal behind a free white paper then simply an email message (and possibly a first and/or last name) should suffice.

    On the other side, I guess I'm a pessimist based on human nature. If users have an option of providing personal information, I believe most will opt out and simply take the free white paper. At that point you might as well give it away.

    In either case the quality of the white paper must be high. If it is of high quality, online sharing via Social Media and ReTweeting will beat a path to the door of that white paper.

    Good thought provoking question. I'm sure there will be lots of responses and opinions.

    Jonathan

  • http://www.brittonmanasco.com/ Britton Manasco

    Great Topic. Two thoughts on this:

    First, it seems to me that the bar is being lifted on content generation, period. It's no longer enough in many cases to just produce white papers (and put them behind a registration page). Now, you have to produce reg-free content that leads the reader back to reg-required content.

    The best players, as I see it, are putting out compelling e-books for a wide audience that lead back to white papers. They use their e-books to entice prospects to go deeper — and seek more. (The e-book, in a sense, plays the role that a landing page and teaser copy used to play — albeit in a richer and more engaging way. Of course, you may still want to use the teaser copy/landing page to promote the e-book.)

    Second, there may be alternative approaches that deserve exploration. DocMetrics, for instance, has a technology that can embed a reg-form within a reg-free document. Once you've read the first half of it, the reg form emerges and requests (or demands) your reg information — either as an option (that can be ignored) or a requirement to read the rest of the document.

    I would be careful with this approach, particularly if you intend to require the reader to fill out the form mid-way. You must set expectations properly. You don't want to pull a bait and switch on people that will merely turn them into online detractors. So you may want to make registration — within the document itself — optional. But I would explore it.

    The point may be to use the “pop up” reg form to offer something that the existing document doesn't offer — something more exclusive. That is how you get them to register. Which brings us back to the original point: the bar has been lifted and expectations are rising.

    Best,

    Britton

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey Britton;

    I think the DocMetrics model is interesting. However, it is not ready for prime time.

    I analyzed it for possible use when releasing the Social Media Marketing Industry Report and it just had way too many shortcomings. I know it will be a while before that option is viable.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    Jonathan;

    There are actually a LOT of reasons not to use Docmetrics. Perhaps the biggest is that it does not render readable PDF files in Firefox or Safari on the Mac.

    Mike

  • http://www.kranzcom.com Jonathan Kranz

    Mike: Agreed, it is not a perfect solution. The issues with the Mac are a big obstacle — especially since most of the designers who create PDFs use Macs.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, though, but I think the issue is that the FORMS don't render on the Mac (Safari or Firefox). The PDF still appears — but w/out the form.

  • http://www.brittonmanasco.com brittonmanasco

    Good insight…didn't consider that one. Maybe the Docmetrics product engineers need to get to work on that one.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    When I ran my tests, the file did not render at all in a PDF browser. And the problem also occurred in FireFox for Windows (pretty sure on that, but my memory might be corrupted)

  • http://www.kranzcom.com Jonathan Kranz

    My experience? I got the files to render, but the forms wouldn't appear. And I couldn't manipulate the “create forms” feature correctly from the Mac.

    It's too bad, because the potential is great. But I suppose one could say that about so many emerging technologies…

  • http://twitter.com/fearlesscomp jeff ogden

    I've done both, 100% free and unencumbered. But then I decided to switch. Use a well-constructed landing page with an overview of the main topics. They can read this for free. But if they want the printable PDF, they have to just give me a name and email address.

    This seems to be working quite well.

  • http://www.kranzcom.com Jonathan Kranz

    There’s also a third option: embed the form (it can be obligatory or optional) INSIDE the document so that it never interrupts the download process. See Docmetrics.com if you’re interested.

  • Apryl Parcher

    An interesting test, but I have a question. Wouldn't the best approach be to offer a big chunk of the white paper without registration as a tease, and have them register if they want to read the whole enchilada?

    I agree with Jonathan that long registration forms are generally off-putting–but it depends on how badly I want to read the whole piece. If the opening copy I'm reading is compelling enough, I'll grit my teeth and fill out the long form to get the rest.

    But that first chunk had better be juicy…

  • http://twitter.com/Apryl_Parcher Apryl Parcher

    An interesting test, but I have a question. Wouldn't the best approach be to offer a big chunk of the white paper without registration as a tease, and have them register if they want to read the whole enchilada?

    I agree with Jonathan that long registration forms are generally off-putting–but it depends on how badly I want to read the whole piece. If the opening copy I'm reading is compelling enough, I'll grit my teeth and fill out the long form to get the rest.

    But that first chunk had better be juicy…

  • Walt Kania

    In my experience, your net results from white papers are pretty much the same whether you give them away free, or force people to give you information to market to them later.

    Your 'free' white paper got 40,000 downloads and a 'few dozen' inquiries. Ask people to reveal themselves and give you permission to pester them, and you'll get WAY fewer downloads. And maybe the same few dozen net good leads.

    Requiring people to registering just SCREAMS “I WILL SELL YOU AND PESTER YOU”. I would guess it's better not to do that. If your white paper is really good, and you have something to offer, people will contact you. If not, putting people on a pester list won't help that.

    But I could be wrong.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey Walt;

    Thanks for your comment. However, you are dead wrong on this one. Another paper I wrote gets about 15,000 registrations per year. From that, I get almost one inquiry per day from folks to hire.

    I think it all comes down to objective and content. In both cases, I had really excellent content. And in both cases I come up in top 4 on Google for the related keywords.

    HOWEVER, in the case where I ask for a registration, I always get better results.

  • http://www.brittonmanasco.com brittonmanasco

    I think it's worth recognizing that, generally speaking, free, reg-free content works best for individuals selling books and seeking speaking gigs. It's less clear to me that companies that sell complex solutions with a high price tag can benefit from this approach. They MUST HAVE registration information if they are to 1) track prospect behavior on their sites (using one of today's growing array of marketing automation tools); and 2) diligently follow up with their prospects (who often appreciate the effort and are inclined to end up working with the companies that have shown they care enough to keep up with them).

    What did Woody Allen say? 90% of success in life is showing up. Well, you can't show up if you don't know where to show up because you didn't gather any registration information in the first place.

  • http://www.brittonmanasco.com brittonmanasco

    I think it's worth recognizing that, generally speaking, free, reg-free content works best for individuals selling books and seeking speaking gigs. It's less clear to me that companies that sell complex solutions with a high price tag can benefit from this approach. They MUST HAVE registration information if they are to 1) track prospect behavior on their sites (using one of today's growing array of marketing automation tools); and 2) diligently follow up with their prospects (who often appreciate the effort and are inclined to end up working with the companies that have shown they care enough to keep up with them).

    What did Woody Allen say? 90% of success in life is showing up. Well, you can't show up if you don't know where to show up because you didn't gather any registration information in the first place.

  • http://www.onlineassociates.ae/ Fahed

    Hi Mike,

    Talk about excellent timing! I've been deliberating on this issue for the last 24 hours. The conclusion I've reached is to do no more than ask for their email (which we promise will be kept private and needed to send the download link to) with a checkbox to indicate whether they'd like to know when we add any more white papers, reports etc.

    My thoughts are that just giving the email reduces the registration barrier to the minimum, thereby finding the nearest to both worlds that we can get. What do you think?

    Also, on a related topic, assuming they did not check the box, would it be okay to follow them up (one-time only) with a personal message to see if there's scope to develop the lead.

  • http://www.eldercaremarketer.com/ Ryan Malone

    Mike,

    A lot of the decision comes from your trust and brand within your market. I make a decision whether something is worth it based on my relationships and/or knowledge of the provider. A great example is any of the white paper syndication companies – Tech Target, CMP, etc. The force registrations, but their readers are okay with it because they know they will get good content and trust CMP with their data.

    It also depends on the whether or not your goals are to build a list or get exposure. If you have a VERY strong call to action, you might decide you'd be better off just distributing and starting the sales cycle with the call to action.

    Net-net: case by case.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    Fahed;

    I think a one time acknowledgement would be fine if they did not check
    the box. That would be it however

    Sent from my iPod Touch

  • http://www.onlineassociates.ae/ Fahed

    Thanks… that's what I was thinking as well.

  • kateheaden

    Great discussion of a hot topic. I noticed David Meerman Scott weighing in on the same subject this week in regard to an article by Michele Linn: http://bit.ly/iUVhr

    Personally, I used to slog through all the questions they asked (including telling them that I was not making a purchase decision) and then would avoid my phone for the next few weeks as eager salespeople called me to discuss their product. Now I type in 123-456-7890 as my phone number.

    If the sales team would smarten up on their approach to the registrants, maybe more people would be willing to register with their real information. This is a great area for marketing and sales to put their heads together to figure out a smarter lead generation approach.

  • mikewilke

    Tough question, Mike!

    I believe a very short registration is best. In my world, the quality of leads is much more important than a large quantity of lower quality leads. So, whatever brings in more valuable leads is where I stand. At this point, voluntary registration probably won't move me toward my goal.

    The situation reminds of how some folks obtain followers on Twitter. One strategy places the emphasis on getting as many followers as possible. In my view, a huge number of followers would be nice, but not really useful.

    I would prefer to have fewer followers that I actually have something in common with. Of course, that goes for those I follow, as well.

  • robertdrew

    How focused your company gets towards targeting its white papers goes a long way towards being able to require detailed registrations – or needing to rely on email address-only registration, or voluntary registration etc. If a company offers assets specifically tailored to audience/market niche, past experience (point in sales cycle), and other variables, and is able to execute a content strategy around this model, this company is more likely to be able to command detailed registrations for the benefit of accessing a white paper. White paper users are more likely to put up with the registration because the white paper more closely speaks to their interests.

  • http://all-hosting-reviews.info/ Samson James

    Great discussion. According to me, white papers have to be put under registration. Also the process of registration should be short and simple.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner Michael A. Stelzner

    Approved

    Michael A. Stelzner – Creative Partner
    Stelzner Consulting
    Poway Heights Corporate Plaza
    13025 Danielson Street, Suite 108
    Poway, CA 92064

    Phone – 858.748.7800, x201
    Fax – 858.748.6014

    e-mail – mike@stelzner.com
    twitter – http://www.twitter.com/mike_stelzner
    url – http://www.stelzner.com
    blog – http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/

    “Great Minds Sync Alike”

  • randacodron

    Michael…I have the perfect solution to the dilemma of whether or not to gate your white paper content. In October 2009, Vitrium Systems will be launching a new product called PDFSalesLeads, a lead generation tool for your PDFs! The easy to use SaaS product places a form within the PDF allowing marketers to survey their readers while they are engaged with the content. PDFSalesLeads gives the reader the option to skip the form, therefore still allowing the reader to gain access to your content. It is a proven fact that a reader will be more inclined to hand over the information once they are engaged with your content…therefore giving you more better qualified leads. Web forms are a thing of the past its time for new tools to be used to put marketers ahead of their competition. Check it out at http://www.pdfsalesleads.com!

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com globalcopywrite

    Hi Mike,

    I'm late to the party on this discussion. I found it really useful so I bothered to read all the way through. The comment I wanted to make and, surprisingly, one nobody else touched on is this: Faced with an option not to register, I will take the paper for free EVERY SINGLE TIME. Even when I think I might do business with the people sponsoring the website in the future, if I don't have to, I don't leave details.

    I agree with Kate's comments about persistent sales people. (I was one of them myself so I know how they operate.) Unless I want a call, I never put my real phone number down. Honestly, if it's that important to me, I'll pick up the phone myself.

    My vote is to require registration to stymie the difficult customers like me but keep the form short, very short.

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com globalcopywrite

    Hi Mike,

    I'm late to the party on this discussion. I found it really useful so I bothered to read all the way through. The comment I wanted to make and, surprisingly, one nobody else touched on is this: Faced with an option not to register, I will take the paper for free EVERY SINGLE TIME. Even when I think I might do business with the people sponsoring the website in the future, if I don't have to, I don't leave details.

    I agree with Kate's comments about persistent sales people. (I was one of them myself so I know how they operate.) Unless I want a call, I never put my real phone number down. Honestly, if it's that important to me, I'll pick up the phone myself.

    My vote is to require registration to stymie the difficult customers like me but keep the form short, very short.

  • mikewilke

    Volume, for the sake of volume, is not important to me.
    The quality of leads is what matters.

    However, I do not agree that the “registration forms” should be long. Name, email address and either employer or position is enough.

  • mikewilke

    Volume, for the sake of volume, is not important to me.

    The quality of leads is what matters.

    However, I do not agree that the “registration forms” should be long. Name, email address and either employer or position is enough.