Walled Gardens Versus The Open Internet

April 10 2023
BY PETER SAYN-WITTGENSTEIN, PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 16, 2022 ON MEDIAPOST.COM

Being a technology marketer is more challenging than ever. By nature, the solutions and services you need to promote are complex. On top of that, you’re often dealing with multiple audience segments for the same product—each one having a different level of technical understanding.

That doesn’t add up to easy decision-making when it comes to deploying your digital marketing budget.

For most marketers, the default approach is to go with one of the 800-pound gorillas in the room like the Google Display Network, Meta Audience Network or Amazon Advertising. These walled gardens offer easy scale, but is their ‘take our word for it’ approach to data the right choice for your objectives? On the flip side, is the open internet (aka everyone else). Could your dollars be working harder for your brand outside the big three’s comforting walls?

Let’s take a closer look.

WALLED GARDENS

Walled gardens are closed ecosystems where one entity controls access to the audience, technology and ad inventory. Let’s take Facebook as an example. As a user, you log in, search, like, share, comment, then pop over to Instagram and go down a rabbit hole or two. That’s all juicy data that helps Mark Zuckerberg paint a reasonably detailed picture of who you are and what you like. Now multiply that by about three billion. The sum of all that data is the carrot that Facebook dangles in front of marketers—and they’re more than eager to pay for access. According to eMarketer, Meta, Google and Amazon are on track to gobble up 64% of the ~$200 billion spent on digital ads in the U.S. in 2022.

PROS

SCALE MADE EASY

With so much data at their disposal, walled gardens offer incredible targeting capabilities. Want to get your message to CTOs on the west coast who just started a new job, are interested in PaaS solutions, and like pickleball? Click, click, click. Done. The ability to easily leverage that type of precision at scale is incredibly enticing and can be monumentally powerful.

NO COOKIE, NO PROBLEM

Marketers have been mourning the death of third-party cookies for years. These little ID markers follow you around the internet from an originating site (or ad) and spit back your data, compiling a robust profile of who you are. Privacy advocates cheered when Apple and Mozilla (Firefox) blocked their use, and with Google Chrome phasing them out starting in 2024, it will truly be the end of an era. But let’s remember the key words: ‘third’ and ‘party.’ The beauty of walled gardens is that their world is built on logged-in users. That means their data profiles are based on Grade A, first-party audience tracking. And there’s no opting out of that.

CONSIDERATIONS

ME DATA ES SU DATA

The price of the convenience and scale you get with walled gardens is a lack of transparency. While the networks that run your ads, like Google and Facebook, get to see and keep all the granular data your campaign creates, marketers are only provided with vague success metrics (like impressions and clicks). It’s very much a black box. In fact, the data your ads generate are more likely to benefit your competitors who are after a similar audience as it will have helped the walled garden refine target behaviors. 

HAVE WE MET BEFORE?

It makes sense to build a marketing plan around your customer journey—especially in tech, where the awareness and consideration cycles tend to be longer. The challenge with walled gardens is that they, um, have walls. There is no easy way to apply the insights gleaned from one walled garden to another. That’s largely intentional. Facebook, Google and Amazon return very few insights that can be acted on or applied to other properties to help optimize your campaign. What you end up with are a series of silos that not only take more energy to manage and orchestrate, but the approach flies in the face of customer-centricity. This can result in situations where you end up using top-of-the-funnel creative on a prospect that is actually deep in the decision-making phase. A wasted opportunity that you’ll never know about.

THE OPEN INTERNET

Outside the gilded walls of Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like is the open internet. From a marketing perspective, its millions of digital properties are stitched together by dozens of AdTech companies that either help companies buy ad inventory (Demand Side Platforms) or help publishers sell it (Supply Side Platforms) through ad exchanges. Some of these companies, like The Trade Desk, are trying to consolidate the inherent power of the open internet by offering a connected marketing realm that gives brands a broad spectrum of inventory (from websites to streaming TV) and full data transparency.

PROS

DATA ALL DAY LONG

No black boxes here. AdTech firms use their own data and data marketplaces to help you create precise audience profiles and even extend upon them with lookalike modeling. Once your campaign is in the market, the data you get is objective, detailed and actionable. This means that if a user watches your brand video ad on Site A, you’ll know to move them down the funnel with a product ad on an industry website they’re likely to visit next. The power to control, sequence and optimize your message across a broader range of the customer journey is something that walled gardens simply can’t replicate.

SAFE ISN’T SOUND

It’s easy to tell your boss that you’re allocating the bulk of your budget to a name like Google or Facebook. They’re big, they’re trusted, and they deliver volume. But safe isn’t what sets brands apart. There is tremendous potential in running a smart, responsive campaign on less-tread-on (but more relevant) properties and mediums that the open internet can deliver.

CONSIDERATIONS

FRAGMENTED THOUGHTS

With walled gardens, you know who sets the rules. While Google’s process and data definitions differ from Facebook’s, there’s one source of truth when dealing with each of them. There’s a certain comfort in not having any options. With the open internet, on the other hand, there are loads of competitors, each with different perspectives on how they can benefit your brand—and how they’re better than the ad platform down the street. Option paralysis can set in, making it more tempting to default to the expected choice.

MEET THE NEW BOSS…

If third-party cookies are no more, then how will companies outside of walled gardens stay relevant by capturing data that enables targeting? By creating cookies that aren’t cookies, of course. The Trade Desk is leading the charge by proposing Unified ID 2.0. It’s a system that would give every user an open source, encrypted ID based on their email address. It sounds good in theory as it removes personally identifying information from the equation. However, for it to be effective, users will have to log in to every digital property that becomes part of the Unified universe. While they have some big names on board already (Buzzfeed, FuboTV, Foursquare), critics suggest that it would just create another walled garden, albeit a bigger, more inclusive one.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

The battle between the walled titans and the open internet is just beginning. The nice part is that, as a tech marketer, you don’t have to choose sides. But you do have to look at all the options—and beyond cookie-cutter media plans. And when you find the right mix, hit it hard with creative that’s impossible to ignore. There’s no bigger shame than having a bold tactical plan that’s failed by work that doesn’t differentiate.