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We Need a Better Term Than ‘Walled Garden’

(Image credit: Future)

To many in the media world, “walled garden” is a four-letter word. It connotes the power held by large platforms with locked-in users who command of the majority of digital ad spend. Advertisers’ and publishers’ frustration over the tightly controlled ways in which these platforms share ad campaign data is understandable in an era where marketers are taking an omnichannel approach to media. “Walled garden” is, in fact, an apt description of how these platforms leverage access to their bountiful stores of consumer insights. The problem is that we as an industry have started slinging around the term “walled garden” too liberally when it comes to other closed digital ecosystems, and that’s creating concern where no concern is warranted. 

Closed ecosystems are not intrinsically bad. This is particularly true in the emerging space of over-the-top (OTT) television (opens in new tab). While the players in this space – and the broader category of convergent television (CTV) – are necessarily maintaining careful control of their users’ personal information and the consumption experience, to call them “walled gardens” would suggest that their practices would limit advertisers and that’s simply not the case. We need to come up with a better way of describing the closed environments of OTT and CTV and coin new terminology that better fits the role that enclosure plays in the industry. 

In Defense of Closed Ecosystems

OTT and CTV platforms aren’t protecting their user data as a means of icing out their competition or maintaining the ability to grade their own homework. Rather, these emerging environments provide enclosures designed to preserve—not limit—the value proposition for advertisers and consumers alike.

Let’s keep in mind the highly premium nature of the content owned by many of today’s OTT and CTV leaders, and how it departs from the user-generated content that prevails on many digital video and social platforms. Like those platforms, these are logged-in environments that provide the infrastructure for people-based marketing and granular personalization—but around high-quality, well-understood content. They represent brand-safe environments capable of protecting against the many forms of fraud that plague the open web, but they do so for larger advertisers with premium creative. They are API-based ecosystems for the ad industry that, by their very nature, ensure a baseline of quality in inventory and demand, and protect against data leakages. 

The data enclosures of OTT and CTV platforms are intended to protect the user experience and preserve users’ privacy, not to shield insights from brand advertisers. By maintaining the integrity of their user data, these players are able to deliver the personalized experiences that both viewers and advertisers desire, while ensuring the privacy and security that users (and increasingly, regulators) demand. In OTT and CTV, preservation of the premium experience is everything, and that’s precisely the function of data enclosures in this environment. Premium content and premium ads flourish in premium environments. 

In Search of New Nomenclature

Although emerging OTT and CTV environments are walled gardens by a certain definition, they deserve a description that properly distinguishes them from the pejorative connotations of the term. But what should it be? 

For my part, I’d like to suggest “conservatory.” Conservatories do, after all, house gardens—lush, beautiful living ecosystems. But in contrast to walled gardens, where barriers are erected to shield their contents from visibility to the outside world, conservatories feature transparent walls that help to nurture optimum growth conditions on the inside. Much like conservatories, OTT and CTV platforms are enclosing their data, their content, and their inventory as a means of keeping it healthy and fostering growth, rather than arbitrarily barring access to its splendor. 

If nothing else, we need to recognize that the words we use matter. In referring to all closed ecosystems as walled gardens, we’re doing a disservice to these premium environments of OTT and CTV, as well as our own understandings of their nature. So I ask you, dear reader: What name would you suggest?  

"4C is a global data science and marketing technology company that delivers self-service software for brands to execute video-centric marketing and optimize business outcomes."

Head of Partnerships and Corporate Development at 4C Insights.