Did AOL peak too early? Are walled gardens the future?

The web is dead, long live the internet – those were the guiding words of a recent Wired article discussing the evolution of how we use the web and the internet – how the relative amount of data and information that we consume in the browser is decreasing compared to the quantity of apps and network sites that we use. If we can think of both Facebook and mobile apps as walled gardens in their own sense then it does seem like we are moving back to the days of early AOL where the online experience was very much dominated by a single interface, hub or portal. If this is the case then maybe AOL simply peaked too early or maybe their strategy wasn’t quite developed enough or overdeveloped for the time – but when we connect this to the recent rumours that AOL might be trying to buy Yahoo! we can see a definite move towards these controlled environments.

How does this change the market for brands who invest in the web and need to apply their marketing dollars in constantly growing proportions to digital media? To start with it doesn’t mean less investment in display and search, since the overall dollar spend on digital media is increasing on an almost daily basis, they need to maintain their presence to be able to cut through the clutter; but it does potentially mean more segmented targeting and hence placement and messaging to deliver the right message to the right person, something the web (and email for that matter) are very good at, and has yet to be leveraged to its fullest extent. But beyond simple paid media, brands are going to have to expand the ‘standard digital channels’ they have in their mix – and this is where agencies, planners and creatives will suffer as it took a long time to integrate TV, a decent chunk of time to start thinking banners and search, suddenly we need to add another few media to the mix and understand how they work. Blogs, forums, social networks, widgets, mobile apps – if these are chinese to you then there is some homework to be done, as these (not banners and search) are the channels that we need to develop creative for tomorrow and suddenly interaction is a great deal more complicated than simply a competition where you upload a photo and invite 3 friends!

What this all points to is a real need to understand the communications environment again, to look at each of our segments and target groups and understand how and when they are interacting with what media. What are teenagers doing on their mobiles which are probably their prized possession and well out of reach of parent’s prying eyes vs the web at home where they are potentially surfing on a shared computer or controlled in the amount of time they are allowed to spend in front of the screen (the irony of our generation who were allowed 2 hours of TV a day, compared to today where it’s the web that is limited)? How much does the ‘modern housewife’ really have time to watch daytime TV or are we more likely to catch with OOH by the schoolyard and an SMS to her phone when she is at the mall? What role does sponsorship and product placement play on TV vs the traditional 30 second spot. So many questions all pointing to two things – not only is the media landscape changing, but we also need to re-evaluate the way old media is used and consumed – this is a paradigm shift in communications planning as we know it.

So back to walled gardens – if this is where we are going then we are faced with a more complex problem that is twofold, how to acquire users to the walled garden and how to keep them involved; for the experienced marketer this should be ringing some bells… acquisition and retention are the key components of all direct marketing challenges. So as we come full circle with the evolution of technology and the web we need to start thinking of these executions as products in themselves and apply some decent basic marketing thinking to how we roll them out.

By Lex Bradshaw-Zanger

A digital native and integrated brand marketer with a passion for marketing-communications and product design, Lex has a truly international outlook and experience, having worked both in major marketing agencies and client-side brands across Europe, the US and the Middle East.

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