The Age of Internet Gardens

As idyllic as it sounds to live in the age of internet gardens—the open gardens of the unrestricted internet, and the contained digital environments metaphorically known as walled gardens—there is a war being fought between these gardens. The lack of restrictions in the open internet may have expanded advertising reach, but it has led to the rise of low-quality publishers that use too many third-party integrations, leading to VAST errors, product unification challenges, and the accrual of tech fees.

No matter what side the marketer takes in this war, there is one casualty that affects all parties: quality publishers.

While the perimeters offered by ad platforms within walled gardens may provide greater safety and more transparency, they also create a closed system that silos user data, and the sheer dominance of major walled players like Google, Facebook, and Amazon threatens to create a monopoly on users’ already diminished attention spans. No matter what side the marketer takes in this war, there is one casualty that affects all parties: quality publishers.

A Look at Both Gardens

The open gardens of the internet have gone through a programmatic Internet Gardens evolution in which automation has transformed the Digital Advertising industry, allowing it to thrive in both ad spends and audiences (programmatic advertising will command 86% of display spend this year in the U.S.). Programmatic has created a technical ecosystem that is fully integrated end-to-end from the publisher to the advertiser via DSP’s, SSP’s, exchanges, DMPs, verification solutions, and other AdTech vendors. Advertisers are benefitting from the integration of the open internet as they find the widened digital ecosystem to be more economically efficient. This integrated and automated ecosystem allows for better and more scaled targeting. This ecosystem also puts smaller publications on level ground with larger publications, often at a fraction of the cost.

For all the benefits of a wide-open internet, there are also major deficiencies.

Some are to be expected, such as brand safety, ad fraud, and privacy concerns.

Others are inherent to an open garden, which is unholistic by definition: there are myriad agencies, exchanges, DSPs, and networks in the complex and layered tech stack behind each auction, leading to an ecosystem full of friction and incompatibility.

At the top of these concerns is the decline in quality content: substandard publishers are on the same playing field as trusted news platforms and sites. This leads to a race to the bottom where low-quality publishers price their inventory very low and win advertisers’ budgets because DSPs seek out low price. Finally, the dozens and dozens of middlemen in the open garden are very prone to reselling each other’s inventory causing a single impression to be sold on average 5 different times.

On the other side of things, there is no question that garden walls have been on the rise.

In 2019, Google saw $135 billion in ad revenue (a 17% growth YoY), Facebook saw $70 billion (28% YoY), and Amazon saw $14 billion (39% YoY); together, these three giants commanded almost 70% market share of digital ad spend in the U.S…

This growth should come as no surprise, as walled gardens offer many advantages to brands and advertisers, such as holistic, integrated solutions at a global scale, making them very easy to buy for advertisers. Additionally, the walled gardens have deterministic user data as scale, which is a big advantage as the digital world becomes more cookieless.

Read more: Brands Can Bring down Walled Gardens, but Only If They Want To

However, walled gardens also come with numerous drawbacks.

Firstly, they represent the real privacy threat: the data required for single sign-on access is Personally Identifiable Information (PII), and hence at risk of leaks and frankly, most consumers have no idea what these companies know about them and how their data is used.

At some point, when the cookieless buzz settles, consumers and the industry will realize that the bigger privacy concern is PII. As a further drawback for advertisers, since the information is owned by these walled gardens for use within, the advertiser has no ownership of this data. They are completely reliant on using the wall gardens for all future targeting and have no way to collect data for their own DMP.

Additionally, walled gardens are incredibly restrictive about allowing third-party measurement; hence, they tend to grade their own homework. Wall gardens, by virtue of all of them being user-generated content, are also massive breeding ground to fake news.

And, brand safety is pervasive when most content is user-generated content where the attempt to control this issue is an impossible task. In 2019, the incidences of brand in the US has actually risen by 77%.

This is to say nothing of the overall impact on journalism, as social media walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and low-quality publishers pervasive in the open garden siphons users’ attention away from quality professional outlets, making this is the age of fighting for survival for many publishers.

The Curated Garden

Both of these gardens pose a threat to quality journalism. Why does this matter for advertisers? It is simple, studies by Comscore a couple of years ago and by IAS in the past couple of months, both highlight ads that appear in high-quality context simply perform better. In the IAS study, ads in quality context are 74% more likable and 30% more memorable.

There is an answer I see: a “curated garden” that unites the world’s top publishers under one holistic, integrated platform.

This cultivated internet not only provides a clean, brand-safe experience but assures that users only see ads within the context of high-quality, premium editorial content, increasing both their likability and their user’s engagement. Additionally, as such a garden provides fully transparent inventory, advertisers can worry less about ad fraud and inventory being resold many times. Like a walled garden, a curated garden needs to be under one platform globally and have a global reach. This is critical to make it easy to buy for advertisers.

There no longer has to be a choice between low-quality and user-generated content. We need this third ecosystem to maintain quality in digital advertising and give advertisers a complementary solution outside of the other gardens. And most importantly to provide advertisers with quality results they demand.

Read more: Consumer Direct Grows Beyond the Walled Gardens

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