Walled garden

If you own the infrastructure, ensure that people have little reason to leave, and that they return frequently.

Examples

  • Facebook has created a walled garden and continues to offer users even more reasons to perform most of their actions within the confines of Facebook’s properties. They cleverly extend their presence outside their own walls, with “Like” buttons on other sites, and with the option to use Facebook credentials to log in to other sites. Providing these features as a convenience to users also allows the company to track individuals as they venture beyond its walls, and then target behavioral ads based on their actions once they return to the walled garden.
  • Twitter owns the infrastructure upon which people have created a unique form of social media commentary. “Tweet” buttons and the use of Twitter credentials as a login perform the same function for them as for Facebook.
  • YouTube has become synonymous with video, but since 2008 it has also been the second most used search engine in the USA, second only to its parent Google. It’s a walled garden for visual content.
  • There is however a difference between walled gardens and paywalls. Subscription sites such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal have erected a wall to keep undesirable people out. That is very different from a wall designed to keep desirable people in.

Principles

Back in the days of dial-up internet access, America Online (AOL) was synonymous with “The Internet” for many people. Subscribers found themselves within the walled garden of AOL’s content. Ostensibly the idea of these walls was to keep non-subscribers out, but actually the true value was in keeping subscribers in. That way they could be shown more of AOL’s ads rather than viewing content (and advertisements) on other sites.
It wasn’t just AOL doing this. Individual sites would have interstitial pages asking users whether they were sure they wanted to leave the site. Landing pages would have HTTP redirects so that if a user hit the browser’s back button, they’d be popped straight back into the site again.
Some sites still use these redirect tricks but users have grown less tolerant of them. Now, sites have realized the same thing as the TV companies. You need to have just enough content to keep users engaged so they’ll put up with the adverts you throw at them.

How to design a walled garden

  • Own the infrastructure. AOL used to own the dial-up infrastructure for getting online, so users were directed to their content. Facebook owns the software infrastructure for posts, likes and walls in locations where everyone’s friends hang out, so users are tied to their environment.
  • Carefully test your users’ advertising tolerance. The purpose of the walled garden is to maximize ad revenue (you own all the ad locations inside the garden), but if advertising is too intrusive users will leave.
  • Let people leave the garden, but provide features that let you track them while they are out so that you can give them more targeted advertisements when they return.

Blog posts about this pattern