The Sudden Sexiness of Walled Gardens

For the past decade, we’ve all felt increasing pressure to “join the conversation.”  Companies and communicators alike have been advised to bring their messaging to the people and service them “where they are,” rather than the now-passé tradition of expecting the people to come to you.

This approach has resulted in a cacophony of competing messages, as everyone strives valiantly to be heard above the din.  Instead of “joining the conversation,” it now feels like everyone’s joined the fray, and only the most relevant or rewarding messages manage to break through the squall of white noise.

This development has also altered our valuation of people’s time.  Instead of presuming a person’s shop or services are so remarkable as to be worth someone else’s time and effort to come find them, the provider’s time and effort is now worth less than that of her audience or her customers.  It’s now her responsibility to make time for them.

But with everyone competing for the same 24 hours of attention, is it any wonder that some people are starting to question the merit of this new technique and instead casting a wistful eye toward the more easily-managed construct of walled gardens?

Grant Me a Brief Respite in Your Branded Eco-Lounge

Information overload helps no one.  If we want to process information, we need a break from absorbing more information.

Enter (literally): the walled garden.

In info-speak, a walled garden is a self-contained info-system.  People come in, they see what you want them to see, they have conversations and ask questions about a narrow range of relevant topics, and they’re presented with action items and takeaways designed to keep your message and branding top of mind as they head back out into the unpredictable static of the info-storm.

Previously, companies were derided for expecting web surfers to linger in their walled gardens.  With so much information “out there,” how could companies be presumptuous enough to require that people spend their precious time in the company’s space?  But once the sum total of information available “out there” surpassed our ability to process it meaningfully, those structured storehouses of information started to seem less like oppression and more like relief.

Even sources who “should know better” are calling for a return to prior simplicity.  A stellar post from BBH Labs about stimuli and mental computation floats the following justification:

“For now at least, there’s room for brands to be marketed as tools to help Neo-Luddites swim against the tech tide.  Guinness, Magners, KitKat – ought to be creating virtual & real walled gardens for when you want to kick back and relax, away from the torrent of data.”

Suddenly, what once seemed like a sure sign that a company “didn’t get it” is now being touted as a wise move for companies who want to position themselves as “counter-culture.”  Evidently, what we now consider “culture” involves a massive continual onslaught of stimuli and low expectations for long-term retention.

Who knew outdated communication techniques would so swiftly experience a romantic resurgence?

The Upside to Enclosure

These days, the breadth of available information is obvious.  But those seeking depth or context require more than an endless barrage of stimuli; they require some mental (or digital, or physical) space to sort it out.  A chance to dig a little deeper.  Some time to consider the bigger picture.

Walled gardens provide the structural, thematic and operational constraints that let us evaluate smaller bits of information over a longer (or at least less disruptive) stretch of time.  When you’re in Facebook, you may see a torrent of data, but it’s all contextualized according to whom you’ve opted to follow (and how).  When you’re on the Dos Equis website, you’re free to learn more about their beer at your own speed, rather than relying on a chance encounter with a serendipitously-timed tweet or a randomly-generated ad.

Granted, there are impractical ways to do this.  And in an age of respect for “open” communications, limiting your customer’s options isn’t always a blueprint for success or goodwill.  But the companies that strike the best balance between constriction and collaboration under the guise of providing users with improved functionality will likely see the greatest end results.

It could even be possible that companies and sites who restrict information flow will be rewarded for their stewardship, as long as the ultimate control of that flow is in the hands of the user.  And the better attuned a site is to the cognitive needs of its users, the more value those users will ascribe to the information provided, even if it’s the same information they could find elsewhere by chance.

The worldwide flow of information won’t be slowed; that genie has left the bottle.  But there’s certainly an opportunity for companies and curators who can provide rest stops along our ever-widening Information Superhighway.  (And if those rest stops do come with Kit Kats, so much the better.)

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  • Katrina Miller

    Good point. And I think this speaks a little to trying to be “all things to all people”. Clearly, there is value in creating a quiet space where you can connect with your customers, about your product, and ONLY that. I think it’s in those kind of spaces and conversation that real brand ambassadors are built, as opposed to people who care only in a superficial way, for a very limited time (until the next “cool thing” enters their info stream).

  • Joel Mark Witt


    Great post. I think that most people enter walled gardens – not for the information as much as the access or perceived access to people who “know what they are talking about” or at least pretend well.

    These customers really don’t want info … they want advice. And they want a shoulder to cry on or brain to pick that is real flesh and blood and knows who they are….


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