Personal Walled Gardens

September 20, 2008

The Secret Garden, 1911 editionIn Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, Archibald Craven sealed up his wife's walled garden after her death and hid away the key. Being inside was too painful, for the memories of his wife were too difficult to bear. To Mary Lennox, however, it was a magical place, a safe harbor for her imagination and ultimately, her gardening skills. When she convinced Craven's sick son to go inside, Mary's magic impacted him as well, and he recovered from serious maladies.

So a wall around a garden serves different purposes, depending on who or what is inside. It can keep people or critters out and protect that which is inside, or it can invite others in and hold them there — protected from that which is beyond the wall.

The Berlin wall kept East Berliners in. The Great Wall of China kept invaders away from the Chinese Empire. Walls always serve one of those two purposes, with doorways of some sort regulating any coming and going.

This understanding is significant as one examines what's happening to media companies in the face of disruptive innovations, and it's even more important when looking far downstream, for sooner or later, all media companies will have to deal with a new form of walled garden that's becoming increasingly popular with the public, the personalized home page or "personal site."

MyYahoo dominates personalized pagesTake a look at these numbers from ComScore published by TechCrunch in January. MyYahoo is on top of the heap, largely because their personalized page has been around longer. What's significant is that MyYahoo is losing market share to the drag-and-drop AJAX technology of iGoogle (up 267%) and NetVibes, an extremely popular personalized home page without a major portal to drive traffic. iGoogle was Google's star performer last year, and it will continue to grow. Like everything else Google, iGoogle was built for users, not the company. It replaces the Google home page, so there's no advertising. It "belongs" to the users who build them. Here's the way Crunchbase describes the service:

iGoogle is a personalized home page that allows users to add tabs, themes and drag-n-drop widgets to their home page. The site has a whole bank of third-party widgets to choose from including widgets for news, tools, sports and lifestyle. Users can also add widgets for their favorite Google products including Gmail, Talk and YouTube.

Other giant personal websites are MySpace, Facebook and other social networking entities. With widgets and developer applications, users generally control what's on the page, but not to the extent of iGoogle.

So why is this significant for media companies?

Media company websites are walled gardens with the mission of keeping people inside. The advertising ecosystem that the media company uses to make money is entirely within the walls, so it's necessary to keep people inside the walls to maximize revenue potential. This is why smart marketers will direct the traffic flow within the site, always offering more or forcing users deeper within the garden.

Media Company walled garden model

All mass marketing forms of media are, in essence, walled gardens with similar missions. In the early days of television, when there were only three networks, it was easy to keep people tuned in. And in the early days of TV news, image promotions ruled the roost, until more smart marketers discovered that topical promotions could "drive" viewers from one daypart to the next.

Newspapers rarely offer completed stories on one page, because turning pages is what's necessary to keep readers within its walled garden. Radio stations, magazines and even the Yellow Pages all exist as gardens with walls designed to keep people within (where they will be exposed to the ads).

This model is what I have long called "Media 1.0." It is the basic business model of traditional media, and it runs counter to "Media 2.0," that which is disrupting the old models.

So this personalized home page — and especially Google's growing model — is a serious threat to media, because these pages are designed to do just the opposite of media sites: keep others out, including advertisers. The more people have control over what they view as "their" information, the more they reject the relentless carpet-bombing of marketing. This is going to get worse and worse, because J.D. Lasica's "personal media revolution" is really a revolt against being treated like a punching bag for years by those who used their walled gardens to do whatever they felt like doing, the people be damned.

personal walled garden model

Personal walled gardens also function as media companies, because the social Web is where the people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) gather. Each page has an "audience," usually made up of the creator's friends, family and tribe members. True "mass" is difficult to obtain, but this is where traditional media companies must focus their attention.

So this poses a serious dilemma for all ad-supported media, for how will such companies survive if access to these walled gardens is blocked?

This was first covered in an essay I wrote three years ago called "The Remarkable Opportunities of Unbundled Media." What I discussed then was largely theory, but the growth of personal web pages has turned theory into practical reality. The only thing that has changed is the urgency with which media companies need to embrace the concepts of unbundled media.

Unbundling will take place at the most basic levels, and technologies will flourish that assist people in rebundling according to their preferences.

Our response as media professionals has been to sigh and offer repurposed media items to the noisy crowd that used to be our consumers. This is a grave mistake, for it shortsightedly views the drift to unbundled media as a sideshow. It is not; it's the whole enchilada, and while we're busy toying with it, people we never imagined would be our competitors are grabbing market share. Can you say "Yahoo!?"

The problem is that while we're repurposing our content, the bulk of our attention is still focused on the creation of that which is bundled. That's where the money is, we convince ourselves, and so we don't ask the right questions.

Creating ways for people to access the content we create inside their walled gardens is only one part of the problem. The real conundrum is making money, because what "works" best in such a world is not that which is advertiser-supported. Advertisers themselves may actually find it easier to penetrate the walls than media companies carrying advertising, as demonstrated by the many applications created by advertisers for MySpace or Facebook. Trusted brands will find their way inside personal walled gardens, by-passing the traditional media venues formerly required to distribute their messages. Remember, even a personal web page is a form of media. The Web makes the middleman obsolete.

The world of personal walled gardens demands our attention and our study. Information widgets are a way to make our content available, so we desperately need to be in the widget business. The Weather Channel has a remarkable radar widget that I use on my iGoogle page. ESPN offers my sports news. I get entertainment news from E! Take the time to peruse the widget gallery that Google offers (they call them "gadgets") for personal pages with a single mouse click. Search "local news," and you'll find a host of local media companies making RSS feeds available via widget.

But such widgets are just a small corner of what's possible, if we only have eyes to see. Traditional media is brand-obsessed, and, to a certain extent, justifiably so, but our brands can also blind us to possibilities that others — mostly outsiders — can easily see. The mission is to make money and to do it in ways that make sense, whether associated with content we create, aggregate, or organize.

The possibilities for relevant local information are mind-boggling. How about a school lunch menu widget, a garage sale widget, a "things to do" widget, or even an obits widget? How about customizable widgets that draw from databases of local knowledge and information we maintain? As long as we limit what we can do to the content we create through our newsrooms, we'll miss real opportunities to be relevant to the people formerly known as the audience.

The Web is an evolving entity, and we're currently in the third stage of evolution:

Browsing
Searching
Sharing

The first two work with walled gardens that house knowledge and information. The latter, however, is the home of the personal walled garden, and this should inspire us, not scare us. Media companies should insist that every employee create a personal page, because you really can't understand the value of the entity until you're using it yourself.

Advertisers will pay for access to personal pages, and the only issue is how soon they'll discover they can do this without us. There is a window of opportunity, and it's all a part of the remarkable world of unbundled media.

And there's another reason we must explore this path: the most sacred of all personal walled gardens is a person's mobile device. We must tread lightly here.