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A world beyond the walls: how brands can sow success beyond the closed gardens of online advertising


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Wednesday 04 August 2021 17:17

Digital advertising has often centred on walled gardens. However, greater focus on the open internet will benefit consumers and businesses

If you were looking to flog some old picture frames, kids’ toys or books from your house, which car-boot sale would you choose? The one with 100 visitors or the one with 1,000?

But what if you had the choice to be at both at the same time and reach everyone who was there?

In the advertising world, many marketers don’t believe this is possible and they handicap their efforts by focusing on the smaller audiences of walled garden systems rather than opening themselves out to bigger audiences elsewhere.

There is a risk this trend could accelerate, with 2022 bringing a seismic shift in the online ad space.

The biggest walled gardens out there – Facebook, Amazon and Google – are visited by millions of users multiple times each day: an understandably attractive prospect to marketers. But there is, of course, a catch; only 34 per cent of all consumers’ online time is spent in those gardens – the open internet is visited for almost twice as long.

What’s more, this limits the ROI that any marketer can expect from their campaigns. Yes, you may make multiple sales conversions, but you miss out on all the extra data that comes with this. Marketers, sadly, do not know their customers any better after the campaign than they did before it – nor do they know what they bought where and when.

30 per cent of UK marketers say there has been an overdependence on walled gardens and 38 per cent say their campaigns do not always target the right people. Yes, the sheer volume of users within the walled gardens may make them a necessary part of any outreach strategy, but they are confining.

The solution lies not just within the gardens but beyond them too. The ad landscape breaches these gated grounds, out towards an open internet – a more diversified and more encompassing space that complements the garden approach.

It is time for brands to consider a rebalance.

A marketer’s frenemy?

Advertising through walled gardens has been a popular option for many years. But it’s something of an open secret that many marketers have mixed feelings about them.

The big issue is that the balance is off. There is a disparity between where people spend their time online and where advertisers focus their money. At present, the open internet – outside walled gardens – accounts for 66 per cent of time spent online, but it only attracts 37 per cent of ad spend.

What’s more, change is afoot that could leave advertisers even more dependent on these closed spaces, namely the removal of third-party cookies, as Google phases out the technology over the next year and Apple abolishes IDFA.

The parallel push for privacy

This will, of course, have an impact on data retention and privacy for many advertisers and marketers.

The latter is the central element to any digital strategy at the moment, which is driving the industry to a user-centric and privacy-centric approach. With Google abolishing cookies and Apple implementing its App Tracking Transparency (ATT), this is a good opportunity for the industry to take stock, refocus and innovate with consumers in mind.

And for the consumers themselves, it’s also about how they see their data. When it comes to the personal data held by businesses, people increasingly expect transparency, control and, above all, choice. But they don’t want to have to decide differently for each platform. A simple, unified approach – akin to an interoperable Single Sign-On (SSO) system – to manage consent is going to be essential.

The alternative: contextual targeting

Let’s go back to our car-boot sales analogy again; advertisers can be at both if they really wanted to. But they’ll also need the right number of tables and tools to help drive those sales.

For online advertisers and marketers, this is where advanced contextual targeting will be one of the true heroes of the open internet, bringing brands closer to their customers. Contextual targeting matches all the different sites with those advertisers and products that most likely work best there.

A huge advantage of this approach is that you’re reaching an audience that’s already interested in what you’re offering. The value exchange is clear to the reader, and the ads feel natural and less disruptive – protecting the user experience and avoiding the growing concerns associated with privacy.

But this isn’t contextual targeting as we know it. Now, this technology can connect first-party commerce data with real-time contextual signals for the first time ever, paving the way for marketers to drive and measure incremental revenue in a post-cookie world.

69 per cent of consumers are more likely to engage with contextual ads – and with new solutions that offer better, more personalised experiences, this number will almost certainly increase.

Beyond the walls

Walled gardens can – and should – be a critical part of the marketing mix. But right now, the balance with the open internet simply isn’t right or smart.

It’s time for businesses to consider diversifying their ad spend, using new technologies to meet consumers where they already are. At the same time, this method respects data privacy and offers a better consumer experience.

Walled gardens offer the golden nugget of a large audience, that’s for sure – but crucially, it’s not the largest. It’s important, therefore, for us all to break out – we need to look beyond the gated greens of Big Tech and into a territory rich with an audience willing to engage with your brand.

To find out more about contextual advertising and using first-party data, visit

Originally published on Business Reporter