Walled Gardens: Good For You, Bad For Your Customers?

Last Updated May 18, 2011 4:27 AM EDT

All jokes about captive audiences aside, you're probably a walled-garden agnostic.

Which is to say, if your customers prefer finding your products at a mall or an app store, you don't mind setting up shop there. If they don't, no problem; a website or a standalone store works for you, too.

A walled garden is any environment that controls access to content and services. Apple's app store or iTunes are just two of many examples of walled gardens. AOL and Facebook are among the most famous walled gardens of our time.

To some extent, the paywalls of media organizations like the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times are, too. But there are other de-facto walled gardens in which your customers find themselves every day without even realizing it: places where they're made to feel comfortable as consumers, and where everything is easy, but where unseen obstacles block the way to making the best decisions.

But should a business care if they work in an open or closed environment?

Yes, say experts. In his book, The Future of the Internet â€" and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain maintains that closed systems are bad for society in general and innovation in particular.

Consultants I talked with say they're also bad for your customers. Here's how:

They limit choice. Closed systems make comparison-shopping difficult, if not impossible. "Ultimately, walled gardens reduce consumer choice and their ability to fully discover content that meets their needs," says Dov Cohn a vice president for the open app marketplace company Appia. "That limits market growth."

They stand in the way of progress. A lot of walled gardens seem appealing, both to companies and customers. They're convenient and often, very profitable. But experts like Hal Bringman, founder of NVPR, a boutique digital media consulting firm based in Los Angeles, says they could be more profitable if they were open. For example, if Apple allowed Adobe's Flash in its apps instead of "being threatened by it" the outcome might be even more innovation, which would benefit consumers.

Sometimes, you give more than you get. This is particularly true of walled gardens on the Internet, like Facebook. Sure, you get to interact with your friends in a "safe" environment, but Facebook users still have to give up a significant amount of personal information â€" data that they wouldn't dream of giving to a random stranger. "Because they restrict the majority of their content to authenticated users, you can't participate in the discussion on Facebook unless you surrender your email account and become a Facebook member," says Randall Shimkus, director of technical services for the digital marketing firm Terralever.

They create lazy, apathetic consumers. Customers who frequent walled gardens become comfortable. They don't comparison-shop, they pay the asking price for products, and they are often unaware of a life outside the prison walls. Is that your definition of the perfect customer? It shouldn't be. An informed customer, not an ignorant one, is the kind of customer you should want. Walled gardens discourage that kind of critical thinking.

That said, you probably wouldn't turn down a chance to have your product featured in a walled garden. Who would?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.