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Widget Marketing: Engage Audiences

For a term that is brand new to the interactive advertising vernacular, "widget" has already started to confuse the industry because it represents two very distinct formats. (I suppose we should be thankful it's at least not an acronym.) First, what all widgets have in common is that they are small applets that provide a single utility or service to the user. Where the formats differ is in their placement. Some widgets reside locally on a computer, such as in the operating system veneer on a Mac called the Dashboard, or in a Windows environment using a tool like the Yahoo! Widget Engine. The second format are widgets that live in HTML, such as those provided by Typepad for its bloggers. To distinguish, let's call them Web Widgets.

The main distinction that marketers need to contend with between the two formats is not a function of technology or development; it's in who is the widget's intended user. Widgets that reside locally are useful only to the person who downloaded and installed them. Ten thousand installs means an engaged audience of ten thousand. But widgets that adorn a personal site or blog are seen and potentially used by all of that site's visitors. Here, ten thousand installs could mean an active community of hundreds of thousands. Engagement and reach are not mutually exclusive after all.

I'll offer further that Web Widget Marketing is not merely an exciting new format because of the possibilities; it (and other formats designed expressly for citizen publisher content) is soon to be the cost of doing brand-building business online. Why? Because the people advertisers are trying to influence have become enamored with sites and networks and platforms that at best are cool to marketing messages, and at worst are downright hostile. Yet audiences at these sites are growing exponentially, and advertisers have to find a way to join the conversation. Web Widget Marketing isn't an end-game in itself. But developing the know-how to successfully market in this environment will help advertisers keep up with consumers, or at least stay ahead of competitors.

As you think about how Web Widget Marketing might boost your brand, here are a few considerations to get the gears turning:

To thine ownself be true: Your widget cannot simply deliver a brand message, like other ad formats. Instead, it must be a practical extension of your brand-- a microcosm that delivers the same brand promise. For example, Acura is commonly regarded among the autorati as having the best navigation systems on the market. So they've developed the Acura RDX Traffic widget that delivers real-time traffic flow (and ebb) to a user's computer. It's a highly useful application, and because of Acura's positioning they reap more benefits from this widget than their competitors would.

Create for your audience. No, your other audience: With Web Widgets, you're creating for two distinct groups. Certainly you want your widget to have utility or functionality that underscores your brand positioning, like the Acura example above. But first you have to get it downloaded and placed onto someone's site, which means that it also has to meet a website owner's objectives. Now it's true there's a website out there for everything, and I could probably find several hundred traffic blogs that the Acura widget would be suitable for. But the distribution opportunity is small, making that particular application is best suited for the desktop.

Case Study 1-- Sony Pictures: My company, Freewebs, recently collaborated with Sony Pictures on a Web Widget campaign to promote the film Zathura. Sony had already had some games developed that tied into the movie's plot and imagery. Instead of running a banner campaign across Freewebs sites driving traffic to the games, we came up with the idea of creating a Web Widget so any of the 11 million site owners on Freewebs could integrate the games directly into their sites. This idea met the site owners' objectives of delivering fresh content and increasing stickiness, and the games were well-received and very heavily used by their visitors. The results: within six weeks the widget was embedded in more than 11,000 websites, and had been viewed nearly 600,000 times-with minimal outreach to begin the campaign. Nearly nine months after the kickoff, there are still over 15,000 widgets embedded and delivering content across Freewebs sites.

Case Study 2 (Almost)-- Rijksmuseum: Another strong example of widget marketing comes all the way from Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum has developed a widget that is updated daily with a new picture from the world-famous museum's impressive collection. An icon on the picture spins it around when clicked, revealing the piece's title, artist, date, some historical background, and of course a link back to the museum's website. Currently the widget is just a desktop widget, but the fresh content it delivers each day would make it very appealing to site owners and citizen publishers if it is ever available in that format.

Unlike almost all other online ads, a Web Widget's function is less to drive traffic than it is to engage a group already aggregated somewhere. It is closer to branded entertainment (or branded utility) than a sponsorship model, but the barriers to entry are much much higher. Any company can buy its way into branded entertainment. Web Widgets have to be invited in, a privilege that no amount of media budget will afford them. I expect that most at first will be kept behind the velvet rope. But those who do get in will enjoy VIP status and profitable conversation.

Shervin Pishevar is president and COO of Freewebs, Inc. Read full bio.

Shervin Pishevar is president and member of the board of directors of Freewebs, one of the world's largest web publishers with more than 14 million members. Mr. Pishevar was an advisor for Freewebs at its early founding stages and joined as its...

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