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The widget: a small tool with a big future

Kate Donaho
The widget: a small tool with a big future Kate Donaho

We're now more than halfway through "The Year of the Widget," and it turns out Newsweek wasn't wrong. Neither are the 230 million people who use widgets every day. The little guys are popular. No wonder marketers in every segment are scrambling for their own versions of this very small Next Big Thing.

My advice to those marketers: Stop. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself the number one question about your proposed widget, the one you'd ask of any other marketing vehicle: What. Is. The. Point.?

Of course there's a point. Potentially, 230 million points. But the last thing you want to do is find yourself asking, right after the new [widget, whatzit, shiny object] has launched: "Why are we doing this anyway?" Do yourself a favor and ask the question now, before you build your widget. Ask several questions, in fact:

  • What's right for my message?

  • What's right for my audience?

  • What's the right context for my brand?

  • How can it demonstrate value?

Message: What and how?
You have something to sell (this is the place where, historically, we'd call your product a "widget," but now we can't, for obvious reasons). You have a value proposition around that something. It can be communicated in many ways, depending on whether you're talking to customers or prospects and where they are in their readiness to listen or buy. A widget can help you say everything from "BUY THIS NOW!" to "Take a new look at us."

Beyond what you have to say, consider what you want to the customer to do. Widgets are tools that facilitate action. If you want a customer to BUY NOW, build a widget that makes the transaction easier; not just something that serves up the BUY NOW message (that's a banner ad, not a widget).

Customer: who?
The discussions of customer and message are silly to separate, but we marketers have such a love of our own spiel (and why wouldn't we? It's brilliant! It’s stylish!) that focusing on the customer, independent of the message, forces some honesty. This matters more than ever with widgets: Customers are in control.

Are you delivering your message to an engaged audience? If so, you know who they are; start speaking their language and helping them buy your stuff. If not, what can you deliver with your widget that would make a potential customer pay attention? A busy mom might want a tool that helps her generate a grocery list. A tween wants more glitter and ponies on her Facebook page.

Context: where?
Is it a desktop widget or a web widget? The question is a great debate among the widget community as they struggle to define the very word. Let the widgetwonks duke it out over the definition. What matters to marketers is finding a place for your widget that fits the message and the customer.

In general, if you're going for reach and customer acquisition, do it on the web and keep it light, useful and fun. Having a branded widget out there is a powerful way to link your brand to other content; to go to your potential customers, rather than wait for them to come to you. It's a way to spark a conversation.

If you want to deepen the conversation (develop and retain customers), you can go directly to the desktop. It's classic "push" marketing; very 2001, but very effective. The customer is listening. Your responsibility is to listen in return. Either give customers a high level of control over how the widget behaves or what content they receive, or use measurement to respond to customer engagement with the tool. You can deliver your message (like me! buy this!), but only in a way that's relevant to the individual. There's no free parking on the desktop: Keep it meaningful and fresh.

Value: why (are we doing this anyway)?
The widget-building community is debating ROI metrics just as hotly as the definition of widget. The typical benchmarks for online advertising and email campaigns simply don't apply. In fact, the way we measure all online behavior is changing: Nielsen has officially shifted its ranking from page views to engagement times. Site traffic itself is a moving target, as widgets and feeds enable users to pipe content where they want it.

So do we measure downloads, engagement times, viral behavior? Again, let the wonks fight it out. Like the old-fashioned questions, the old-fashioned measures still apply. Did your widget increase awareness of your brand? Did you improve perception? Did you increase purchase intent? Did you sell more stuff?

The answer to all these questions will eventually be "yes," but how long it will take for widgets to prove themselves as marketing vehicles remains to be seen. Build yours better, and with a measured approach. There's time: We can expect not just the Year of the Widget, but Years of the Widget. It's a small tool with a very big future.

Kate Donaho is group creative director of T3. .


to leave comments.

Commenter: Karen Bryan

2007, August 03

I thought this was very useful reading because as a business owner you often feel compelled to jump on the bandwagon and adopt the latest bag of tricks without carefully considering how much utility it will have for your business. Having said that I recently discovered widgets, I think they are great. Firstly because as a techno dumbie I can add them easily to my site/blog. Secondly because if you choose thoughtfully the widget can add value to you site/blog for the reader/potential customer. You can read my article about using widgets here: http://www.businessblogboost.com/2007/07/31/how-to-use-widgets-to-enhance-your-blog/