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Widgets: The Future of Online Marketing?

Widgets: The Future of Online Marketing? Tom Hespos

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it seems the folks at Microsoft really like to flatter Apple's OSX.

Mac users on OSX are already familiar with the Dashboard application that allows them to run widgets-- small applications built in HTML and Javascript that can perform simple tasks like web searches and looking up the local weather forecast. The Vista operating system provides similar functionality. Of course, Microsoft likes to call these mini-applications "gadgets" rather than "widgets," but the concept is essentially the same.

As widgets and gadgets become more popular, we'll reach critical mass in terms of the number of users who will be able to download and make use of such mini-apps. And if you've marketed your brand with the help of desktop applications in the past, you'll need to re-think your deployment strategy in order to take advantage of this latest shift.

The difference between desktop apps and widgets
Quite a few brands and publishers have been trying to form direct relationships with web users by offering downloads of desktop applications.

The weather category is a great example: The Weather Channel offers a downloadable application called Desktop Weather that provides customizable functionality like local temperatures next to the system clock on a Windows computer, weather alerts and baseball scores for your favorite Major League Baseball team. Weatherbug, a competitor, offers a desktop application as well, and Accuweather offers a plugin for the Internet Explorer toolbar. 

While these tactics are proven relationship-builders, we'll start to see a shift away from run-of-the-mill desktop apps and toward widgets and gadgets as Vista and OSX gain market share.

The difference between the two is that desktop applications tend to integrate themselves into the system tray on a Windows machine and boot automatically upon startup. Widgets are called up when OSX users call up their Dashboard application, and gadgets can be accessed from Vista's sidebar. This approach eliminates the competition desktop applications engage in to dominate the desktop, and places all of this functionality within its own distinct environment.

Widget marketing
One of the interesting things about widget distribution is that it closely parallels that of the open source software movement. Sites that feature lists of cool widgets are springing up all over the place, and Vista users will likely flock to these sites to find the latest, coolest functionality they can add to their sidebar. 

This is nearly a surety: Google and Yahoo have been playing in this space for awhile, developing widgets that make use of their own services, and offering them for download from their own sites and others. Developers are given the tools to develop their own widgets, which has resulted in a flurry of independent development projects to see who can craft the coolest widget.

Brands that want to continue marketing directly to customers and prospects through downloadable desktop applications need to get their applications into a lighter widget format and offer it for download-- not just from their own websites but also from widget sites and blogs that cover widgets.

For the weather content companies I mentioned earlier, this might mean "widgetizing" their applications and promoting them with PR and media efforts designed to increase distribution.

The approach for brands
Widgets also enable brands to get in the game more easily. Since widgets are relatively simple to develop, brands may want to consider developing their own. For instance, a loan company might develop a widget incorporating RSS technology that would feed the latest interest rates to prospects and allow for links to an application process. A marketing campaign consisting of media and PR elements might drive traffic to the widget and encourage bloggers and widget sites to link to it or host it themselves.

A direct relationship with customers and prospects has its advantages. Once someone downloads a widget, they have an opportunity to see the latest offers and information about a product or service. This approach has a certain appeal to it in that, once prospects are acquired, they'll continue to use the widget until they either purchase the product or they no longer have need for the information.

This "acquire once, remarket as needed" approach has advantages over media campaigns that often don't distinguish between new prospects and people who are already engaged with the brand.

If you get one takeaway from this column, it should be the notion that widgets are about to become a lot more important and that brands looking to form direct relationships with customers should consider using a widget strategically and tactically to market to prospects and existing customers.

Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. .

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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