For some reason whenever the subject of widgets comes up in a business meeting people start to giggle. "Widgets are a serious opportunity," I exclaim, but the giggles continue. It's something about the word. Repeat it a couple of times out loud and you'll see what I mean. But forget what you learned from economic textbooks; widgets have real (not imaginary) business implications for interactive marketers and need to be taken seriously.
A widget is a small, contained piece of content that can live on a blog, a social networking page, a personalized homepage or even a mobile phone. Sports teams have highlights widgets. News organizations have headline widgets. Theatrical advertisers have trailer widgets. You get the idea.
At first blush marketers see widgets as both an exciting opportunity (e.g. "free advertising") and a daunting challenge (e.g. "uncontrolled advertising"). In reality neither of these points of view captures the implication in any robust sense.
Are widgets truly free advertising?
First, let's debunk the free argument. As anyone who has worked in advertising knows, nothing is free. Widget creatives still need to be developed by design professionals and updated by content professionals. Contrary to what your client might think, your branded widget isn't going to "go viral" tomorrow without a lot of help. Expect you and your team (or agency) to work harder at the soft aspects of social marketing than they ever have buying media or tracking impressions and clicks.
Second, let's debunk the advertising part of free advertising. Do you really think people want your ad on their homepage, blog or social networking page? Maybe if you're in the 1 percent of product categories that are truly cool and inspirational. For the other 99 percent your widget can't be a repurposed ad. You need to capture and hold the attention of the fickle public by developing branded content that compels them to accept and share with others. Sounds a lot like good web development, and it is.
What about the control issue?
On the other side, let's look at the loss of control. Face it, your brand is already out of your control. That's the take-home of the whole social revolution. Consumers have become producers and they want to produce value around your brand whether you like it or not. Of course, you need controls to turn off a marketing widget on specific sites, or when they run past dates of relevance, but these are readily available. If you can't deal with a degree of loss of control, get out of the widget kitchen and go buy some banner ads.
So where is the opportunity?
Let's step back a second and look at a very different landscape for your brand's online presence. If you're like most marketers you see your website as the hub of your efforts and each major aspect of the online buy as a spoke. Users travel along the spokes to "conversion" and results are measured. How quaint.
In the widget world there is no hub. There is a grid where each piece of your online presence can multiply as users cut-and-paste your messages to wherever else they want to experience them. Conversion could take place on Facebook, MySpace, or even the user's own homepage. Most importantly, the grid does not only reflect paid media, but also reflects viral distribution, PR, influencer-marketing and social networking.
This can be a scary vision, but also quite a powerful one. In the widget world you are forced to integrate the silos that were previously separate. Many marketers don't try to integrate their website operations, viral activities and media buys in a meaningful way. But when all of these activities have a common technological back-end, the integrations become obvious and necessary.
The integration then opens up some interesting areas for study. Conversion attribution, for one. We are all struggling with the complex question of how different elements of media interact to generate conversion. Well, let's throw another dimension into that problem and start evaluating the effect of viral and branded exposures on consumer behavior. How did sharing my widget effect the likelihood of the consumer buying my product in the next 30 days? How did seeing the widget on someone else's Facebook page change the view-through rate on my campaign? How did interacting with the widget change my conversion rate of a paid search click?
Here's another one. We know that digital ads experience creative burn-out, where repeat viewings yield diminishing returns. How does that model work when the creative is itself a form of content, and that content is requested by the consumer? Maybe seeing a widget on your friend's homepage every day will actually increase response when that same brand is seen in an ad!
While we're at it, we have a world of discovery ahead of us in terms of understanding what specific elements within widgets drive adoption, sharing and virality. In these early days we're just assuming that valuable content (highlight reels) and well-known brands are the key to distribution. If you have one of those going for you, great! If you don't, we've got some work to do.
Media buying changes as well. Ad units are going to be a big launching point for viral campaigns; are we going to change our media buying to reflect the audiences most likely to share as opposed to those most likely to convert? We talk a lot about reaching the influencers, we are now on the verge of measuring their effect on virality as well.
Finally, what's the role of public relations in the widget world? You can use the data from your widget distribution to identify bloggers, influencers and general social hubs where your message resonates. What's the strategy for reaching out to these people and building relationships? Is that a PR job, or a media buying job, or something more akin to a good party planner?
When my colleagues and I discuss widgets we try to suppress the giggles. But where we end up is that widgets are either a) a fad; or b) the most important trend in interactive today. And none of us really know the answer to which is the right bet. But what we do know is that if they do, in fact, change the landscape of consumer behavior, internet marketing will never be the same.
One more thing: widget, widget, widget, widget widget, widget.
Ari Paparo is the vice president of advertiser products for DoubleClick. .