If you have spent any amount of time casting about the "social web," you likely have gotten plenty of widgets caught in your net. But despite the prevalence of widgets, few marketers have fully explored the ability of these applications to carry effective advertising messages.
Once referred to simply as "applications," widgets are known by many names, including gadgets, badges, modules, capsules, snippets, minis and flakes. Regardless of how you refer to them, widgets serve as one of the latest sources of excitement among those hanging out on the bleeding edge of emerging media territories.
To fully understand the marketing applications and opportunities for widgets, it's useful to first have an understanding of widget fundamentals. Basically, a widget is a portable chunk of code that can be installed and executed within an HTML-based web page. They can be executed by any online user and do not require users to do any additional assemblage. In other words, widgets are little pieces of software that can be taken and placed anywhere within an HTML-based environment.
These nomadic pieces of software are receiving intense interest as possible vehicles for advertising for two primary reasons. For one, individuals choose to transport and install widgets. As such, there is the potential for significant user engagement with widgets and, by association, the advertising messages connected to them. Secondly, widgets can be incorporated into digital environments where more-traditional ad vehicles might not be able to go, thus reaching previously unreachable audiences.
There are legions of widgets out there. Widgetbox.com, a community of tens of thousands of widget makers and more than 30 million widget users, serves as a repository of zillions of the applications. To date, the site has served more than 3.5 billion widgets, with some 200-plus widgets being logged every second. Personally, I currently have no less than 27 widgets installed on my Facebook page -- and that's only after I deleted a dozen or more.
Social networking sites are the most popular points of distribution for widgets, and they are also the most common destinations for these applications. Facebook and MySpace are perhaps the most well-known purveyors of widgets, but they also are used as a method of distribution by ad networks such as Google's AdSense, as well as by media sites such as Flickr and YouTube.
If you are interested in using widgets for online advertising efforts, there are several venues to explore when determining what's available and possible within this medium. Widget management systems provide marketers with a means of administrating widgets that work on just about any kind of web page. Blog systems such as WordPress and Movable Type provide widget management systems as plug-ins. Marketers can also find widgets and other widget management tools through companies such as Clearspring and Gigya. Likewise, they can contact a company like appssavvy. Serving as a middleman between widgets and their producers and advertisers and their agencies, companies like appssavvy can help find the best matches for both parties.
There's no doubt that widgets are vehicles; their pervasiveness alone is testament to their ability to both move and be moved. More commonly in question is whether widgets should carry advertising messages and, if so, whether they can do so successfully.
The answer to the first question is simple: Yes, they should. Most widgets are free, and some of them provide their adopters with significant utilities, either as tools or sources of entertainment. Thus, widgets carry value, and subsidizing their existence with advertising seems reasonable.
The answer to the second question is not as simple. To date, most marketing uses of widgets have been limited in some fashion. In general, widgets used to carry advertising messages have either been limited to marketers' own sites, or the widgets have been limited in terms of where they will go on the web.
Furthermore, no good research data are currently available with regard to the effectiveness of widgets in carrying advertising messages. With any luck, this may soon change. Appssavvy recently announced that it has forged a relationship with Sometrics, an analytics company focusing on social networks. This partnership should eventually yield some metrics that -- depending on the results -- marketers could use to justify their forays into new and experimental marketing media. Such data may help marketers determine whether the back-end results of widgets justify the front-end allocation of resources.
The most significant feature of a widget as an ad vehicle is its portability. As widgets continue to move into the mobile computing space, their potential as ad vehicles is much more likely to be realized. After all, it's easy to accept a link for a widget, such as Facebook's (Lil) Green Patch, when someone within your network sends it to you; however, the application may end up sitting on your Facebook page indefinitely without your ever giving it another look. As these little applications become fully mobile, it will become apparent which ones are valuable enough to make it onto people's smartphones. Ads carried in this context will be a boon to mobile advertising.
The role of the widget in advertising might remain minor in the immediate future; it might remain minor forever. But the cost of entry is low, and the opportunity is significant. In addition, there is still a lot to learn about how people use their media when messages are untethered from time and place. The ability to gain insights into these behaviors will prove far more valuable to marketers' ultimate missions than the ability for ad messages carried by widgets to sell products.