Take a deep breath and relax; building a widget isn't rocket science. But in this nascent world of distributed content, where standards are not yet established, understanding your options along with some generally accepted best practices will help you make smart design and development choices for your project.
So how do you determine what's right for your widget? From timing to technical specs, here's a how-to for budgets large and small, whether you have in-house designers and developers or are looking to outsource, and anything in-between.
Goals and parameters
As with any project, setting the project goals and parameters will help you evaluate your options against their ability to meet objectives, and evaluate any vendor on their experience with similar projects. I recommend preparing the answers to these questions before meeting with your team:
1. Goals. The first question to answer is, "What do I want my widget to accomplish?" Are you a content company looking to grow your audience via a distributed footprint? A media company looking to monetize the content your audience is eager to consume on the web? A marketer looking to promote your brand, engage your customers or directly sell product?
2. Target audience. Widgets fall into one of two categories: social widgets designed for social environments like blogs and social networks, which are used by an individual to communicate with and express themselves to their network of friends, and utility widgets used on desktops, start pages and mobile phones to amuse an individual and help them get through their day. Identify where your target audience is spending their time and choose the appropriate widget type.
3. Budget. Widgets don't have to be prohibitively expensive. There are resources to help you build a widget even if you have little or no design or development budget.
4. Time horizon for the build. Do you need your widget completed in hours, days, weeks or months? Time, budget and complexity are the typical tradeoffs.
5. Time horizon for maintenance. Does your widget need to be updated at particular intervals? Will that happen automatically through feeds or are there graphical elements and other content that need to be pushed out? How often and over what period of time?
6. Resources. Do you have in-house design or development resources? If the widget needs to be maintained over time, who are you expecting to do it? Have you worked that need into your budget?
7. Assets. Whether videos, feeds, contests or any other type, take stock of what assets you have to work with. From logos to quizzes to games, publishers and marketers often have a goldmine of content that was produced but not widely used and that can be repurposed when time or resources are scarce. If you are a media company, determine what content is most compelling or unique. If you are an advertiser putting resources behind a major campaign, have you budgeted for unique asset creation, are you pulling from other areas of your campaign, or are you looking to your audience for content?
Widgets are almost unlimited in terms of creative execution and functionality. Available real estate notwithstanding, anything that can be done in a website can be done in a widget. The tradeoff is time and expense.
For a really slick, high-end design, nothing really replaces a good interactive designer. However, if you have graphical assets you're looking to pull into place, or are building a feed-based widget, then you may be able to skip the designer and leverage the great volume of stock photography and other images that are available. If you're on a tight budget, be sure to choose images that are royalty-free.
On the development side, if you don't have resources in-house, your options are to use a creation tools company or a specialized development shop to build your widget.
Why use creation tools?
Creation tools provide pre-designed, tested and often innovative functionality that can potentially save you time -- in development and QA -- as well as money.
"With Flash, you have unlimited ability to build what you want," says Carnet Williams of Sprout. "The tradeoff is time and cost. To build by hand you need creative and engineering teams. Creation tools take out the engineering team so you can remove resources from the process."
There are quite a few options out there, ranging from the general to the specialized, free and self-service to premium. Mixercast, ReverbNation and Kyte are some of the companies that focus on music and entertainment. Sprout and Musestorm provide all-purpose tools to advertising agencies. Newsgator provides solutions for media companies with dynamic content that they require to be constantly in-sync with their website content, and who are looking to monetize that content.
Whatever your needs, be sure to ask any potential vendor about their cost structure for both upfront creation as well as ongoing maintenance and hosting of your widget.
Why use a development shop?
Working with a shop gives you the ability to build custom functionality, and they typically handle both design and development. Original games, database connectivity, and custom APIs, among other functionalities, require custom work. When choosing a shop, be sure they are proficient in both ActionScript 2.0 and ActionScript 3.0. Obtain samples of their work to see if you like look and feel of their designs, and pick a partner with solid references; working with an established company is typically more reliable than working with contractors.
Remember the sharing platform
Whichever design and development solution you choose, your widget needs to incorporate a distribution and tracking platform so your users can share it, and so you can track how and where they are using it. Most creation tools have them built in, and if you're building from scratch those same technologies are also available for your developer to use, free of charge, from companies like ours. Check that your distribution technology ensures your widget is compatible with the destination platforms, such as Facebook, which may be important to you and your target user.
Reporting and analytics are important considerations. I typically track metrics like interaction rate and impressions, along with custom metrics for each creative execution, and review them several days into a campaign in order to optimize. For a recent movie launch widget, I found that video views and viral pass-along increased significantly when offered in conjunction with other activities, rather than as stand-alone areas.
Widget as rich media ads
If you are planning on running a rich media ad campaign where your ad unit can be grabbed and installed by a user as a widget, then working with a rich media technology vendor is another option for your project. 300x250 is the size that allows the most flexibility for running your widget as a rich media ad unit, but be aware, you can always run a rich media ad unit that when grabbed installs a widget of larger dimensions. Also, a creative execution that garners the highest clickthrough or interaction rate as a rich media ad is not necessarily the same creative that will perform best as a widget. So be sure to test and incorporate some introductory frames and messaging that can deliver the best of both worlds.
IAB members, including widget service providers, destination platforms, and media companies, are currently working to develop standards. Until that day comes, there are some generally accepted best practices, both for technical development and creative execution that should keep you on track.
- Create video assets in QuickTime format, which allows them to be resized as needed for the widget. FLV format is acceptable but will limit you to the original screen dimension.
- MP3 format is ideal for Audio, providing the most flexibility for adding code to the tracks. Audio SWFs are also an option.
- When incorporating feeds, you can easily add them if they are in RSS format, or use XML to pull content in from external sources.
- If you're including third-party technologies, try to work with those that have preexisting APIs. If you need to develop code it will be more costly.
- With any content, make sure you have contractual permission to incorporate it. It's not OK to just pull ESPN's content and syndicate it in your widget.
- Keep the dimensions of your widget to no more than 380 pixels wide to maximize compatibility with destination platforms. We typically recommend that height is no more than 400 pixels.
- Keep the base .swf (Flash) file size of your widget under 500K, and ideally under 100K so that it loads as quickly as possible on the user's page. All other content can be pulled in externally, so that even 30MG videos won't effect initial load time because they are simply streamed in.
Successful creative executions are tied tightly to specific goals; however, the following guidelines apply to all:
- Keep it simple and focused. People take the path of least resistance, so put your most important activity front and center with a clear call to action. Secondary activities get little interaction, so don't waste time or money trying to force them into a small piece of real estate, and instead invest in content and presentation for the activity that is most important to hitting your engagement goals.
- Make it attractive. Particularly if you are creating a social widget, be sure both the execution and the content will make the user feel as if they are increasing their social status by placing it on their page.
- Make it special. Don't completely recreate your website or use content that is readily available. Extend your brand experience through the widget and provide something unique or exclusive. Even if you provide a set menu of content to choose from, allow for some customization. People love to give widgets a personal touch.
- Make it easy to share. Include a distribution platform and be sure there is a clear call to action for sharing. Try to encourage users to share at multiple points in the activity stream.
- Optimize. Everyone can learn from the direct response industry here, and widgets are a marriage between the best of both the brand advertising and direct response advertising worlds. Widget content can be changed instantly from a single location, so don't neglect this important avenue for making your creative a success. If users aren't taking the actions you desire, make a change!
Regarding user-generated activities, according to Jim Squires of Mixercast, try to keep a low barrier to entry so more people are likely to use it. Make it easy for people to provide content. Remove friction wherever possible, be proactive and prompt people to share. Be sure to do usability testing.
ComScore estimates that 625 million people worldwide viewed or engaged with a widget in June, a number that should motivate even the most reticent to jump in and test, even on a small scale, and help shape the evolution of this powerful medium.