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A creative primer on the power of brand widgets

A creative primer on the power of brand widgets Liza Hausman
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Today, hundreds of millions of consumers are choosing to spend time on social networks and other social platforms -- time that is spent communicating with others about activities and interests that include products and brands. As a result, brand marketers are challenged to create, execute, and evaluate large-scale, measurable advertising campaigns that not only reach their target audience in these social environments, but that effectively engage that audience and enlist them as brand advocates.


Marketers also face a dilemma: Traditional banner ads on social networks can bring massive reach but do not deliver a high level of engagement or impact, while non-traditional efforts like seeding or community outreach are difficult to measure, scale, or execute within specific campaign time frames. The current economy is now placing even more pressure on marketers to make all new investments accountable.

Incorporating brand widgets into an online advertising mix can help marketers address these challenges. Widgets can integrate brands into the core content and activity of a user's social network, and their impact can be measured against specific goals and benchmarks. New options have also emerged for creating performance-priced, scalable media plans.


A new media consumption landscape
The landscape for online media and advertising has changed dramatically over the last five years, driven by the proliferation of social platforms and tools that give internet users greater control over what content they consume, and where they consume it.


According to comScore, more than 580 million people worldwide visit a social network each month, more than 130 million in the U.S. alone, while combined page views for MySpace and Facebook are on track to surpass the combined page views of AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. Internet users today are spending less time on the sites that publish their favorite news or entertainment, and more time enjoying that content in the places they choose. 


In the early days of the internet, portals like Yahoo were the primary tools people used to find web content. The next generation saw Google and search revolutionize how people find information online. Today, social networks, start pages, blogs, RSS readers, social bookmarking tools, and other new platforms are the tools consumers choose to help them discover and manage content online. Not only do these new platforms and tools give people greater control over what they consume and where they consume it, they also enable people to share what they are thinking and doing quickly, easily, and now passively. 


Newsfeed functionality, pioneered by Facebook, surfaces everything a user's network of friends is doing -- what they are reading, which groups they are joining, the photos they are viewing, and even the sites they are visiting. As a result, a conversation or interaction around a brand experience that just two years ago would have been limited to a couple of friends is now broadcast instantly to hundreds. 


In addition to exposing a user to the activity in his network, these platforms also enable a new level of self-expression. Social network profile pages have become the public face, the image that people fashion for their world. The information, content, and activities people choose to showcase, from becoming a fan of NPR to promoting the latest Britney Spears single, become part of their online identities.   


These are sea changes in online content consumption and communication, changes that are increasingly becoming an integral part of consumers' daily lives. Finding ways to use today's communication tools to effectively initiate, shape, and participate in these new types of consumer interactions is both the challenge and opportunity for brands.


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The challenges of social advertising
Facing new media channels and new patterns of consumer behavior, marketers often feel they are starting from ground zero when it comes to planning and executing a social marketing effort. Some of the most common concerns include budgeting, targeting, and evaluating campaigns, as well as protecting a brand.


Targeting
Social networks now reach a very broad demographic when measured on a unique user basis; but just like any media property, user composition differs significantly when measured by time spent and level of engagement, characteristics that take on even greater importance when goals include social interactions. Granular demographic, psychographic, and behavioral targeting, often available against a wide variety of attributes, is not necessarily delivering on the promise of better performance.


Creative approach, budgeting and planning
The explosion of social media has spawned a host of new marketing and advertising options. Many of these require a different approach to online media planning and buying, as well as to creative strategy and execution. Media teams are unsure how to budget for placements that may extend beyond traditional campaign time frames, and often lack creative that is appropriate for these new environments. Creative teams developing a brand experience across multiple channels may be unsure how to make a brand relevant in a social environment. New creative units often lack formal standards, may not work across multiple platforms, and can be costly to produce.  


Measuring and evaluating
Performance models and measurable campaigns are no longer the sole purview of direct-response advertisers. According to the recent IBM study "The End of Advertising as We Know It," advertisers are now demanding more individual-specific and involvement-based measurements, and more than two-thirds of the global advertising industry executives interviewed expect advertising revenue to shift to impact-based models within three years. These advertisers see opportunity, but also face the related challenges of defining and adopting new metrics, determining benchmarks, and setting appropriate goals.


Protecting the brand
Many brand marketers fear that social advertising efforts could have a negative impact on their brand by giving consumers too much control, potentially allowing a negative minority to derail a brand's efforts. Others find it difficult to identify ways to engage consumers in a meaningful dialogue.


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Defining brand widgets
What is a widget? A widget is portable piece of content that non-technical users can add to their webpage, personalized homepage, desktop, blog, or social network. Typically, it takes on a graphical form and will work like a mini application or program. Some display content, while others provide services or share data from another website. Widgets are also referred to as "gadgets" or "social applications."


A dedicated brand widget is a widget whose creative is designed to engage a user with a specific brand experience, one in which the brand message is intertwined with the content. Brand widgets are distinguished from other widget advertising options such as sponsored widgets, those in which a brand advertiser may place their logo or tagline adjacent to the content of a third party, or ads in widgets, where a widget containing third-party content may contain a standard IAB ad unit.


Brand widget examples


Types of brand widgets
Widgets, including brand widgets, are designed with one of two primary environments in mind: a computer desktop or a social web page. Desktop widgets are most commonly installed on user desktops and desktop platforms like Google Desktop. They are also installed to personal start pages, such as NetVibes or MyYahoo. Typically utilitarian in nature, desktop widgets often include news, weather, clocks, or even casual games.


Hotel Indigo, part of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, created a utility widget targeted to frequent business travelers. The widget's content included information about restaurants and activities in the vicinity of each hotel, hotel news, and quick links for booking rooms. No matter what the content type, desktop widgets are used by and exposed to only the user who installed them.



Social widgets are commonly installed on social networks and blogs, and typically contain elements of entertainment, self-expression, or communication. JC Penney's Arizona Jeans brand created a social widget to reinforce its brand message of "Create a Style All Your Own." The widget enabled users to upload a photo, customize it with a variety of picture frames, hair, hats, and accessories. Users could then place the customized picture on their profile page, share it with their friends on social networks, and see a gallery of friends' creations. Social widgets are most importantly defined by a "one-to-many" opportunity for exposure, meaning they can be interacted with and viewed by both the user who installs the widget, as well as that person's network of friends.

Who is using widgets?
Widgets are extremely popular among social network users, and their use spans a range of demographic groups. comScore estimates that 625 million people worldwide viewed or engaged with a widget in June of 2008. According to Forrester Research, 59 percent of adult social networking site users and 64 percent of youth social networking users use widgets, and almost one-third of all U.S. online youth use widgets. The same study also found that (web) widget users "exhibit specific psychographics, such as 'I often tell my friends about products that interest me,' that indicate greater brand loyalty, as well as a propensity to tell others what they like and don't like."
 
The opportunity to reach influential consumers and enlist them to spread the word has provided many brands with sufficient incentive to run social widget campaigns. Earlier this year, Levi's launched a marketing campaign for a jean and shoe package co-branded with Nike. Outside of niche PR, a widget was the sole vehicle used to market the product. The widget included product shots in slideshow format, music from new artists to increase the appeal to the urban male demographic, a customizable electronic ticker where a user could place a personal message, as well as information on where to buy. According to Levi's, the product sold out in less than one day. 


Unilever took another approach for its Dove Go Fresh line extension targeted to teen girls, using a widget to get more exposure from existing creative assets. The primary creative vehicle was a mini-series featuring Alicia Keys that ran for seven weeks in the commercial break time during the TV show "The Hills." Unilever created a "Go Fresh" branded widget and published a new episode to the widget each week following its TV airing, extending the series online to the social environments where they believed teen girls would be most likely to share and interact with it.


Benefits of brand widgets
Brand widgets have several characteristics that make them both appropriate for social media environments and brand-friendly.

1. User Endorsement
According to an eMarketer report, friends, family, and acquaintances were rated by U.S. consumers on a 10-point scale as the most trusted sources of information -- averaging an 8.6, while advertising received a rating of only 2.2. For a brand widget to appear on a user's social network profile page, that user must actively place it there. This has several implications for marketers: First, the widget becomes part of the content on users' pages, something of interest they themselves have chosen. Contrast this with a banner on the periphery of the page, something clearly understood by internet users as content pushed there by an advertiser. Second, friends of that user who are visiting the profile page see the brand widget as content chosen by the friend for his or her page, content that is effectively "endorsed." Finally, the widget is an efficient vehicle, reaching only those who are interested in the widget content or who may be influenced by a friend.  


2. Creativity and control
Developed in Flash, and with the ability to pull in and update external content, widgets enable creative teams to develop a rich experience that gives brands the freedom and control they typically only experience with television creative or websites. While widgets can and should include opportunities for users to personalize the experience, they do not have to incorporate user-generated content to be successful. The creative developers at Jib-Jab have demonstrated that providing users with the ability to participate and customize content does not have to mean giving up important elements of presentation and control. On a technical note, installed widgets all point back to a single source file, so it is relatively easy to make universal changes to creative should a brand need to make an update, respond to feedback, or simply evolve the creative execution.


3. Tracking and measurement
Widgets can be tracked and measured in great detail, providing brands with the ability to both compare performance to more traditional online advertising vehicles, and to gather insight from consumers about products and brands. Widgets can track standard measures such as installs, impressions, interaction rate, and interaction time, but also metrics such as the average number of friends who have viewed or interacted with each installed widget, the popularity of specific activities within a widget, where and how the widget is being shared, and the effectiveness of different distribution points. On the planning side, third-party measurement companies such as comScore and Quantcast are leading the charge to quantify widget audiences.

Getting started: What to consider
There are five key areas to consider when planning a brand widget campaign.  These include:



  • Designing for a social environment

  • Design and development resources

  • Distribution and tracking

  • Analysis and optimization

  • Post-campaign planning

Keys to designing for a social environment
Provide value. Effective widget creative provides value to the user, giving that person incentive to install it, and compelling them to keep, share, and interact with it over time. Value provided can be considered within the following hierarchy:



  1. Increasing a user's social capital. High-performing widgets enhance a user's image among friends. For some groups, this can mean being associated with a hip brand, or being seen as "in the know" about the latest trends or activities. For others, it might mean being seen as clever, well-connected, or associated with a particular social cause.  


  2. Facilitating communication or self-expression. Another powerful option is to enable users to express themselves to their network of friends in novel ways. Personalized slideshows, customized themed messages, MP3 playlists, and virtual gifts all have proven appeal, providing users with engaging ways to stay in touch with a large group or take control of how they present themselves to their world.


  3. Entertaining. At a minimum, successful social widgets entertain their users. This can include everything from casual or interactive games and quizzes, to entertaining shorts and movie trailers, to virtual pets.

Keep it simple, focused, and relevant. Successful widgets combine both brand and direct response best practices. Brand elements are integrated in ways that are relevant to the activity, and the activity itself supports brand attributes or positioning. Revlon's Lash Fantasy widget enables users to create a visual representation of their ideal fantasy life. The key brand attributes of fashion, glamour, and fun are incorporated into the core activity, and the activity is engaging and appropriate for the young female target. Successful widgets also make it easy for users to take desired actions. Making one or two simple activities the focal point, including prominent calls-to-action at relevant points in the workflow, and delivering value just a few clicks into the activity are all important considerations when designing to gain and keep a user's attention. 

Tap into promotional tools. Social networks like MySpace and Facebook have opened up their platforms to widget developers, enabling widgets to take advantage of the powerful communication systems that are part of those networks. Advertisers can now create widgets that incorporate a user's existing network of friends, allowing users to easily interact and share content. Widget activity can also be published to newsfeeds or other messaging systems, communication tools that can help increase widget exposure and interaction rates. 

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Design and development resources
For marketers who do not have resources in-house, the primary options for creating a widget are using a creation tools vendor or contracting a specialized development shop. For advertisers who have design resources but lack back-end developers, creation tools provide pre-designed and tested functionality that can potentially save time -- in development and QA -- as well as money.

Analysis and optimization
As with any online advertising effort, optimizing both creative execution and media plan can yield superior results. As mentioned earlier, installed widgets typically point to a single source file, making it relatively easy to make universal changes. If a brand widget is designed to foster specific user actions, and falls short of those goals, the creative can and should be revisited to improve performance. Best practices suggest that widget creative be reviewed as soon as there is sufficient data available, whether that is hours, days, or weeks after launch. Similarly, if the media plan has some flexibility, reviewing performance a few weeks into the campaign can provide the necessary insight for shifting budget to the best performing channels or partners.


Post-campaign planning
Whether a widget remains on a user's page, or is removed, is a decision made exclusively by the user who installed it. However, the content that appears in the widget is under the exclusive control of the widget's creator. Marketers need to consider what they want to appear in any widgets that remain on user's pages or desktops following the end of a campaign. While leaving the original widget content is an option, there is also opportunity to provide something new by replacing the widget with a subsequent campaign. Soliciting feedback is another option that may secure new insights from important brand advocates.


Moving forward
Getting it right takes considerable planning and analysis. Some brands may simply choose not to participate, but the trends in user communication and self-expression that are driving the growth of social media are showing no signs of reversal. Nearly three in four teens (70 percent) and one in four adults (24 percent) send more instant messages than emails, and IM users are now instant messaging from within their social networking profiles. A recent Razorfish study of "connected consumers" found that nearly half of all respondents had made a purchase based on a recommendation through a social media site. Understanding how to work with these new behaviors to develop competitive advantage requires that marketers both test and iterate. Brands that fail to get involved may leave powerful influencers untapped, or allow them to be tapped by the competition. 




Liza Hausman is vice president of marketing for Gigya Inc.

Liza Hausman is vice president, marketing, for Rocketfuel, a brand optimization platform that enables advertisers to buy, measure and optimize digital campaigns to deliver the same “metrics that matter” used in offline campaigns.

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