It seems like everywhere you turn these days, you bump into a marketer talking about widgets. Meanwhile, nobody seems to be able to nail down exactly what a widget is. I suppose that's the reason they're called widgets.
So for the sake of this article, I will use a definition I found on Wikipedia describing web widgets: "A web widget is a portable chunk of code that can be installed and executed within any separate HTML-based web page by an end user without requiring additional compilation."
A fundamental flaw in a lot of the discussion surrounding widgets today is that it is prescriptive; we keep hearing about what a widget does and doesn't do. I like the Wikipedia definition because it is descriptive; it explains to us at the most basic level what a widget is and, by doing so, it also lets us know that a widget can be whatever the hell we want it to be, so long as it complies with the very straightforward criteria as set out above. Of course, this definition is not complete. For example, desktop widgets don't really fit into this definition. One could also argue that iPhone and other mobile phone applications fall within the characteristics of what we might call a widget.
As marketers, we need to recognize that widgets can be used either in a private capacity or posted for the general public. Private widgets can be embedded in personal portals, wikis and private blogs, whereas publicly intended widgets get posted to public blogs, social network pages and websites.
The question marketers need to ask themselves isn't, "How can I use a widget?" but rather "Why should I use a widget?" In other words, how would a widget strategically benefit your marketing objectives? In order to answer that question, let's take a look at different types of widgets and what they have to offer users. For the sake of simplicity, I have divided them into two categories: lifestyle widgets and functional widgets.
These are widgets whose principal value is entertainment or self expression. They don't provide any utilitarian functionality. Instead, they serve as a means of passing time, they provide entertainment or distraction, or they draw attention to whoever is using them. Below are the main types of lifestyle widgets.
Identity by affiliation. A lot of entertainment companies, especially ones geared toward younger audiences, have deployed widgets that offer users the ability to affiliate themselves with their favorite celebrities. Often, these widgets do not offer any functionality other than serving as a marker associating oneself with, for example, a pop star, film star or fashion label. Also, in reference to the presidential election, we have seen people put html badges declaring their support for a candidate on their social network pages and blogs, where they serve as virtual lawn signs.
Humor. If you look at viral marketing campaigns, humor is by far the most used tool to engage audiences. It is the largest common denominator that we have, barring sex, and so it becomes a universal language that can speak on behalf of almost any brand. A lot of widgets use humor as a way to entice people to embed them on their blogs or social networks. For example, Kimberly-Clark took a humorous approach to promote a contest and giveaway via a widget.
Video. The dawn of YouTube has created a whole new category: video widgets. By allowing users to embed video clips, anyone can turn their existing TV ad into an embeddable widget. Personally, I like the Nike Football Widget, a global promo widget for Nike. The widget contains a catalog of films that are both searchable and viewable from within the widget. It is a good example because it contains a variety of content that is integrated within a branded product.
Photo sharing. Slideshow widgets enable users to embed their photographs in their blogs and social networks. Flickr.com started the trend, and nowadays we are seeing companies such as Slide.com valued at astronomical levels.
Casual gaming. Casual gaming is another area where widgets seem to be a natural fit. Casual games are simple computer games that are reminiscent of how arcade games used to be when they first came out: quick and simple. A lot of companies choose to sponsor casual game widgets through companies like NeoEdge, reaching millions of consumers through publishers such as Yahoo! Games.
Novelty widgets. Novelty widgets are the type of widgets that you can't really place into any category. Generally, they're just seen as cool additions to your website. Here's where you'll find widgets like the Magic 8 Ball, fortune cookies, scribble toys, etc.
Many companies use widgets that provide utilitarian value to users in order to get its brand in front of consumers. These widgets can either provide information or functionality -- but the main point is that they aim to provide service beyond entertainment or self expression.
Value-added functionality. Companies use functional widgets to entice users to interact with their brand. Such value-added widgets include currency converters, clocks, calculators and branded RSS readers. The functionality does not necessarily lead to a transaction with the company, but it enables users to interact with the brand in a relevant and useful way.
Extended business functionality. As portable interactive web applications, widgets offer a great opportunity to extend a company's functionality far beyond its own websites. Widgets can be interactive and connect directly to back-end systems, enabling inventory control, credit card transactions and all sorts of interactions. For example, you can use Travelocity's widget to search best rates for flights, hotels and car rentals. Accuweather offers a video widget displaying the latest weather updates. Rich media is changing the way web advertising has traditionally been done with banners, which lure consumers to click on them to be taken off their intended site. Instead, flash banners are being replaced by ad widgets that are interactive and dramatically push the envelope of traditional ads.
Core business functionality. For some web-based companies, widgets are more than marketing tools; they are an integral part of their core offerings. They are an extension of the product -- another medium for users to interact with. Skype offers a variety of buttons and pieces of code that web publishers can add to their sites as a mode of communication. Google has widgetized a lot of its offerings: maps, documents, calendars, email and, of course, search. We are seeing a trend in which internet companies are decentralizing and fragmenting their business units into portable code that users can use as they see fit on their personal start pages, wikis, social profile pages and public websites.
As demonstrated above, widgets come in all shapes and forms, and we can all rest assured that widgets will continue to evolve and develop. The positive trend in all of this is that such evolution is forcing marketers to change the way they see a marketing campaign. It is also changing the way product managers view marketing; a widget doesn't need to simply advertise a product, it can be the product. Technology is driving the integration of business functions; operations, marketing, customer relations and inventory control can all play a roll in one widget.
Michael Raisanen is the founder and CEO of Raisanen Creative.