A creative primer on the power of brand widgets

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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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