iMedia Connection

11 steps to widget success

Mitchel Ahern

The first flush of widget marketing has passed, lessons have been learned, and best practices are beginning to emerge. But where are widgets now, what is working, what isn't, and where is widget marketing going?

As widget marketing expands, evolves and matures, a new relationship-focused messaging model has emerged. This poses organizational challenges; widgets may look like banner ads, but they are starting to behave more like email.

Email is the internet's original "killer app," and an enormous industry has grown up around the commercial aspects of using email as a brand communication channel. Display media, search and email form the three pillars of internet marketing, and most brands spend considerable resources on all three. Widgets represent a new addition to the mix. But where do they fit in exactly?

As with any mature industry, search, email and display media have evolved their own best practices, supporting businesses and professional specialists (generally with their own departments within their organizations).

Email marketing is generally focused on long-term relationship-building activity such as messaging, growing lists, managing and segmenting users, messaging and tracking those users -- all with ultimate goal of demonstrable ROI.

Display media and search are almost exclusively focused on acquisition and tend to be organized around relatively short-term campaigns with very specific goals. So far, widget marketing is not functioning as a new form of digital marketing, but rather as an adjunct to relationship and acquisition marketing, which poses an organizational challenge: Who manages widget campaigns? Early widget marketing has tended to look rather like banner campaigns, but with a potentially large viral component. Now widgets are being deployed that deliver targeted messages and content in order to build long-term brand relationships.

Widgets have different roles for different goals
Let's take a closer look at some of the different roles widgets are playing as part of a brand's marketing strategy. By better understanding these categories, widget developers will be better able to use their own widgets to meet their ROI goals.

Branded social widgets: These widgets can behave like banner ads and are often campaign-based for events like movie releases. Companies like ClearSpring and Gigya deliver these sorts of widgets by the millions. Target platforms tend to be blog platforms such as TypePad or blogger and widgets for social media widget environments like Facebook or MySpace. One of the challenges of these campaign-based widgets is that of audience -- when the campaign is over, what happens to all of those widget installations? The widget could be updated to a new campaign, but it might be impolite to the user if they downloaded one widget and it turned into something else they were not interested in.

Branded relationship widgets: These are widgets whose lead goal is to deliver highly relevant personal messaging or functionality. Target platforms tend to be personalized start pages such as NetVibes, social media applications, desktop widgets like Google Desktop, and desktop applications. These get more interesting the more relevant the widgets are, either through user-selected parameters or by user authentication. Direct response personal widgets enable the user to receive personalized messages and make one-click orders right through the widget.

B2B enterprise 2.0 widgets: These are widgets deployed by businesses for other business users; this seems to be a growth area. The problems of deliverability and inbox clutter are even more vexing for companies with distributed sales forces or large numbers of employees, and many businesses are using out-of-date and expensive means of information deliverability (CDs and faxes even). Saving money, delivering more relevant and timely documents, establishing new communication channels and the ability to measure all of the above is making sense to companies with networks of agents, advisors and franchises. These B2B-facing widgets are generally desktop applications, although mobile applications are starting to be seen as well, with LinkedIn and Facebook becoming interesting platforms.

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11 components of a successful widget program
While a widget program can be as simple as a Flash movie and a syndication engine, savvy marketers are finding that a more in-depth approach yields substantial rewards by extending what has been learned in email marketing. The first step to getting positive widget results is differentiating between the elements of a widget program.

Six types of widgets:
It is tempting to think of widgets as singular items that are then set to run on myriad available widget platforms. In truth, though, there are different categories of widgets, each of which have distinctive usage patterns that should drive design:

Other components:
Email: Email is an important component of any evolved widget program, particularly for relationship-focused widgets. Email is used for distribution, relationship management, for win-back and to counter drop-off. Widgets can also be used to gather emails and build user profiles. It is also worth noting that unless a marketer has a robust email marketing program, they are unlikely to be prepared for a relationship widget marketing program. Email is the cornerstone of permission marketing; without it, brands tend to flail. It is also worth noting that younger demographics are tending to message each other outside of the email channel using mobile and social media channels.

Social media applications: Applications running in a social media environment that take full advantage of the social hooks the platform provides. Powerful but hard to get right.

Mobile applications: There has been huge growth in Apple iPhone applications and expected growth in the Google Android platform, as well as other platforms like Zumobi and Windows Mobile applications. These small applications are very similar to widgets and desktop applications, and can be designed to be an integral part of a widget program.

Unified preference center: Already in use by sophisticated email marketers, preference centers give an email subscriber the ability to manage their email messaging content and frequency. This helps transform unsubscribers to a different type of subscriber. A unified preference center gives customers the ability to not only change their message content and frequency, but the platform they want to be messaged on, such as email, widgets or mobile.

Relationship marketing platforms: The plethora of widget platforms and elements makes it critical that brands have a platform to manage email, widgets, desktop applications, channels, content, measurement, users and targeting. Relationship marketing campaigns need to evolve over time in order to conserve and grow audience size, so it is important to have tools at hand to manage all program aspects. These tools may be a collection of content management, email service providers (ESPs) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, or may be managed through a unified relationship marketing platform.

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Widget messaging, functionality and content creates engagement
A widget's content and functionality are what drive user engagement. Simple promotional widgets may update over the course of the campaign, but they may not change at all. In this case, the widget will only be used a few times for novelty purposes, and then may never be visited again. Feed-driven widgets will display regularly updated content that helps keep them installed and helps maintain a constant level of interaction. Relationship-oriented widgets are displaying content directly related to the person who is viewing them and can become an important part of the user's digital day.

Personal information and messaging: A relationship-oriented widget or BDA may have the ability to be authenticated, usually to the same authentication services used by the secure website. This enables the widget or application to display content specific to the user, such as loyalty points, financial information or social media information. This can make the widget or application a key component of users' digital lifestyles. 

Exclusive content: Generating well over $150 million dollars in revenue, Southwest Airline's Ding application has certainly demonstrated the value of pushing the right content to the right channel. Far too few marketers understand the value of providing exclusive content that can be targeted to the right individual.

Repurposed content: It is important that any widget campaign have as minimal impact on the brand's marketing organization as possible. No one wants to be spending a lot of staff extra time on their relationship marketing effort, so the efficient repurposing of existing content and feeds is critical. Of course, repurposed content can behave differently in different contexts: Photos can become wallpapers and screensavers, offers can become alerts, and a large archive of content can become an updating content channel.

User-generated content (UGC): Widgets and applications are key components of social media strategies: iPhone applications are clearly superior for Twitter content than SMS, and desktop applications can not only display UGC but can upload content as well.

Content for in-widget consumption: Widgets can either deliver full messages and content, or they can drive users back to the website. Brands often struggle over which model to use, since significant resources were used to develop the site. It is important to consider the overall organizational goals and how a relationship marketing strategy will further those goals. It can be easy to confuse the means for the ends -- just because a brand has spent a lot of resources on the website does not mean that visiting the website is the ultimate goal. Throwing extra clicks into the conversion path may cause unnecessary drop-off.

Teaser content: Many widgets and BDAs use short versions of the content to encourage users to return to a browser page for full content. 

Low and high functionality: Widgets and desktop applications can include functionality that ranges from simple to complex. Windows and Mac both have their own built-in desktop widget platforms that feature clocks, weather watchers and simple feed viewers. Desktop applications can incorporate sophisticated functionality up to full-featured applications like iTunes. While greater complexity generally means higher up-front development costs, it can also drive engagement in a very significant way.

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Three potential points of failure for widget programs
Relationship marketing through widgets and BDAs has much in common with other relationship marketing tactics, such as email. There are also aspects of widget marketing that are different enough to be called out separately and represent some common points of program failure

The distinction between campaigns and relationships: Managing the widget audience is one of the most challenging aspects of widget-based permission marketing, particularly for advertising agencies, but also for brands. If a widget is deployed for a specific campaign, and there is a measure of viral success, then what does one do with the audience at the end of the campaign? These can be a brand's most valuable and loyal customers, so simply abandoning or switching off the widget seems like an injurious waste. The best widget campaigns are a permanent part of a brand's ongoing CRM efforts and should be optimized and evolved over time.

Widget distribution: Poor distribution and promotion is probably the biggest single point of failure in widget marketing. It is often the case that the business unit developing the widget is separate from the business unit embedding, distributing and promoting the widget, and they don't get brought into the project early enough. It is unfortunately common for widgets to be hard to find and mislabeled, even on the brand's own website, and they may not be a part of normal opt-in opportunities such as newsletter sign-up. Widget marketing is at its best when it is relationship marketing, and as such should be deeply embedded in all other marketing efforts.

Optimization and transfiguration: The key to growing audience and long-term engagement is optimizing and evolving widgets over time. By measuring user engagement and using a relationship marketing platform, a brand can improve and enhance its widgets and applications, adapting them to new marketing initiatives.

Future directions and trends in relationship marketing
At this point in time, I think we're in a bit of a widget backlash, particularly for banner-like web widgets. Many brands have spent money (although probably not lots of money) developing and deploying widgets, and expecting a big viral pay-off. But they are largely not getting it. Early viral successes are hard to reproduce, and the very nature of viral means that only a very few will rise to the top. However, there also seems to be a growing interest in using the larger widget space to extend a brand's CRM activities and direct marketing programs.

Near term: We see increasing integration between email, widgets, desktop applications and mobile applications. User management and content targeting are key to making the widget experience meaningful and long-lasting. It's the relationships that matter, not the platforms.

Long term: We see continuing fragmentation in the messaging and content market place. New platforms will evolve, old platforms will change roles, and younger demographics will be harder to reach using traditional tactics. The lines between websites, microsites, widgets and software will continue to blur, and success will be measured in smaller slices over a wider array of customer touchpoints.

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Mitchel Ahern is director of product management for OTOlabs.