Field of Widget Dreams

There’s a phenomenon whereby normally intelligent people at both digital and traditional agencies decide that people will embrace their new widget or app simply because they’ve built it. It’s as if the Internet were a giant cornfield in Iowa and the mere presence of yet another branded widget or app is enough to get thousands of people clicking.

But Field of Dreams was just a movie. In the real world, if you build it, they will not come. Not unless you give them a reason to do so. That reason has to be pretty compelling. Branded widgets and apps compete for our attention with a score of very well done unbranded ones. And yet I rarely hear anyone — on the client or agency side — asking, “Why would anyone want to use this thing?”

I mean, seriously, why would anyone want to download a widget that let them play a game that involved trying to scrub the dirt off of a pan with a series of ineffective scouring pads, where winning involved finding and using the (not very well hidden) new Acme SuperScrub scouring pad, “The only pad that gets tough baked-on grease off pans.”

OK, so I’m exaggerating (a bit), but you get the picture. That’s exactly the kind of nonsense agencies and clients are putting out there — work that assumes a far greater level of interest and fascination with the product than actually exists. That delusion is part of a mind-set left over from the days of “push” advertising, where the consumer had no choice (short of changing the channel or flipping through the magazine) but to hear the advertiser’s message. We didn’t get to actively choose which ones we wanted to see.

And that’s a critical difference that bears repeating. With the push method of advertising, we must take action in order not to see the ad. With widgets, apps and other online vehicles, we must take action in order to see them. People don’t stumble upon widgets and apps by accident. It’s all done quite on purpose. Using them requires an active decision on the part of the consumer who has to go out of his or her way to install them. Which means they need to be judged by a completely different set of standards than push advertising like TV and print, the primary one being: Would anyone actually go out of their way to use it?

That’s why successful apps are not just afterthoughts, one more item on the “things we need to create to show that we get digital” checklist (along with a passel of rich-media banner ads and the omnipresent microsite). They are not extensions of the TV campaign repurposed in game form. Think about it: Why would anyone go out of their way to play “Help Zack and Jenny get the Crispy-Os into the bowl” when their alternatives are Facebook Scrabble, iPhone Tetris and the ever-popular iFart (No. 1 with a bullet on the iTunes Paid Apps chart)?

Encouragingly though, some brands have managed to get it right, Zippo’s Virtual Lighter app (via Moderati, New York) being the most notable. Why does it work? Because it’s fun. Because it lets you use your iPhone to do something pretty cool in a way that makes sense for the iPhone, and because it doesn’t ruin the fun and the cool by trying to cram in a half-dozen copy points about why you might want to go out and buy a Zippo lighter — right now. (It also doesn’t make you register, give up your e-mail address, swear undying loyalty to Zippo lighters or many of the other ham-fisted techniques marketers use in the quest to “capture names.”)

Coke’s Spin the Bottle iPhone app (not yet out as I write this) also promises to deliver for all the same reasons. What’s more, it’s been clever enough to get some early PR buzz, so people are actually aware of and anticipating it. And Nike’s Training Club, a free iPhone app aimed at women, also seems to be garnering many positive reviews and is the sort of utilitarian app we’d use even if it didn’t have the Nike logo attached to it.

That is the alpha and the omega of success in this type of media: Make something people like and would want to use even if it didn’t have a brand logo attached to it. If that sounds like an overly trite platitude and more than a bit obvious, that’s because it is. But agencies and clients who assume a far greater degree of interest in and love for their products than actually exists often ignore this basic tenet of marketing. Not every brand needs its own iPhone app or desktop widget. It’s a nice extra to provide if you can find a compelling reason for one, but it’s certainly not a necessity.

And while a badly done TV commercial might not get a whole lot of recall, a useless widget or app gets zero. It’s entirely possible that if you build it, no one will come.

Alan Wolk runs his own creative strategy firm, The Toad Stool. He can be reached at alan.wolk@mac.com.