Ad executives often say that good creative cannot be churned out like so many "widgets," a handy catchall term signifying any commodity. But now advertisers are using the term to describe a specific new application, one they hope will break through Internet clutter to connect with consumers.
Widgets are mini-Web applications that are downloaded onto a user's desktop or transported into personal Web pages, blogs and social-network profiles. For users, they are a source of constantly updated information, from weather to sports scores to personal photos, that can eliminate the need to visit multiple Web sites.
Such technology is appealing to marketers at a time when user invitation is overtaking interruption. The trick, according to agencies and tech companies, is creating a widget that adds value to a user experience while building brand affinity.
"It's going to become increasingly popular because [of] the power of permission marketing," said Jonathan Strauss, product manager for Yahoo Widgets, the group formed last year after the search company bought Konfabulator, a small firm that is credited with pioneering mini-Web applications. "All advertisers want to have a consensual relationship with consumers."
Sara Lee is the latest marketer to dip its toes in these waters, with a Jimmy Dean Happy News Ticker that brings upbeat headlines to users desktops as part of its "Happy Breakfast" ad campaign. The widget will also feed users Webisodes, recipes and coupons.
Thanks to its acquisition of Konfabulator and a huge user base, Yahoo has become a leader in marketing widgets. One, for Acura RDX, can deliver real-time traffic updates directly to drivers' desktops in more than 30 cities. Honda promoted the application to users who checked traffic on Yahoo Maps and in the portal's widget gallery. (The gallery is where users can download existing widgets or create their own.) A key benefit was the traffic widget's tying into the RDX's navigation system, which includes traffic data. "It reinforced that product feature by having [one like it] available on your desktop," said Jenny Howell, manager of interactive marketing at American Honda. The widget has been downloaded over 30,000 times in three months.
Other brands offering widgets in Yahoo's 3,700-strong gallery include Purina, Symantec and Target. Purina this week is launching a weather widget for pet owners, where they can upload photos of their furry companions, which are then given random thought bubbles concerning the weather conditions.
Like many aspects of user-directed advertising, striking the right balance is key, said agency execs. Having useful content to provide is the biggest challenge. Sara Lee partnered with HappyNews.com to supply content. Likewise, Johnnie Walker this summer linked up with music system Pandora to provide streaming content for its desktop widget, a key partnership for attracting downloads, said Adam Berkowitz, president of New York Web shop ID Society, which created the application.
Widgets are also making the leap from desktop to Web pages. Blogs and social networks are fertile ground, said Chris Marentis, CEO, Clearspring Technologies, a widget platform that launched last week. Users of MySpace, for instance, are already adept at pasting snippets of code that embed photo slide shows, YouTube players and other special effects.
Tracking widget downloads will give advertisers valuable feedback. "They'll start to see the viral hubs and see where their influencers are," Marentis said.
Howell pointed out, however, that metrics are still spotty, omitting how active users are. And widgets are still relatively obscure. But Berkowitz said low reach is the trade-off for high involvement with the brand. "It's not a mass-market tool," he said. "You have to be someone who is really into that brand to download it. You're not talking about hundreds of thousands of consumers."