Widgets Gone Wild

NEW YORK It was clear widgets had arrived when the first-ever conference devoted to marketing via the small, portable Web applications, WidgetCon 2007, hit New York this past July, drawing reps from digital players including Fox Interactive Media, Denuo and Clearspring Technologies.

Now comes another turning point, as McLean, Va.-based Clearspring on Dec. 10 gears up to roll out the Widget Ad Network, enabling media companies to create ad-embedded widgets distributed via social-networking sites, desktops and mobile phones. Media outlets including CBS, Fox and The Huffington Post have signed on, with ad support from Virgin Mobile, Blockbuster, T-Mobile and Visa. Peggy Fry, senior vp at Clearspring, boasts that widgets may be poised to overtake banner ads as a favored digital marketing tool.

Widgets as ad vehicles increasingly are on the radar of major consumer marketers and their agencies. “What widgets really are is a direct pipeline to your brand’s audience,” says Brian Monahan, senior vp, group communication director at Universal McCann, which has developed widgets in support of Microsoft’s Halo 3 videogame and Sony Pictures’ Superbad. “I think more clients these days are realizing it’s not always about the hard sell and that it’s more about helping people form a content relationship with the brand.”

Of course, widgets are not new, and for all the chatter, they’re a promising tactic, rather than a strategy. Questions about them as an ad model persist, with formats and pricing in flux. Meanwhile, tracking widget usage remains an issue, even though comScore has developed a third-party service to measure their reach.

Still, there is a growing sense that the technology has reached a new level of sophistication, driving more consumers and marketers to the apps. Like high-tech suitcases, Web widgets offer users a rich media experience that can be easily transported from place to place online—all driven by the consumer. Thus, a user interested in skiing can grab a widget sporting constantly updated information on snow conditions in Colorado and drop it into his or her desktop, blog, social-networking site or start page. Media-wise, widgets can feature everything from video to games, news headlines to music, delivering messages in ways that not only inform but engage consumers.

And that’s where more marketers are beginning to see the attraction.

The widget story became especially compelling after Facebook this past June opened up to outside developers, paving the way for a proliferation of widgets. Since then, more than 10,000 apps have been created, allowing Facebook’s 50 million-plus users to do everything from play Scrabble to share their reading lists. (MySpace has long allowed users to customize their pages with apps created by third parties.) In September, Google rolled out Gadget Ads, a new ad unit that transforms run-of-the-mill banners into widgets designed to appeal to large brand marketers. More recently, Google spearheaded a coalition of social nets, Open Social, allowing for even broader proliferation of widgets.

The numbers are explosive: Widgets now reach nearly 178 million Web users worldwide, or 21 percent of the global Internet audience, per comScore, with major purveyors like Slide and RockYou driving growth.

Widgets have caught on with marketers like Sue Fleming, vp, executive director, online and consumer marketing at Simon & Schuster, which had searched for a creative, attention-grabbing means to present short videos featuring the book publisher’s authors discussing their work. Simon & Schuster enlisted Sunnyvale, Calif.-based MuseStorm to create a widget whose six-week test launched May 7.

Like other marketers, Simon & Schuster is just dipping its toe in the widget waters. Says Fleming, “We think it’s a tool we can use in the future, but we do have to figure out the most efficient way to use widgets.”

Ori Soen, CEO of two-year-old MuseStorm, whose clients also include CBS Mobile and Universal Music, says his company is helping marketers to do just that.

“Patterns of Web usage are beginning to change dramatically in the sense that people aren’t really going to the huge, clearinghouse-type sites anymore,” he says. “People are becoming much more familiar with the Internet and…going to smaller sites that provide information on their specific interests. So for marketers who are trying to find ways to interact with these people, widgets provide that capability in a very engaging and trackable way.”

Soen adds, “As time goes by, we think we’ll see more marketers coming out with widgets that stand on their own as far as content goes and are in a highly portable format that can be easily spread across the Web.”

Ken Fuchs, vp, general manager of Time Inc./Sports Illustrated Web properties Golf.com and FanNation.com, both of which have deployed widgets on Facebook, says in the final analysis, widgets’ usefulness will come down to the blocking and tackling of the media world: entertainment and utility.

“Marketers are looking for ways to be a part of the editorial experience in a way that doesn’t compromise the church/state boundary,” he says. “Like everything else, widgets will come down to good execution and good content. Right now, it’s the shiny new toy, but I think some will get weeded out moving forward.”

Fuchs says widget content, which can be continually updated by the developer, must remain fresh, relevant and personalized to fulfill widgets’ promise, both among consumers and marketers.

“It really is the next gold rush for those who figure it out,” he says. “Being able to produce an exciting experience outside of Golf.com or FanNation.com is very appealing. At the end of the day, we want people to come back to our site, but this is a new way to develop a valuable relationship with people.”

NBC Universal is also looking to build those relationships. The entertainment colossus has already developed about 70 Web widgets and is hunting for ways to work advertisers into the mix. Nick Johnson, vp, digital media and sales, says NBCU sees a big plus side. “Some of the more forward-thinking marketers are definitely interested in this,” he says. “I think this notion of creating your own environment, both for content and for advertising, that you can control and personalize is going to be something that you see a lot more of in the future. And widgets are going to be a big part of that.”

Like NBCU, The Weather Channel is getting an earful about widgets from clients. The cable net began experimenting with the programs some seven years ago and last year introduced a desktop widget serving up local weather forecasts—and, says Monisha Longarre, vp, consumer applications, “a highly personalized, one-on-one relationship” with consumers. “This is a way for us to reach out and extend our brand in a way that would not have been possible with just Weather.com,” she says.

But much work remains to make the apps more engaging, Longarre concedes. “The real nut to crack is stickiness,” she says. “I think we’re still in the process of figuring out that stickiness issue and how to build that one-on-one bond with the Web community.”

Building more engaging widgets, as Fuchs says, revolves around content utility and relevance. To that end, a company like Cramer Digital Marketing might have cracked the code. The Norwood, Mass.-based firm, whose consumer clients includes Gillette and MTV, also has produced several business-to-business widgets, mainly for industry associations producing events. Customizable widgets are ideally suited for conference attendees looking to map out itineraries and locate contacts. Says Rob Everton, Cramer’s creative technology director: “If there’s actionable, ongoing information, widgets can be a tremendous tool.”

Says Universal McCann’s Monahan: “There’s a creative challenge, because sometimes there can be a fine line between creativity and the goals of the brand. And there’s a media aspect in that it’s critical to deploy these things in the smartest possible way. So this is really something that ad agencies are perfectly set up to produce.

“As a marketer nowadays, you have to get your brand’s message out there where all the potential customers are,” he adds. “And for doing that, I think more and more people are going to discover that widgets are the killer app.”

Richard Brunelli is a frequent contributor to AdweekMedia Special Reports.