Widgets: The Next Generation

WASHINGTON Widgets, the online programs that users can download to bring extra content to their desktop, are being used by marketers in new ways. Some companies see widgets as a needed replacement for online banner ads because they offer marketers a chance to blend consumer utility with branded messages.

And because widgets can be downloaded as applications on social networking sites like Facebook, the marketer gets the added bang of being able to spread its message virally.

Peter Kim, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, says that aggregating several widgets in one place and allowing that content to be distributed across social networking sites makes a lot of sense given how online consumer behavior is changing.

“When you think about how most online marketing works, it has been all about how do we use interactive traffic to funnel everyone to a mother ship site,” Kim says. “But what we see today is consumer behavior doesn’t reside on one site. Users go to many sites and we are aggregating our behavior around social networks. By distributing their brand message with these widgets, [companies] can get out there with a message that reaches consumers in a more natural environment.”

For STA Travel, a social networking approach to widgets is the answer to how the company, which opened it doors 26 years ago at a time when it was popular to use a travel agent to book a trip, reinvents itself for the college market in the age of the Internet. “We have to completely rethink our travel model,” says Matt Nixon, STA’s director of e-commerce. “Our strategy is to move more dollars to the Internet while still staying true to our retail model. The more complex travel is still a difficult thing to do on the Web.”

STA’s new marketing campaign, which launched July 26, offers college-age students 18-26 four widgets as part of a suite of tools to help them plan their next trip. The widgets, which give students a countdown clock, are designed to be downloaded to personal pages on social networking sites like Facebook and Netvibes, and on blogs. That gives STA Travel the advantage of making its core-marketing message of offering cheap travel fares for students available to anyone who sees that personal page.

The marketing concept behind this campaign is called “branded utility.” Marketing experts like Johnny Vulkan, a partner at the New York shop Anomaly, define brand utility as a way for brands to be useful to their consumers in their online advertising messages.

Nixon sees the campaign as a way to open a dialogue with students in a way that doesn’t involve “branding with in-your-face banner ads,” as he puts it. “Whatever tools we can provide students to inspire them to learn about travel is how I see our growing relationship,” he says. “We are giving students a choice where they can download these widgets to their desktop, blogs and MySpace pages and we have formatted the tools so they can be downloaded as Facebook applications. With students spending more time on these sites, why do we have to make them come back to STA Travel’s Web

In addition to the count-down widget and to-do list, STA offers a widget featuring special travel deals, and a widget where students can determine the weather at the destination they are traveling to. The company is promoting the tools as added value. When students buy a ticket online, STA sends an email saying “the fun starts before you go” and offers the travel widgets. If students book a trip through an STA travel agent at one of their stores, they receive a postcard listing the widget tools.

STA considers the campaign an ongoing effort through which it plans to introduce more tools students can use. In developing the next tool that will also be available as a Facebook application, Nixon says the company will run a competition in October to generate ideas from students about what the next travel tools should be. The winner will receive a trip.

Nixon has been tracking how many people have downloaded the widgets as a Facebook application. In the first two weeks, 904 users have downloaded the trip countdown widget, 449 for the weather comparison widget, 440 for the cheap deal finder, and 186 for the travel to-do list. And so far, 4912 unique viewers and 1058 repeat viewers have visited the travel tools Web site.

Market researcher comScore, which introduced a widget tracking service in April, says the number of people who view widgets has grown from 177.8 million in April to 239.3 million in June, a 35 percent increase. ComScore does not yet keep figures on the number of people who download widgets, but may introduce such a service in the future.

When the digital shop Electric Artists sat down with STA to come up with ideas for the campaign, the key question STA posed centered around how banner advertising has become a less appropriate marketing technique for the social Web. The key question became, how should STA engage their audience in this space? Electric Artists CEO and founder Marc Schiller remembered the campaign State Farm Insurance ran during the NCAA tournament in March where it offered users an office hoops game and a widget where they could download a buddy to help them keep up with the tournament action among other things.

“To market their brand, State Farm gave people tournament tools and for us, that was an innovative way to look at sponsorship,” Schiller says. “We are going to make your experience better instead of just sponsoring a program or putting our logo in an ad. We are talking about a whole different way of thinking about online marketing.”

Schiller says young people are no longer surfing the Web but instead are “clicking” the Web and pulling content to their personal pages to help better organize themselves. “We see ourselves as cultural anthropologists and there has been a cultural shift from how people use and interact with content on the Web,” he says. “Ten years ago, viral marketing was about seeing something on a Web page and e-mailing it to your friends. But today, people are using their Facebook pages and photo sites and no longer rely on e-mailing a list. Brands have to rethink how they engage their consumers. So when STA Travel looked at widgets with us, we didn’t look at it as the hot new thing and say let’s create a widget. We looked at the entire shift in the culture that makes widgets extremely important as the Web starts to change.”

Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms for Omnicom’s digital marketing shop Organic, calls the STA campaign smart. “I would rather be integrated into the daily life of a consumer and give them a tool that they can touch, use and endorse everyday rather than hoping they would choose to click on a banner,” Stoller says. “The likelihood that they will do that is 200th of a percentage point.”