Monday, June 1, 2009

Whither Widgets?

Widgets used to be for undergrad economics assignments and Warner Brothers cartoons… as in “Acme Widgets Inc.”

Depending on who you talk to, the idea of small chunks of code doing things autonomously (like running a clock or a stock ticker) owes its origins to Bill Gates (his Active Desktop for Windows had bits and pieces that drew information from the Internet) or Apple (their Desk Accessories bundle of programs for the Mac came out in 1981 but it didn’t connect to the Internet because there wasn’t much of one at that time) or the ominously-named Athena Project (not, as I thought, a scheme for world domination but a graphical user interface enterprise out of MIT). It really doesn’t matter because – like Zebra mussels, they’re here and they’re (almost) everywhere.

What is a widget? It’s a little portable application that runs autonomously and can do stuff. You can put it on a website (the most common environment for widgets), install it on a desktop (check out Facebooker, which allows you to access Facebook from your desktop without opening a browser) or a mobile device such as a Blackberry, iPhone or other smart phone. Think of a widget as a simple, micro-application.
You might also know it by the more dignified name of 'app' as in Google Apps or the App Store on your iPhone.

What is not a widget? While click-
through banner (and other) advertisements with animated GIFs may be considered the granddaddies of widgets, they are not in and of themselves, widgets. They’re prehistoric vestiges of a simpler time. More importantly, most folks dislike advertisements and making them more animated and more obtrusive just annoys them further. Widgets are different; they invite interaction. That ‘permission-based’ interactivity is a crucial distinction.

I interviewed Tom Sprows, a widget pioneer and IT consultant, for this article. He provided a taxonomy of widgets. It goes like this:
  • Informational like Next Episode, which lets you know when your favourite show is scheduled
  • Games whether classic arcade or simplified sports
  • Utility useful stuff like FedEx shipment tracker or Second Life Search
  • Silly most of the stuff you see on Facebook
  • Interactive chat-based, message ability, user content, sliders, puzzles and so on
I would add ‘entertainment’ like’s greatest moments in basketball history widget.

For many of us the most obvious widgets are those we bump into on Facebook or these seemingly ubiquitous ones deployed on affiliate websites.

But it's not just a tool for private sector marketers. Not-for-profit folks and governments can use widgets to build profile. Just ask the Pew Foundation. You can put their widget on your site if you want to show off social and demographic trends your users could find useful. Purveyors of all sorts of data can use this approach - from health researchers to pollsters.

So what's good about widgets? Well, functionally they have several selling points. They put you, your brand and your message into a setting (the host website) that gives them a context, an association. They move... and are (or should be) interactive enough to gain and hold attention. And they're sticky. If you've built it right it will be visually arresting with enough utility or entertainment factor to keep your audience for a while.

Strategically, widgets are also good (if made right). They can create engagement opportunities with your audiences. They can make your brand and messaging portable across a variety of settings outside of your own hosted environments (pointing back to them too). And they generate opportunities to build your brands by appropriate positioning that creates an association between the attributes of the website that your widget is on and your brand.

Hold up for a second though. Folks who know my opinion on social media will know what's coming. You don't need a 'widget strategy.' You need a plan to use widgets as part of your cohesive web strategy, one that supports the widget tactics with other online elements. Widgets are tools, not a strategy unto themselves.

There are things to keep in mind when using these tools. For one, where to place them? This comes back to (you guessed it) - understanding your audience. It's like deja vu all over again. You'll need a sense of where online your audiences gather and what they do there. Is it a social club like Facebook? Or a shopping expedition? You need to know. From that you're going to think long and hard about widget placement (I'm leaving aside the viral possibilities for now). Then you need to construct a widget that does something, one thing, and does it very well (creatively and/or functionally). Simple is best.

There's a great wide world of widgetry opening up. One in which widgets may connect to other widgets to offer greater and more complex functionality ('widget mashing'). And the potential for greater user modification and content generation too. That's the good news.

Now let me rain a little on the parade. There are, of course, bad widgets out there, ones with malware and such. But there are bigger issues.The most basic one is what people are doing when they're online and encounter your widget. Two scenarios - if I'm looking at a website about Vienna and there's an Amazon affiliate widget showing me some cool travel books about Austria; I might just click on it. But if I'm updating my status on Facebook (because my friends are just aching to know what I've been up to) then chances are I'll tune out any widgets on the periphery... unless they connect with my sense of fun and my image of myself and my circle of friends. My point is that widgets that are tangential to an audience's purpose online will be ignored. You need to know why your audience is in a particular web environment in the first place and design your tool from there.

I remain sceptical of any tool that presents itself as a 'solution' or a 'strategy.' That goes for tactics too. Whether it's a widget or word of mouth marketing - what we're talking about is a potential opportunity to form a connection. Blindly launching a foray without understanding the nature of your audience and the way in which they want to connect is not going to get you very far.

Having said all that, I'm not totally negative on widgets. They're not pointless as some have argued. But they're not the complete future of online marketing. Widgets are one of the ways in which the static website is slowly being bled to death or at least hamstrung. It seems to me that such sites will shortly be simply launch platforms for more fluid and dynamic interactions. Will there be a place for static websites? Yes, just as there's a place for old-fashioned billboards. Will we want to interact with them? No, not very much. Will widgets empower this more fluid interaction? I think so.

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