Widgets Emerging as Content Distribution Model of the Future
Web-based widgets are all the rage right now, but to implement them you have to make some difficult choices and learn new measures of success.
Widgets, in case you missed this month's WidgetCon in New York or the recent Business Week package about them, are a great way of adding distributed content to Web pages around the Internet. They are an application or sort of mini-Web page that others import into their sites.
Peggy Fry, SVP Business Development for widget syndication company Clearspring Technologies, [www.clearspring.com] describes a widget as a "portable application." Fry points out people are not going to websites as they used to; websites are now going to them and widgets are the applications (or mini-sites) that are the distribution vehicles. Widget syndication connects content owners to blogs, social networks, podcasts, games, and users' profile pages in social networks. Anything in a website can be put into a widget. The issue is how to syndicate, track and monetize widgets, which have been seeing explosive growth, especially with the transformation of Facebook to an open platform.
ComScore started measuring widgets this Spring and says that in May, 220 million people saw at least one of them, up from 177 million people in April. Facebook, Google, MyYahoo and other major portals have gained increased stickiness by allowing users to incorporate widgets into their personal pages, everything from weather and horoscope, to Jon Stewart quotes and frivolous games. Newsweek has declared this the year of the widget.
But for content producers and marketers widgets come with challenges that require a change in thinking from a typical content, branding or marketing campaign.
With a widget you won't control the larger environment in which your content appears. Anyone can cut and paste your widget where they want. You may not like the adjacency, and you certainly won't have the time and resources to police every use. You also won't necessarily know the demographic profiles of the people seeing your content. So even if the widget you create gets great buzz - like the much noticed one for Reebok's create-a-shoe voting game - you won't know as much about who you're engaging as if the content were on your site.
You'll have to decide whether to support the widget indefinitely. Let's say you have a great interactive app promoting a TV show that fans scoop up and spread across their homepages. What updated content will you provide after the season ends or if the show is canceled so pages don't look increasingly stale? Will you continue to support a widget once an ad campaign ends, and the budget dries up? If you just pull it, you'll be putting a broken image on your most loyal audience's pages.
Then there's the question of what metrics you'll use to determine a widget's success. Kara Nortman of IAC sighed at WidgetCon that her company's most viral widget, an "insult generator," generated little traffic to its ad-supported site. Meanwhile, Hooman Radfar of Clearspring Technologies takes the opposite approach. "Maybe you have a site where you're getting 100,000 views. But how valuable is it if you can get another 50,000 views outside of your site?" he asks. "I would say it's very valuable, in fact more valuable, because the people that are building that site, taking your content, are endorsing you."
To assure its widgets containing snippets of business news make money, Forbes has placed ads for Visa on them. Because the ads are served, they can be swapped out for new ones. The ads also allow for auditable tracking.
With a widget, you'll have to choose whether to host it or let it be downloadable and give up control. If you host it, you can update it on the fly across the Web, collect important usage stats and keep interacting with the audience. But a successful widget will cost you because your servers will bear the load. That's especially true for video or heavy graphics.
Freewebs, the widget and Web site-building company that hosted WidgetCon, insists that widgets they make be served. They put in a pixel that reports back how many have been installed, every time they're been viewed and domains they're placed on. To Freewebs' VP of sales Chris Cunningham, that's valuable data, even if it doesn't conform to typical insertion orders or GRP formulas of reach and frequency. "You can't take a creative, flexible advertising model like this and try to squeeze it into a banner GRP," Cunningham told Jack Myers Media Business Report in an exclusive interview.
As you send your widgets into the world, you'll also likely have to consider sharing revenues with the people who place them on their sites. MySpace has blocked some applications, prompting speculation it will open up when it gets a cut of revenues. Bloggers are already getting shares of sales they prompt from direct retail widgets like Amazon's. They could soon demand a share of ad revenues, as well, for placing someone's content on their pages.
"With a widget you're building a life. It's like a life form," says Chad Stoller, Executive Director, Emerging Platforms for Organic. "It has the potential to metastasize and grow." Like any life form, a widget can powerfully do your bidding, but as it grows you lose control. You will have to get comfortable with that idea because distributed content like widgets will matter more than ever in a network-based, handheld, personalized, TiVo, iPod and wireless age.
Chris Cunningham of Freewebs and the Widget Marketing Association can be reached at Chris@freewebs.com.
Peggy Fry of Clearspring Technologies can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.