...about the blurring of the lines between the browser and the desktop, but diving deeper into the widgetization of content so that users can consume it however they want to (in a browser, on a desktop, on a mobile device). Widgets are going to be a big thing in 2008, but marketers jumping on this bandwagon are missing the point—which is about the portability of services— that is the really important trend.
Let's face it, there's a lot of marketing trends out there. This is a challenge, but what makes it even more foreboding for marketers is that many of these marketing trends are interlaced with technology. And most marketers aren't technologists.
So, it's a relief when a trend gets packaged up in a nice little buzzword we can all grasp and take advantage of. Like widgets.
What are widgets? There are actually two definitions. The first are tiny applications that can sit on a user's desktop—but still may pull information from the web. On my Mac, the Dashboard app let's me pull up half a dozen of these: Wikipedia, stock quotes, ski reports, Twitterific... all accessible right from my desktop. At Traction, we've created a desktop widget called exTraction that allows our client service team to automate much of our account management processes.
Desktop widgets are a powerful tool for brands if used effectively because users choose to install them and then interact with them on an ongoing basis. Think about how much you might pay for display ad CPMs and you'll quickly grasp the power of having a direct line to your customers. And, with new software like Adobe AIR that allow developers to create such widgets with their existing Flash and web programming skillsets, the only barrier to entry is a marketer's imagination.
The other definition of widgets is similar, but differs in how things are delivered. These tiny apps are sandwiched between some HTML code snippets so anybody with a bit of front-end programming knowledge can embed them in their web pages, blog or MySpace page. This may be as simple as pasting a YouTube movie into my blog or it could be as elaborate as Amazon extending its sales force by enabling members of its affiliate program to embed a storefront window into a web page. In a Web 2.0 world where 80% of consumers say they'd rather learn about products from friends or peers than from brands themselves, the next best thing to user-generated content is user-distributed content.
The common thread between these widgets is that they are both ways of making services portable. This is the broader trend that's happening. People want to consume content on their terms. And technology now let's us that.
An example I use all the time is that I log in to BankofAmerica.com to manage my online banking once a week. Why should I have to go through the steps of opening a browser and typing in a url before I can access my log-in. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just launch it with one click? This example might have holes in it because of security issues, but you get the point.
More capable mobile devices. Social networks. Interactive TV. The blurring of the lines between the browser and the desktop. These are all part of reality today. I had a client of mine at SAP, the world's largest provider of enterprise software, tell me about a developer who was running SAP ERP with his Wii. If that's not an example of users consuming content on their own terms, tell me what is.
A more tangible example of portability of content is the explosion of applications and "fan pages" that have been created on the Facebook platform. Fifty-four percent of Facebook's 60,000,000 users log in every single day for an average of twenty-two minutes per day. They are there because they want to be there—not there because they want to be on your website.
Brands are rushing into Facebook and other social networks to ensure they have a presence where their audience lives. Many are fumbling their way around as they struggle to understand the medium because they realize that for better of worse, this is part of the future. This risk of not learning is to become irrelevant.
So, how does one maintain an effective presence in Facebook (or LinkedIn or the desktop or the blogosphere)? By understanding the experience of the social network and adding some sort of value that makes that experience better. Take a look at the top apps in Facebook. That's what they're all doing. Facebook has the Wall. Superwall, Funwall and Graffiti are all top apps (my client has created an app called Livescribe Wall that lets you add audio to drawings you make on the computer to emulate the content you can create with their smartpen). Facebook has the Poke. Superpoke, Foodfight and Vampires are all popular apps that enhance that functionality. Facebook lets you send messages to your friends. Elf Yourself let you send silly dancing elf movies to your friends.
Are these social apps technically "widgets?" No, but that's the point. Widgets are the symptom, not the disease. The epidemic that's really spreading like wildfire is diversified consumption of interactive content (need to come up with an acronym for that one).
So, what's a marketer to do?
1. Start with a strategy, not a tactic. How does the value you're creating map back to your overall brand message? Being sticky and irrelevant is not a win.
2. Make sure there's an incentive. This could be a free box of Cracker Jacks, the ability to update your bank account from your desktop or the ability to poke someone in Facebook while standing on your head. The point is that the end-user needs a reason to care and a reason to engage with your widget or they're not going to.
3. Don't treat this like direct response. Don't create a presence with the intent to drag people out of the experience they are in. Think of an ATM. You can do your banking without visiting your bank. This whole concept of portable services is about bringing value to people wherever they are in their digital world.
4. Be thoughtful about metrics. Remember, an application isn't a banner ad or a landing page. Define your key performance indicators, but be mindful of what else you can learn about your audience from how they engage with your widget. This is an opportunity to measure engagement, but also to monitor conversation, understand viral spread and learn about your customers' needs by watching their interactions.
5. Avoid bandwagons. Facebook gets a lot of press, but maybe LinkedIn is a better place for you to create a presence for your audience. Widget is the buzzword of the day, but maybe a mobile app is a more strategically relevant place for you to be adding value. By understanding the broader concept of portability, you can take advantage of the underlying trend without getting lost in the clutter of "what's hot" today.
Above all, do something. Carve off some corner of your marketing budget and start learning about how you can extend your brand beyond your website. The age of website as a digital destination is far from over, but people are only going to demand to consume digital content on their own terms more and more. And the customer's always right, isn't she?