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Making Widgets Work

Posted on 6.30.2009

by David Albert

Widgets, those little snippets of code that are embedded in blogs, personal start pages, social networking profiles and even computer desktops are an effective way to take your brand message outside the confines of your Web presence. Widgets make your content more portable and sharable, and even help drive traffic back to your website.

Widgets come in multiple forms and serve many purposes for users. On social networking sites, widgets are generally used for personal expression — like photo slideshows, or entertainment such as video feeds and games. On personal start pages (e.g. iGoogle, MyYahoo!) or computer desktops, they often take on more utilitarian forms, such as personalized news, weather, stock quotes, or other forms of content a person might access on a regular basis, usually in the form of RSS feeds.

Making widgets work begins with identifying your audience and their needs or wants Then carefully plan the best way to develop and deploy your branded off-site experience.

When considering a widget, start by asking: What can I offer that people will find of value? If your widget is just a thinly veiled advertisement for your organization, chances are people will get turned off. The best widgets are those that people want to interact with and share. If your widget is embedded on someone’s personal start page, they might interact with it a several times a week. Therefore, you want to keep them engaged by updating its content frequently, or providing a service fit for daily or hourly use.

Think about what unique content you are already creating that could be “widgetized.” Blog headlines are obvious, but widgets can also include shopping experiences, podcasts, video, photos, search, games, recipes, calendars and much more. But keep in mind that, while the possible uses for widgets are many, the best widgets do one thing really well. Ancillary content can work, but keep the primary purpose of the widget tied to a specific function. Websites are intended for immersive experiences, but widgets should be a quick and easy tool for use anywhere the user is spending their time online.

You might arrive on a concept but before you dive in, be sure to set a specific set of goals. They could include brand awareness and mindshare, and sales or leads. Your widget strategy should not only take users into consideration, but also focus on your goals. Doing so will help formulate both content and an ROI strategy.

The easiest widgets to develop are those created from RSS feeds (from your blog, for example) and publishing options abound. Providers such as Netvibes, Springbox and Widgetbox offer point-and-click tools to create a widget from virtually any RSS feed in minutes. Publishing through these providers also places your widget in their directories, giving you a starting point for distribution, along with compatibility with multiple frameworks. SproutBuilder from Sprout Inc. is a Web-based platform with a subscription service starting at $19 a month to access its widget building software, which provides a more robust platform for customization. Other providers, such as Mixercast and KickApps offer similar services.

If you have the resources to develop a widget from scratch or decide to work with an interactive agency or developer, providers such as Gigya and ClearSpring offer the ability to publish widgets through their platforms. In addition to the ability to build more customized widgets, these agencies offer some distinct advantages:

  • Widgets are developed with widespread compatibility to run on a multitude of popular portals including blog platforms, social networking sites and computer platforms.
  • Widgets are developed with “get and share” functionality, empowering users to quickly and easily spread your widget virally through their websites and networks.
  • Detailed metrics, such as placements, usage, click-throughs and more are built in, giving the ability to make sure your widget is performing at its best.

Because widget coding is nearly identical to the same code one would use to build a website, Flash files (.swf) or DHTML (Javascript/CSS) can be used to publish a widget through the Gigya or ClearSpring platforms. Both services are free, but offer paid distribution packages where, for a “per placement” fee, they will distribute your widget across their network of websites. For widgets with wider, more consumer-driven appeal, paid distribution can be an effective method of getting your widget out there. In this capacity, think of widgets as viral banners — you’re essentially placing a media buy, but your widgets have the potential to be shared by people beyond the number of placements for which you’ve paid.

When thinking about the formats on which to release your widget, think about your audience and the widget’s purpose. For more personalized or utilitarian content, widgets that run on the desktop and personal start pages are a good choice. For widgets that are based around entertainment or personal expression, other Web versions are generally the way to go.

If you choose to go with a desktop version, both Gigya and Clear- Spring support desktop formats such as Apple Dashboard Widgets, Yahoo! Widgets, and Microsoft Vista Gadgets. Another deployment option is using Adobe AIR, a framework that allows nearly any HTML or Flash file to be deployed as a desktop application. With AIR you might sacrifice some sharing and reporting tools, but AIR does support embedding tracking tags such as those from Google Analytics or Omniture. AIR is a great choice for the desktop because it is both Windows and Macintosh compatible, and doesn’t require a proprietary or installed widget framework (like Yahoo! Widgets) to run.

With the seismic shift in how people interact with brands online, creating content through social media and distributed content platforms can be an effective way to get your message heard and to gain mindshare with your audience. Widgets are an effective way to do just that — providing another communication channel to keep your organization top-of-mind among your target customers.

About the Author: David Albert is the president of Emerge Digital, a Chicago-based interactive agency specializing in social media marketing and marketing applications, such as widgets, social and mobile apps.

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