Call them widgets, gadgets, or wadgets, but businesses such as Kraft Foods, Nissan, and American Express are building brand identity using these software applications that can be embedded in a Web page or downloaded to a computer desktop.
"Widgets hold an interesting creative possibility to create a conversation with consumers," said Jeff Williams, associate director, creative, at Digitas, while speaking with three other widget experts at a Search Engine Strategies New York panel discussion this week.
While popular gadgets feature games and entertainment (Bejeweled, Tetris) or utilities (personal finance calculators, world clocks), advertisers are starting to build and promote their own applications.
A look at Google's gadget gallery shows eight ad gadgets, including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, New Balance, and Pepsi's Sierra Mist Lemon Squeeze. At Yahoo Widgets, there are nearly 4,700 widgets, including 86 widgets tagged "shopping" such as a Sears.com product search widget and an application that tracks deals on Amazon.com
eMarketingInc developed the Kraft Foods recipe gadget on Google that lives in a Web browser, and a Kraft recipe widget, a desktop application that distributes a new recipe a day to anyone who's downloaded the tool.* Digitas, Kraft Foods' online agency of record, developed the advertising creative promoting the Google gadget and manages media planning and reporting. Kraft also serves up its recipes other ways: by e-mail, RSS feed, iPod and iTunes downloads.
Sure, you can build a widget, but will people download it or pass it along -- key metrics in determining whether the application is a success. "Good luck getting someone to notice your gadget," said Christian Oestlien, a Google business product manager, also speaking at the Search Engine Strategies conference.
Nearly 148 million people in the United States -- or 81 percent of Internet users -- viewed widgets in November 2007, according to comScore. MySpace widgets had the largest audience with nearly 58 million viewers, followed by Slide.com at 39 million viewers. The measurement service separately tracked Facebook applications; the most popular application there was "Top Friends," by Slide with nearly 20 million viewers.
A widget for Nissan, created by OMD, was cited for providing both a useful utility -- live traffic reports based on Zip code -- plus advertising for Nissan's Altima Coupe. "We want to push advertisers to think of advertising as content. To push the boundaries of what you've done historically and engage with your audience," Oestlien said.
What about the cost? Advertisers looking to hire a top-of-the-line digital ad agency like Digitas can expect to pay $50,000 to as much as $300,000 for an elaborate widget that uses Flash. Those looking for less expensive alternatives can hire a developer from Google's AdWords certified directory.
Online measurement firm Hitwise developed three widgets: Hitwise To Go, which includes weekly online user behavior statistics; Hitwise Intelligence, which provides analyses of online behavior, and Election 2008 Data Center, which delivers trends on presidential candidates' Web sites and search terms related to the election.
When asked about the cost to develop these widgets, Hitwise CMO Marc Johnson said it was less expensive than what big brands are spending. "We used someone's cousin to develop it," he chuckled. As for ongoing expenses, Hitwise, for the most part, is using data feeds that it already produces. The one exception: some reports are prepared, edited, and delivered sooner than they had been before the widgets were set up. Since August 2007, a total of 7,744 Hitwise widgets have been downloaded, including 3,919 from Yahoo and 1,804 from Google.
A widget's development should be driven by marketing departments, not information technology staff, said James Welch, head of research and development at interactive marketing firm GetUpdated.
"Everything we can do as a Web site can be done with a gadget ad," he said. These tools can serve an assortment of marketing objectives, from lead generation to awareness building. He also offered up some best practices: keep ads under 40K, limit animation to under 15 seconds, create an easy-to-click outgoing link, and underline the link so it stands out.
Said Digitas' Williams: "You want to create an in-page experience as much as possible. Just having a widget that links to your [home] page, that's a glorified link. No one's going to buy it."
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Digitas created both tools for Kraft.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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