Widgets Spawn Industry Events, Communities and Branded Chicken Wings

The latest online marketing craze has ballooned from tech geek divergence to ad campaign imperative. A recent surge of interest in widget marketing has spurred office events, communities, full-fledged conferences and even an official industry association in the hopes of attracting advertisers, fostering ideas and developing best practices.

Tomorrow the new widget marketing firm SocialMedia is hosting a conference for widget application developers and interested investors in San Francisco. Video ad network VideoEgg — also breaking into the hyped world of widget marketing — is putting on an event for the application development community, marketers and venture capitalists in October. Then there are last month’s WidgetCon and the recently-formed Widget Marketing Association, both affiliated with free apps provider Freewebs.

“It’s the little niche that could,” said Freewebs’ President Shervin Pishevar, who helped create the Widget Marketing Association, whose founding members plan its first conference call next week. The group aims to meet in person in the next month or so, added Pishevar, who referred to last month’s WidgetCon conference presented by Freewebs as the group’s initial live get-together. Social media and application firms including RockYou, Clearspring and Slide, as well as measurement firm comScore, are association members, according to Pishevar.

“I think [widget marketing] is beyond hype,” said Pishevar. What’s driving the industry segment to attract so much attention from marketers and developers, he believes, is user interest in the applications they add to their Facebook and MySpace profile pages.

“What hasn’t happened is all the hard work,” he continued, noting it’s time to develop standards and guidelines for marketing within distributed applications in order to foster an “economic ecosystem.” In other words, let’s make sure this is a viable, spam-free, privacy-protecting industry.

Freewebs began attaching widgets to advertiser brands as far back as 2005, when it launched a film-related app for Sony Pictures. Today the film-themed skin style app is becoming just another arrow in the movie studio marketing quiver. Freewebs has developed lots of widget promos for films featuring things like games and calendars for advertisers like Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema, and is set to unveil a campaign for Universal’s “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” this week.

Paramount Pictures and Lions Gate Films also have worked with photo slideshow application company Slide to launch branded photo applications.

Others are going the widget ad network route. For instance, another firm to exploit Facebook’s recent platform opening, VideoEgg, has introduced an ad platform for applications created for the social networking site. Participating widget developers collect a cut of ad revenue garnered through the video ad firm’s newly expanded network, which serves up ads for firms like Discovery Networks, Electronic Arts and FX Channel.

Pheedo, best known for its RSS ad network, has extended its network tentacles into the sea of widgets, too. The company has run IAB standard-sized ads for Ford in conjunction with Lookery, a newly-launched ad network for Facebook apps.

Rather than wrapping photo slideshows with brands or running standard ads in a network of widgets, new company SocialMedia is exploring different approaches. The firm provides applications that let Facebook users send pixilated candies to their online buddies, or toss burgers at them in virtual food fights. Users get a limited amount of points each day, and once points are depleted, they have the ability to access more by answering questions from marketers and market research firms. It all amounts to a new form of cost-per-action online lead generation.

“The tradeoff is consumers are willing to expose information about themselves,” said co-founder and CEO Seth Goldstein, who said on average 75,000 users per day respond to 25 questions each in order to collect more cocktail, hotdog and bonbon points.

There’s also a potential product-placement aspect to these sorts of applications. Restaurant franchise Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar has sponsored a chicken wing that can be tossed at Facebook acquaintances. SocialMedia expects additional advertisers to sponsor widget gifts and virtual eats in the future. The company, which is hosting a conference today for application developers and investors, also lets other application providers promote their widgets in SocialMedia apps on a pay-per-install basis.

In forming working communities and events, and discussing standards and best practices, the young widget marketing startups seem to have learned from nascent industry segments of yore. “We don’t want the widget to have the pop-up effect,” said Freewebs’ Pishevar.

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