We're talking about small, fairly straightforward applications that can run on your desktop or online: floating clock faces, scoreboards, weather monitors and so on. Think of them as miniature, portable web experiences that can be installed on your computer or -- increasingly -- embedded in MySpace or Facebook pages, in personalized home pages such as iGoogle, or on blogs.
Because they are more targeted in function and limited in scope, programmers are generating widgets every day -- much more quickly than a major programs or websites can be developed -- and computer users are adopting them almost as quickly.
OK, THEN, SO WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A "WIDGET" AND A "GADGET"?
Unless we're checking out baubles from The Sharper Image or Brookstone, we mean the same sleek and specialized programs whether we call them "widgets," "gadgets," "modules" or "applications."
ARE WIDGETS NEW?
Widgets, gadgets and their ilk have circulated online for some time. But it was a platform called Konfabulator, now part of Yahoo, that really goosed the area by allowing Mac users to pull information from the web -- sports scores, for example, or stock prices -- and display it in little floating boxes on their screens. Good places to learn about the range of available widgets are clearinghouses such as Yahoo Widgets
, Google Desktop Gadgets
HOW CAN WIDGETS HELP MARKETERS?
Many widgets, whether they're created by big marketers or just individuals on their own, are nothing but marketing tools. Consider the "Marvel Comics News Gadget,"
which keeps you up to date on the latest news from Marvel Comics. Or "Office Links,"
which contains links to Microsoft Office applications such as Word and PowerPoint. These branded widgets serve almost as customer-relationship-management tools for a brand's big fans. The Financial Times, for its part, just introduced a Facebook application offering free FT.com
subscriptions to graduate and college students.
But remember, not everyone will want to pick up your widget -- distribution is far from guaranteed. That's why some argue that marketers can do better by buying ads in and around already-popular widgets, such as Scrabulous
, which lets people play Scrabble against each other online. Widget ad networks are multiplying; most serve advertising in the form of display ads near the main content or as preroll video.
DO YOU HAVE TO MAKE DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF WIDGETS FOR DIFFERENT SOCIAL NETWORKS?
The simplest widgets can run most places, but if yours is a bit more sophisticated or interactive, you'll need to know about this. Facebook has its own programming interface that's publicly available for programmers to use. Every other major player, including MySpace, is involved in Open Social, the Google-backed initiative to simplify making widgets and applications across sites by providing a common programming structure.
DO WE HAVE GOOD METRICS
TO TRACK WIDGETS?
Let's just say we're still in a pioneering stage with widgets. It is likely that standards will eventually be set for tracking the number of downloads and perhaps even frequency of use or user actions following their interaction with a given widget. ComScore has taken a stab at widget tracking with its Widget Metrix service.
There's more than one way to birth a widget.
Early in 2007, Condé Nast Publications introduced Flip
, a website that it hoped would draw hundreds of thousands of teenage girls to create virtual scrapbooks, complete with music and video that they could share with friends.
Traffic peaked last May, when the site attracted 468,000 unique visitors, according to ComScore Media Metrix. But that figure fell to just 104,000 in December.
Condé Nast this month decided something had to give. It decided to de-emphasize the Flip site, although it will remain live, and push in its place Flip ... the widget.
"You can make your flipbook directly on Facebook, you can share them on Facebook. There's really no reason you have to go to Flip.com," said Chris Gonzalez, executive editor of Flip.com. "It's definitely a new way of looking at the web." How will it work? Stay tuned.