How Twitter, FriendFeed Can Goose Online 'Shelf Space'

Digital Bloggers Debate the Far-Reaching Impact of Distributed Web Services

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Widgets are nifty. But do they really need a two-day conference? That's what I was thinking Monday as I checked out the agenda on WidgetWebExpo, held in Brooklyn earlier this week. But two DigitalNext bloggers, David Armano and Ian Schafer, and Digital columnist Steve Rubel were participating on the same panel and since I was working from home (also in Brooklyn) I meandered on down.

The title was "Micro Interactions: Can portable experiences go mainstream?" It's certainly a timely topic, tying in to the idea that the web is increasingly becoming a series of small services and experiences that consumers stitch together at their own will. Given the personalities on the panel, it should have been no surprise the discussion soon turned to web services like Twitter, Plurk and FriendFeed.

But these services don't exist in a vacuum. Rather, they have the potential to seriously influence what is arguably the web's biggest navigational tool: Google.

Armano, donning the role of moderator, pointed out that FriendFeed wasn't simply an "aggregation tool but a distribution one as well," with its content potentially showing up on search engines and on blogs for perpetuity. "That's another reason brands have to take these seriously," he said.

Rubel picked up on that theme, noting that while "companies fight for shelf space at Wal-Mart, brands are fighting for shelf space at Google." It's a reputation-management engine, and social media dictates what shows up on that shelf.

Marketers have handled the tasks of Twittering and feeding friends in various ways. Rubel pointed out that Dell has 20 people dedicated to engaging social media, but suggested an alternative would be to tell a wider swath of a company's employees to devote 10% to 20% of their time to it.

Zappos is another brand that has taken to it in a big way, with its CEO an avid Twitterer and the rest of the company encouraged to participate. Zappos has "imitated what individuals have done," Armano said.

Matt Dickman, VP-digital marketing at Fleishman & Hillard, pointed to Harley-Davidson, which has created a video-rich widget to broadcast content from its annual gathering in Sturgis, S.D. (Armano, an avid rider, had the widget on his iGoogle page.)

But for all the pontificating, there's a cold, hard reality, said Schafer, who played the voice of economics up on the panel. Very few of the tools, he said, have revenue models. And while consumers may believe these tools will simply continue to exist, the reason they're all being funded is because they're expected to make venture capitalists money someday -- either on their own or through a flip.

"Yes, it's about conversation, collaboration, but it has to be about compensation sometime. In order for these to exist, they have to make money," said Schafer. "I think there needs to be a conversation about the compensation, and hopefully collaboration will net a result to make sure [the services] keep happening."
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