Widgets Are Made for Marketing, So Why Aren't More Advertisers Using Them?

Bob Garfield Examines a Tool That Is Cheap, Easy and a Great Expression of the Post-Advertising Age

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Some guy lives in Albuquerque, which is great, because it is sunny and really convenient to Vista Encantada and Hoffmantown. But he has relatives in Denver, a limited budget, a lot of outstanding family obligations and a seven-hour, 450-mile gulf between them. Then, one hot and dry Thursday, he's sitting at a computer, and it goes ... "DING!"

An icon on his desktop has some breaking news: a special Albuquerque-Denver fare on Southwest Airlines for $49 each way. It sends him that alert because he's asked for it, by downloading the Southwest "Ding" widget. Most of the time it just sits there, apparently idle, a tiny Southwest logo on a tiny Southwest tail section reminding him, at some extremely low level of consciousness, that Southwest exists.
Widget: Steep and Cheap

How It Works: Advises users of special deals -- mainly loss leaders -- that draw them into the online shopping experience.

Agency: In-house
But then it dings, and then he clicks, and, because Uncle Ramon and Aunt Ruth Ellen simply must be dealt with, he books.

"After the first year, we hit the 2 million mark for downloads," says Paul Sacco, senior manager for online strategy and development at Southwest Airlines. "And it's still performing." In the third quarter of 2008, Ding generated 10 million clicks.

Wanna get away ... from the Old Model? Look no further than widgets, the mini software applications downloadable to browsers, desktops, social-networking pages, home pages and mobile phones. The widget may not be the holy grail, but it's arguably pretty damn grail-ish -- maybe the highest expression so far of online marketing in the Post-Advertising Age. And though it is very much on the cutting edge of Web 2.0, it is based on the hoariest of principles. In fact, to be properly visionary on this subject, you must begin by looking way back to the future.

For the past half-century (and for about five more minutes) TV advertising has been at the apex of marketing communications. Then, in no particular order, newspapers, magazines, radio, out of home, direct mail, point of purchase, collateral (brochures, for example) and -- in the murky, mucky darkness at the very bottom of the deepest abyss of marketing prestige -- advertising specialties.

For example, a ballpoint pen emblazoned with your insurance agent's logo. Or a wall calendar, fridge magnet, coffee mug, yardstick, foam beer-can sleeve, ashtray, key fob, emery board, pocket diary -- any cheap giveaway item meant to remind the consumer of you every single time she measures fabric or swigs a Pabst or files her nails.

Not that the 30-second spot represents high culture, exactly, but it's hard for mere words to convey how déclassé the advertising-specialty niche is. Still, I'll try: What funnel cakes are to cuisine, free fly swatters are to marketing. In a digital world, advertising specialties are as analog as you can possibly get.

Until they go digital. Branded widgets are the refrigerator magnets of the Brave New World. These compact, portable little software apps -- from video players to countdown clocks to makeup simulators -- are inexpensive to distribute, free to the user and (often enough) distinctly useful. At a minimum, they carry an ad message wherever they go.

That's at a minimum. At a maximum, the widget is something like the magical connection between marketers and consumers, not only replacing the one-way messaging long dominated by media advertising but vastly outperforming it. Because online the link is literal and direct, and along its path, data of behavior, preference and intention are left at every step. Oh, and your target consumers actually go out searching for your branded gimcrack. Oh, and they display it within easy reach. Oh, and they pass copies along to their friends and associates. Oh, and because they've been turned on by a friend, they are hospitable and receptive recipients. And, oh, in case this didn't quite register the first time I mentioned it, the barriers to entry are preposterously low. "The money is a joke," says Hillel Cooperman, ex-Microsoft big shot and founder of small Seattle software-development shop Jackson Fish Market. "It's a rounding error in the marketing business."

Ditto that, says Michael Lazerow, CEO of branded-application house Buddy Media, New York, especially when it comes to the cost of advertising (or, as he calls it, "app-vertising") the widget itself. "It is so cheap. This is the steal of the century."

That's because 500 million social-network users, each generating 1,200 page views per month, represent 600 billion monthly opportunities for an ad impression. Hence, almost everything is a remnant, and "you can buy inventory for basically nothing," he says.

Of course, that invites online marketers to embrace another throwback concept: an endless fusillade of mass messaging with no distinct target -- which is pretty much what digital marketing was supposed to be the solution for, wasn't it? But more on the economics of widgetry to follow. For the moment, let's look at some examples that demonstrate why, at least for the time being, it represents the very apotheosis of digital marketing. As my pal Jessica Greenwood of London's Contagious magazine sums up, the widget's value is "like a basic unit of utility. The marketing becomes part of the product."
  • None more so than Miles, a 3-D desktop avatar that looks like a refugee from "Teletubbies" but resides on your desktop to encourage (i.e., nag) you to run, and keeps track of your progress via the astonishing Nike Plus technology. He also keeps you apprised of local weather, running events, promotions. And he organizes your RSS feeds, so you can easily download to your iPod. From Tribal DDB.
  • UPS Widget. This guy looks like Miles' tan cousin. He allows you to schedule and track shipments worldwide with a click or two. If you are any sort of frequent shipper, why wouldn't you install him on your desktop? From McCann, London, and Skinkers.
  • CokeTags is a Facebook app that displays your favorite links, allowing you to itemize your online self -- and keep track of who is following the trail of self you blaze. From the Advance Guard and Linkstorm.
  • Steep and Cheap is an alert mechanism from the Backcountry.com catalog that advises users of special deals -- mainly loss leaders -- that draw them into the online-shopping experience. It's essentially like the Southwest Ding and works because the audience is as much a social network of the outdoorsy as a list of gear customers. In-house.
  • InStyle's Hollywood Hair Makeover allows users to lift the coiffures of Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, et al. and superimpose them on their own photos -- for fun and/or to show a stylist. A superficiality bull's-eye! From Buddy Media.
  • So you're in Singapore, old enough to drink in bars and young enough for that to be a lifestyle. Download Johnnie Walker's Jennie widget, and there is a totally cute avatar that guides you to the coolest saloon events and then, if you're half in the bag, safely home. From OgilvyOne.
Utility plus brand
Kind of hard to imagine users installing and using these ingenious apps and not appreciating the sponsor every single time -- a concept that for, say, a banner ad is even more unimaginable. As high-tech entrepreneur and former digital-marketing analyst Peter Kim puts it, "When you can combine utility with the purpose of your brand, that's the opposite of why people hate marketing. Instead of fooling them with the old brand-marketing song and dance, it's not a promise; it's a reality: 'This is what the traffic is like.
Widget: Miles, a desktop avatar

How It Works: Encourages you to run; keeps track of your progress via Nike Plus technology. He also keeps you apprised of local weather, running events and promotions.

Agency: Tribal DDB
This is what the weather is. This is what the stock market is right now.'"

Yeah, I'm grateful to John's Hardware when I kill insects dead, dead, dead with my free fly swatter, and I'm grateful to Johnnie Walker when it helps me find the best Singapore bar and my stumbling way back to my bed, bed, bed. That's the kind of dynamic that gets folks excited, folks such as Newsweek and GigaOm's Om Malik, who each declared 2007 "the year of the widget." And why? Because the marketer essentially gets to set up shop where you live, work and play.

"Inside the destination and the context people are already engaged in," says Niall Kennedy, founder of consultancy Hat Trick Media and host a month ago of the third-annual Widget Summit in San Francisco. "I liken this to a small Cincinnati retailer setting up shop in all the cities of the world instead of waiting for people to come to visit Cincinnati."

Yet in 2008 the entire segment will amount to something like $100 million. That's not nothing, but even in the midst of economic implosion, it's a sum even an endangered species such as NBC Universal can shake out of the sofa cushions -- which drives software developer Hillel Cooperman right up the wall. As he ventures out to AdTech and other prominent forums about marketing's future, he is confounded by his inability to capture advertisers' attention. Even as they bemoan the continuing collapse of traditional media and worry aloud about where to spend their money, he says, it's as if he's invisible. "And I'm jumping up and down. 'Hellooooo! Over here!'" he says, the frustration ringing in his voice. "All the stars are aligning. Everybody around me says, 'You're in the right place at the right time.' Yet it's still like pulling teeth."

Hmm. Magical connection. Pulling teeth. Those two images are hard to reconcile, but let's do try. There are plenty of reasons marketers have been slow to exploit the possibilities -- and why, no matter how grail-ish it can be, the widget's place in even a fully digital marketing economy may have a relatively low upper limit.

"The whole concept of a widget is just misstated or overblown," says Ben Kunz, director of strategic planning for Mediassociates, a media-planning firm. "It's not the channel; it's what you do with it that's important."

Kunz actually likes widgets a great deal; he's just queasy to hear them oversold, given what he says are their inherent limitations -- not the least of which is the difference between engaging with a piece of software and engaging with the sponsoring brand. "There's a lot of hyperbole out there about engagement," he says.
Widget: Ding

How It Works: Park it on your desktop, tell Southwest Airlines the prices and destinations you're looking for and it will update you on the latest deals from Southwest.

Agency: GSD&M
For instance, if Schick Quattro sponsors a widget that lets a guy embed his face on the hunky body engaged in a pillow fight with two barely legal teens -- and it has -- does this carry over to razor purchases? "Does throwing pillows at each other," Kunz asks, rhetorically we suppose, "really influence anyone?"

Even if the answer is yes, there are plenty of other issues to consider.
  • Nonstandardization. There are lots of incompatible platforms: desktop, iGoogle, mobile, Facebook, MySpace, etc. Pending software-code universality, you must create a half-dozen or more versions of every widget.
  • Dubious relevance to low-interest categories. What makes perfect sense for Johnnie Walker and Nike may not necessarily apply to Charmin.
  • Cost. While, as Cooperman correctly observes, the cost of creating a widget is enticingly small, and the cost of distributing one is low compared with media advertising, the price tag is also typically open-ended. Marketers can be socked with fees up to $5 every time some Courtney or Madison embeds a widget on her MySpace page. So if you get lucky, you could also get unlucky. "Open-ended" is hard to budget for.
  • Scale. There is only so much space on a desktop or a Facebook page or a mobile-phone screen. As Kunz observes, "Sure, you can give them utility, but there are only so many slots for that utility. In my world, there may be 100 things that I use a computer for. So conceivably you can create a widget for each one of those things, but you've limited the inventory." That means the vast majority of marketers are shut out the vast majority of the time.
Then there is the Great Widgetry Schism, a fundamental philosophical difference among users and developers as to what the technology is best suited for. In commissioning a widget, do you wish to be all the rage with those notoriously fickle Courtneys, who create viral sensations that spread far and wide but quickly peter out? Or do you shoot for endurance, residing on home pages and desktops perhaps in perpetuity? The bias among widget shops seems to be entertainment over utility, essentially using widgets much like ads: to briefly get users attention and then start over when that attention wanes.

"It's a campaign model," says Liza Hausman, VP-marketing for Gigya, the largest widget-distribution agency. "Advertisers are still going to have to move the needle in a particular time frame. There are people who are looking at widgets as customer relations management or long-term dialogues. That's not where we focus."

Widget: Trim Flixx

How It Works: Upload your face onto a hunky guy's body and pillow fight with barely legal teens. We're not sure why.
Hausman says this model also conforms well with consumer behavior, especially among the habitués of MySpace, et al. There, she says, a user's page is an ever-changing expression of self, which often is expressed in the form of a showcase for the user's latest discovery. In short, says Hausman, "users like to update their pages." In addition, if you assume that utility-based widgets tend to reside on desktops, vs. social-networking pages, the utility imperative comes at the expense of virulence.

"That is a one-to-one relationship," Hausman says. "That widget is seen only by the person who put it there. Those widgets help you get through the day: news, weather, info," compared with social-network-page widgets that reside "where people are putting a public face on their world. And the widget there has a 1-to-many, many exposure."

That argument would seem to be backed up by data. A study by online-market-research firm Marketing Evolution found that return on investment from widgets increases in approximately direct proportion to virulence. The study, of campaigns from Adidas and video-game publisher Electronic Arts within MySpace, found that 70% of the ROI was attributable to consumer-to-consumer proliferation. The consulting firm calls this the "momentum effect," and clearly the momentum is a function of the kind of sharing that, say, the Southwest Ding doesn't much enjoy.

"I have no vested interest," says Marketing Evolution CEO Rex Briggs. "But I do tend to lean that way, mainly because we know there are decay curves to advertising. Keeping it novel and fresh generates a larger response. Part of it is the ability and desire to pass along what you're saying. Something new makes it newsworthy, worthy of passing it along to others, and there's value to that."

On the other hand, companies such as Gigya absolutely do have a vested interest and a structural bias against the enduring-utility model: Duration militates against repeat business. If a client successfully lands a widget on a zillion desktops or social-networking pages, and it stays there, the client has far less incentive to commission subsequent efforts, which, obviously, is bad news for the software designers and distributors. Furthermore, the problem with entertainment widgets such as games is the same one that afflicts any form of viral marketing: Virulence is hard to achieve. No matter how many Courtneys are out there, it's really hard to be the Next Big Thing that, however briefly, captures their imaginations. As Cooperman puts it, "Games are just like music and movies and books. It's a hit-driven business. I think it's fair to say nobody knows how to make a hit in any of those industries."

Widget: Jennie, a cute avatar

How It Works:If you're in a strange land and looking for a drink, Jennie will guide you to the bar and back to your hotel.

Agency: OgilvyOne
Whichever side of the schism you embrace, widgets offer advantages that hardly any other marketing tool can match. Chief among them: portability. Can't get people to visit your website? Once they visit, you can't lure them back? Try the amazing new Website-in-a-Can! It's compact! You can store it on your desktop, your Bebo page . . . or you can fold it up and put it in your toolbar! Fun time, party time, anytime!

And it really, really works! Logs data like a website, enables direct commerce like a website and becomes a destination like a website, only without the user having to leave the virtual house. She merely goes to the cupboard and opens up a can. For free, of course. Because Website-in-a-Can is so cheap to produce, folks can just give it away.

Buddy Media, one of the biggest creators of branded apps, fills two floors of a slightly skeezy office building on Broadway just above Columbus Circle. It used to be a Fred Astaire Dance Studio, with a ground-level Indian restaurant and water seeping down the bare-brick walls after every rain. Now it's a code factory, where workers load raw zeroes and ones into their Macs and forge software parts -- parts that are in turn assembled in various combinations to form custom applications. Using that small inventory of a few hundred in-stock parts, Buddy Media can turn out widgets fast and cheap.

"If you're going to do a 728-by-90 banner ad," says CEO Lazerow, "you might as well do an app. Because it's going to take the same amount of time and cost." What he doesn't advise is buying for reach and frequency. His buzz term is "reach and engagement," the idea of cultivating a few people instead of pestering a lot more. "Instead of reaching 80 million people, let's reach a million in your target and spend 10 minutes with them." Buddy Media has no difficulty establishing the engagement part. Its hairdo widget for InStyle magazine had more than 300,000 installs, 185,000 in the first six weeks. The average time spent on each visit was seven minutes -- three hairstyles' worth -- and nearly half of the users returned to it more than 25 times. "They basically cost less than traditional banners, and you get 75 times greater time spent than with regular banners and five times more time spent than with TV ads."

One believer among his clients is Keith S. Levy, VP-marketing for Anheuser-Busch, which created a Bud Light Dude Test widget to leverage [Note to readers: I have just used the word "leverage" as a verb. This will never happen again.] a Bud Light ad called "Dude."

"The multiplier effect of the web is extremely powerful," Levy says. Though the 300,000 downloads are laughable compared with a TV buy, "you're really getting a relationship with the consumer." Another widget, created just for the lucky winners of the Bud Light Party Cruise promotion, for instance, established an ongoing community of 4,000-some evangelists such as rowyco, who (according to his MySpace page) is a 24-year-old Arizonan whose nickname is an obscene acronym, whose slogan is "Hardcore for Life," who likes country and metal and tricked-out motorcycles, and who is working on a business degree at Paradise Valley Community College. His friends are Judith, Diana, Courtney (!), Crazy Christene, Justin, The Rouch and -- right at the top of the list -- Bud Light Party Cruise.

Compare this effort, for instance, with Bud TV, which at a cost of $15 million for the first two years alone, attempted to create a content destination more or less paralleling the tube. What Anheuser-Busch earned for its trouble was a squizzillion views of the hilarious commercial "Swear Jar," the enduring enmity of many state attorneys general, and zero MySpace friends. One day in late November, Bud TV's global web ranking, according to the online-analytics site Alexa, was 26,253,061. To put that in perspective, moisttowelettemuseum.com was ranked 5,681,20947. As they say over at A-B, lessons were learned. Though he won't characterize Bud TV as a boondoggle, when pressed to look at the relative efficiency of Bud TV and pocket-change widgetry, Levy offers, "Did we have to build a stationary network where people have to go and get stuff? No."

Of course, engagement -- and even community -- cannot be directly correlated to sales. But, excuse me, apart from direct-response advertising, what can? As for the other outstanding issues casting suspicion on the sustainability of widgetry, let's take one more look:
  • Platform incompatibility. While some functionality is sacrificed, something close to universal code is not far off. Lazerow says by the spring, his apps will be, with a minimum of tweaking, one size fits all.
  • What works for a sexy brand might not work for Charmin. Upon further reflection, why not? Given about two seconds thought, I came up with about 10 toilet-paper-relevant ideas in varying degrees of offensiveness, from SoftCam (rotating video of a basket of kittens, baby butts, ducklings, etc.) to a Full-of-Shit-o-Meter (feeding news quotes from celebs, athletes and pols that are transparently disingenuous or worse).
  • Cost. Yes, $5 an install can add up, but many vendors charge much less. More to the point, though, who says that the calendar is the right allocation tool for marketing expenditures? As long as we're reinventing commerce, should we not consider the possibility that marketing programs will be financed for as long as they perform, without arbitrary campaign boundaries? "I guess I can't understand the marketers' narrow-minded definition of the controlled calendar, because that's not how consumers' minds work," says Briggs. "It's like Coca-Cola saying, 'All those people with the Coke memorabilia from the '50s, I want it out of their house, because that's not the Coke message today.'"
  • Shelf space. Even if you accept that there is a finite amount of real estate on the world's 500 million social-networking pages, the universe is expanding by the second. "Saturate the market?" Lazerow says. "We're not even close. I can't see a world in which we're going to saturate this market."
Audience migration
Oh, and one final thing. If you are a marketer who's spent the past decade investing in a robust website to attract customers and prospects, and you're therefore disinclined to cannibalize your traffic by giving away Website-in-a-Can, don't get too smug. Your audience is making that decision for you.

Widget: Hollywood Hair Makeover

How It Works: Steal the hottest hairstyles from the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz and plop them on your own head.

Agency: Buddy Media
In the past three months, according to Alexa, Apple.com's page views per user are down 9%; Comcast.net is down 1%; Dell.com, down 22%; AT&T.com, down 18%; Xbox.com, down 9% and so on as corporate e-bastions begin to experience the same audience fragmentation that is killing old media. "As popular as your site may be," says Kennedy, the reality is that people are actually visiting Yahoo, MySpace, Google and Facebook thousands of times more than they're visiting you."

Tony Zito of MediaForge, which handles Steep and Cheap, calls this "the slow death of the destination website." Consider the source -- the man sells widgets -- but even if he's hyperventilating, the trends are a bit ominous.

If Mohammed has indeed cut back on his visits to the mountain, it may be time for the mountain to go to Mohammed.

After all -- Ding! -- the fares are pretty low.
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