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