Ready or Not, Here They Come: An Introduction to Widget-Based PR

Newsweek may have declared 2007 "The Year of the Widget," but, three months into 2008, it's still fair to ask: Are communications professionals ready for another serious Web phenomenon whose moniker sounds like a big joke? Regardless of the honest answer, it's high time to welcome widgets--yes, widgets--with open arms, as organizations' communications strategies are increasingly dependent on the interactivity and viral capacity enabled by these tools. The obvious first question: What is a widget? According to Larry Thomas, COO of Medialink, "A widget is a piece of code, an application that you can grab [from anywhere] and post on your blog, Web site or desktop. Then, like an RSS, it feeds you the latest updates." Still not sure exactly what to make of this? Simply put, a widget is any cluster of software codes that appears as Web videos, online games, countdown tickers, slide shows or other live content that can be downloaded, customized, forwarded and/or placed on everything from blogs to social networks, to personal desktops. "A widget is basically a software application that you can place anywhere online," says Vanessa Camones, principal owner of theMix Agency. "They are like personalization accessories, in a way." This capacity for customization and interactivity has caused widgets to explode onto the cyber-scene as savvy communications and marketing executives incorporate these features into their usual online platforms. It's an ideal way to create an ongoing dialogue with target audiences, as their decision to "grab" your widget and place it on their own site means that they want to interact with your brand on a regular basis--after all, widgets "allow you to change content frequently and refresh easily," Camones says. "It's an easy way to distribute content and leverage your brand." To get a better visual understanding of this tool, consider the National Basketball Association's use of widgets (see screenshot on page 6). The organization's Web site has a special section devoted to widgets ( Individuals "grab" anything from a video-highlight widget to a team widget, to a photo gallery widget. Each one has a code that can be copied and pasted onto anyone's personal site, blog or desktop. As demonstrated by the NBA example, the widget's updates, once added by the communicator, are automatically sent to anyone who has downloaded them, so there is no need for additional follow-up or notifications. These characteristics make widgets sound like a slam-dunk for any communications strategy, but wait--if implemented haphazardly, they can do more harm than good. To sidestep potential land mines, keep the following best practices in mind before getting started. Don't Try To Reinvent The Wheel Since widgets are pieces of code, many communications executives will balk at using them, as writing code usually isn't part of PR job descriptions. But don't let that stop you; many internal IT departments have the capabilities to create simple widgets, and external firms that specialize in widget creation are popping up in droves. "Professionals should really focus on their strengths," Thomas says. "Communicators should focus on developing messages and getting them to the right audiences, not on actually encoding [widgets]." Focus On Content "The reason widgets make sense to a communicator is that the name of the game is making content available to your target audience when and how they want it," Thomas says. "Widgets are another way to extend the reach of that content." The key words in this statement, though, are "another way"--not the only way. Creating content that translates well into multiple forms, or that at least has complementary pieces, is essential to making widgets successful. The level of engagement is key; widgets should enable consumers to express themselves and interact with the brand without destroying its integrity. Widgets Are Social Media, So Update Early And Often The "forward-ability" of widgets makes them ideal components of any social media program, but that's not to say that they can be one-and-done efforts. Like blogs, widgets are only relevant if they are supported with frequent updates; otherwise, users will download them expecting new information and then be disappointed. However, this presents challenges in and of itself, as daily content is not always easy from a logistical standpoint. "Most organizations don't have content to send out every day," Thomas says, offering two examples of ways around this challenge: A travel company could incorporate a currency calculator into its widget to make it relevant to users on an ongoing basis; the same idea goes for a financial organization. "What do nervous investors watch every day? Stock tickers," Thomas says. "So, deliver a stock ticker via a widget. Then, once you have their attention, put something else in front of it, like a video about tax time." Measure, But Understand The Limitations Of Metrics At the WidgetCon conference, held in New York City in July 2007, comScore EVP Linda Boland Abraham announced that 30 days prior to the event saw the reach of widgets increase 24%, to approximately 230 million users. It's an encouraging metric but, like all social media, widgets are about engagement, which can be a difficult thing to quantify. One panel at the WidgetCon pointed out a lack of standards, but everyone seemed to agree that widgets can be valued based on interactivity, installations and interconnectedness. It's a starting point, at the very least, and comScore has since launched its own tracking system for widgets. (For more on the WidgetCon event, see sidebar on page 2.) Learn From Those Who Have Gone Before You For the visual learners among us, it's helpful to look at various organizations' uses of widgets, as they are as varied as individual MySpace pages. Consider these examples: *Nike and Apple teamed to offer consumers the Nike+ Goal widget: A sensor that can be attached to Nike running shoes communicates directly with an iPod, mutually tracking the details of a person's run (including distance, pace, calories and time). Through the Nike+ widget, this information is then downloaded to the individual's Mac Desktop, allowing he/she to check his/her progress against a personal goal (say, to run 100 miles in 30 days). * uses widgets to allow visitors to view, engage and share content on blogs, social media sites, personalized homepages and personal Web sites. For example, viewers can download the "Stock to Watch," "Top Lists" or "Latest Video" widgets. Visa sponsors the widget content. *Production companies including Sony Pictures and New Line Cinema are using widgets to promote and preview upcoming movie releases. In Sony's case, through a collaboration with Freewebs, games surrounding the plot and imagery of the film Zathura were converted into widgets so site owners could integrate the games directly into their own sites. Within six weeks, the widget was embedded in more than 11,000 Web sites, according to Freewebs' President and COO Shervin Pishevar. However, New Line Cinema learned that widgets aren't the be-all-to-end-all when its film Hoot bombed despite the fact that 1 million people downloaded the related widget. Gordon Paddison noted this in The Wall Street Journal: "The first thing you want to do is somehow engage a consumer. Does engagement equal conversion? Not necessarily. But just as with any component of marketing, media promotion, publicity and online strategy you have to find the magic sauce." Scour All Available Resources There are ample online resources for understanding and creating widgets; here is just a sample of sites to surf: ttp:// ttp:// CONTACTS: Vanessa Camones,; Larry Thomas, Conferencing In In July 2007, Web site-building service provider Freewebs hosted WidgetCon, a day-long conference held in New York City that focused on widget marketing. The first of its kind, the conference proceedings offer a number of quick tips and insights into successful strategies for develop a widget-marketing plan. Here are a few of the highlights: Edelman SVP Steve Rubel's "Strategies for Success in a Decentralized World:" 1. Fit in. Make your content small enough to fit in little places. 2. Share. Data, content, resources, whatever. Share. Don't think about what people can do with what you create think about what they can create from it. 3. Connect. Build applications on top of people power. Interact with people through distributed content. 4. Be open. Tap people to help you. Don't think you have to build everything yourself. Open systems win. Freeweb President Shervin Pishevar's "Seven Rules for Widget Success:" 1. KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. 2. Bring the bling. Let people create the brand of 'me.' 3. Speak dog. Speak the same language as your community of users. 4. Eat your own dog food. Authenticity breeds success. 5. Color outside the lines. 6. Be contagious. 7. Be useful. Source: At A Glance: Pros & Cons Of Widgets Pros: Widgets are extremely measurable based on how many people grab them, where they put them and how they interact with them. Widgets are viral in nature, allowing audiences to pass along those they find useful or interesting. Rather than force-feeding consumers information, widgets allow audience members to opt-in, thus enhancing the quality of users. Widgets are relatively low-maintenance. "Once you set them up, they automatically run themselves, whether it's on a desktop or an HTML page," says Larry Thomas, COO of Medialink. Cons: They can eat up bandwidth and make sites slow. Many people are still hesitant to download applications, fearing the credibility of the source. If they aren't implemented wisely, widgets can be a double-edged sword for communicators. "What you're really doing with a widget is telling someone that you are making it easier for them to receive a constant stream of information," Thomas says. "That means you actually need to have frequent information to disseminate; otherwise, [the widget] becomes dead space on someone's site." They aren't stand-alone communications tools. Successful widgets are a small piece of a broader communication strategy but, due to their "sexy," viral appearance, novice executives might be tempted to rely on them for more than they are really capable of. Widgets allow audiences to interact with your brand, but they don't guarantee said audiences will take action.

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