Thought a widget was a gadget to give your beer a creamy head?

Think again. Widgets are applications which are taking the social network sites by storm, and an exciting opportunity for marketers

Damian%20Blackden%20120pxYou may or may not know exactly what a widget is, but if you’re a Facebook user you’ll definitely have encountered some of the more trivial but often compelling examples of the breed. Widgets are mini applications which can be plugged into a Web page or other interface to enhance individuals’ online experience via a single application.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their virally spread nature, the social networks are awash with applications like Compare Your Friends, Food Fight, Zombies, Flckr-feeds and Where I’ve been Maps. In fact, Inside Facebook (an authority I didn’t know existed until this week) claims that 65 million applications were installed on Facebook in June at an average of 2.5 a user. That actually sounds a bit low, judging by the behaviour of Universal McCann’s Facebook obsessed demographic.

While widgets are definitely an int-erim technology, as a marketing platform they’re worthy of the general excitement surrounding them. They provide marketers with an outstanding opportunity to deliver a branded experience rather than just an advertising message.

And their appeal isn’t just limited to the MySpace generation. Brands that target business audiences are also getting involved. Microsoft recently built a very useful business travel widget on Live.com which helped frequent US travellers with things like customised, up-to-the-minute flight information and so on.

The concept of a branded experience isn’t new of course. We’ve all known for some time that increasing numbers of consumers are quite happy to be entertained by an ad, but they sometimes remain unconnected to the brand values that the commercial attempts to communicate. Projecting the brand values by enhancing consumers’ online or mobile browsing, news gathering, or socialising experience for example, is a compelling way of going several stages further – the ability to actually “walk the walk” through actual brand behaviour as it were.

This isn’t new, as I said before, but the widget revolution and the Web’s democratisation means that we can do it much more easily – and connect with much larger audiences.

The fuel that’s driving the interest is the increased range of choices that brands now have in this sector. The most expensive option is to start them from scratch, identify a consumer need, or a means of entertaining them that fits the brand communication and then go and build something that defines it. This actually isn’t that prohibitive as the technology to produce the things is pretty accessible. In most marcoms instances the big challenge is having an original and relevant idea to create something around.

Last year’s X-Men 3 example is now well documented. In return for making the film a MySpace friend, and downloading a skin of the characters to their homepage, individuals were given a widget-like facility that allowed them to double their number of Top Friends from eight to 16: a popular offer, which has netted the film nearly 2.6 million friends to date. More significantly, I’ve heard tales of 20% reference to the activity in exit interviews outside cinemas. That’s nice work.

But to be really effective in this area brands and agencies need to change their approach. First they must get cosy with developers and widget owners. They have to get upstream of the widget launch process to jump on new and exciting applications before they hit the Web.

And second, a much greater degree of opportunism and flexibility is beneficial. The sexiest applications won’t come along at exactly the right time, or in the ideal shape, but they represent an extremely powerful way for brands to project themselves through their behaviour – and sticking to top-down, market-by-market, campaign and business cycle-shaped thinking can prevent brands from really capitalising on some new consumer behaviours.

As usual, all of this raises interesting challenges for the mainstream ad agencies. How can, and should, they be involved in all of this? 

And also, as usual, Google’s right in there. This time it’s offering developers dollars in return for letting it serve AdSense messages through their applications, although if you believe Andrew Keen, the amounts it’s offering aren’t generous enough to get the programming community terribly excited.

But Google’s type of proposition gets especially interesting when one thinks about the mobile scope. Phone applications like text messaging are used a whole lot more than mobile web browsers. Interesting things are coming in this space. It’s not hard to imagine the concept of highly relevant messages being delivered through the applications loaded on a phone’s desktop. We’re not all there yet, and I know I’m a mobile bore, but this sort of thing isn’t that far away as a genuinely mainstream opportunity.

Damian Blackden is director of strategic marketing technologies for EMEA at Universal McCann

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