Elance Blog

Widgets 101

There seems to be a lot of buzz about web widgets, and so we asked Tracy Pizzo, an expert in this area, to define web widgets and their applicability to your small business marketing strategy.


Tracy Pizzo - Guest Contributor

What’s a Widget Anyway?
Widgets have certainly become a hot topic these days – and for good reason. They’re expected to break the web wide open. Despite the pervasiveness of widget talk in the press and blogosphere, there is still a lot of confusion about what a widget is in the first place.

Adding to this confusion is the fact that there are many different types of widgets out there. So before we dive into what a widget can do for you, let’s define what a widget means in the context of Web 2.0: 

A dynamic bit of bite-sized web content that is portable, allowing anyone to personalize their web experience exactly how they want it to be.

You may have also heard people talk about Gadgets (particularly in the context of Google), and Apps (particularly in the context of Facebook). Widgets, Gadgets, Apps, etc. – these are all essentially web widgets, as they all adhere to that definition of dynamic, portable, and bite-sized. These three characteristics are what differentiate widgets from banner ads, modules, and web pages, respectively.


Where Can Widgets Go?
Now that we’ve defined a widget as a dynamic, portable, bite-sized piece of web content, let’s talk about where widgets are used. Basically, web widgets can be used anywhere HTML code can be inserted. The most popular places that widgets find homes are inside social networking profiles (like Facebook or MySpace), blog sidebars and posts, start pages (like iGoogle, or Netvibes), and personal or small business websites. Essentially, if you are a web page owner of any kind, you can use widgets. Below are some examples of the types of widgets that tend to be used in the various places. Once you know what you want your widgets to do for you, you can tailor the types of widgets you create for one or more of these demographics.

Social networkers love to use widgets to express themselves and their online identity – some people call this “bling.” These widget users are building out their profile pages as giant billboards promoting themselves. Widgets such as glitter text and cyber-pets are very popular among these users.

Bloggers are a bit more into utility, and prefer widgets that give their readers important information, like site visit counters and weather widgets. Bloggers also love Widgetbox’s blidget tool (yup, that’s “blog+widget”), which allows anyone with an RSS feed to quickly and easily make a widget out of it. We’ll talk more about blidgets in a bit, as they are a great way to market you or your business.

Start page widgets are even more personal. I have a Netvibes page filled with all the blidgets I read on a daily basis (Mashable, TechCrunch, and Read/Write Web, to name a few). I check it often throughout the day to see what interesting news is popping up. If I want to read more, I can click through to the website. Start page widgets have a 1:1 owner/viewer ratio, which makes them inherently pretty different (and less viral) from the rest of the widgetsphere, where you have a 1:Many owner/viewer ratio.

Widgets as Lean and Mean Marketing Tools
What does all this mean for you and your business? Well, first it means you need to clearly define whom your customers are and whom you want to attract. Are you looking to make inroads with a particular demographic?

Second, the key in any widget strategy is that while a widget can act as an advertisement for you, a widget is not, and should not be, an ad. Let me say that again – a widget is not an ad. Widgets are 100% user driven. You can’t force someone to take your widget and put it on his or her web page the way you can guarantee views of an ad. In order to entice people to subscribe to your widget, it has to be compelling. When you have a compelling, dynamic widget that speaks to the right demographic, your widget will do most of the work for you. A clickable ad just can’t compete with a super cool and useful widget (and sheer entertainment can be useful, by the way).

Herein lies the power of widgets as a marketing tool. When someone gets your widget, it is a statement of intent, and often of interest and loyalty. By definition, because widget use goes far beyond viewing (or ignoring) a banner ad on a page, widgets have the power to engage your customers outside of your website in ways never before imaginable. Stop and think about the possibilities of this for a moment. Your online effectiveness no longer has to be intimately tied to your website and/or your keyword spend only. By using a widget, you can be set your content free to roam around on the web and help you find customers you could never reach otherwise. Add to this some fancy, individualized widget SEO, provided by the Widgetbox crew, and you can really drive some new business your way.

A Small Business Example
Andrews McNeel Publishing (AMP) is a publishing house dedicated to general nonfiction trade books, gift books and humor books. They publish about 300 titles per year. One of their popular categories is cookbooks, and in January of this year, they took an RSS feed of recipes from their cookbooks and made a widget out of it. This widget drove over 100 subscriptions from all over the web. But this was just the beginning. They then made a blidget from the popular book, Things Cooks Love, and a video widget from their new book, Dear Mom: Thank You for Everything (just in time for Mothers’ Day). AMP published these widgets at the end of March, and applying some lessons learned from their first widget, they took a few extra steps this time around. First, they used the Widgetbox viral installer, which allows their users to grab their widgets quickly and easily from their own site – you can check out their widgets and “get widget” buttons on their homepage. They also used our App Accelerators to make full, standalone apps on Facebook and Bebo. These widgets now have over 300 and 350 subscriptions, respectfully, in just over two weeks – again, from all over the Internet.

The important thing to note is that your company can be any size. You can be the Gap, or a small independent publishing house; no matter your size, widgets can help you market your business and get you incremental traffic towards realizing your online goals.

Making Widgets is Easy
Creating a widget is easier than you think. Here are a few options:

  1. Got feeds? Make blidgets! Blidgets are a great way to make widgets with a couple of clicks and less than a minute. You can customize your blidgets and set defaults. Use our viral installer and watch your content spread!
  2. You can also make widgets out of any flash file, create one from HTML (using our HTML editor), widgetize remote HTML (using our “web page” option), or import any Google gadget from the XML feed. Widgetbox offers lots of options. You can also check out someone like Sprout who has some cool flash widget building tools.
  3. If you need more detailed and technical widget development, the other option is, of course, hiring someone to do it for you.


About
Tracy Pizzo, Senior Director of Community and Business Development, came to Widgetbox with 8 years of general management and business development experience. Prior to business school, she was Executive Director of two not-for-profit organizations where she oversaw all operations including vision, fundraising, management, and program development.

Comments

I found this article to be very helpful especially being fairly new to blogging on my own site. SPB

Thanks Tracy,

Really solid information. What would you recommend for someone who would like to see their business utilize these tools, but doens't know how/where to take step one.

eric

That’s a great question. I think the easiest place to start with widgets is with an RSS feed. If anything on your business website has a feed associated with it, you can make a widget! The blidget tool is a great place to start with this, which you can access here: http://www.widgetbox.com/create/create_widget.jsp. There are lots of incredibly popular widgets that are built off of RSS feeds, but if you would like to move beyond that, then you may need to work with someone who is well versed in HTML or flash. Unfortunately, this will probably come with a price tag – either someone you hire to help you build widgets, or someone who is on your payroll. There isn’t a centralized widget development house at the moment, but there are plenty of businesses out there that offer these services. Some of the most notable are Clearspring and Gigya, but they tend to work with pretty big clients. There are smaller companies like WidgetNest who do this kind of work, and then we offer a marketplace on our forums that folks can post information about their widget needs. I hope this helps!
Tracy Pizzo

Very insightful article on widgets - what they are and how they work. It's fascinating what can be done. Anything is possible for small business these days!

Eric

Spreading widgets and other easy to install small applications is a great way to promote your company or website. I blogged about using viral marketing here. Specifically I gave examples of viral applications. Many businesses can replicate the same strategy.