Monday 9 June 2008

Widget 101*

What are widgets?
– Widgets (or gadgets and sometimes apps) are tiny web-enabled applications that distribute content to users across the internet (David Smith 2008)

OK. That’s a broad definition. What’s a tiny web enabled application mean? Well, a little program that allows people to connect with content, and lots of other people. I suppose you could say RSS allows connections with content, widgets allow connections with people using content. Some widgets are embedded into social networks, like Facebook, while others are downloadable applications that sit on your desktop, or do the same thing. The problem with the latter is most virus checkers, and firewalls, don’t let you install them. Those on social networks can be huge.

But, things are more complicated than that. I need to differentiate widgets from two new concepts that are important, because they describe something very different from a programming and operations point of view. Alongside widgets are found 'applications', and 'gadgets'. Loosely, all of these are referred to as widgets, and there's debate as to where the line should be drawn, but all are sure, there is a line. Somewhere. I'll have a go. Briefly.

Gadget: a mini-program that's downloaded to your desktop, that talks to a database, maybe like an international clock, currency convertor, or news ticker.

Widget: a mini-program that's downloaded to a blog, or website, and doesn't speak to the site database (the pacman or google thingy on this site are widgets).

Application: a program that exists on a website, typically a social network site, that interacts with the websites databases through the website API. There are many facebook applications, like that Vampire one, and some new ones for geo-location of mobile phones that are simply too big, and embedded in the site structure through the site API, to be called widgets.

Clear as mud. Yeah... I know. But work with it and it starts to sink in. For the rest of this article I'll talk loosely, but keep these definition parameters in mind. I'll turn it round to where you'll find them, and see if it helps. Desktop program - gadget (limited / no database integration with site or PC); Blog game - widget (some added website interaction, no serious integration), Social Website API and database - application (full website integrated program functionality). An application is the biggest and most important of these three, and also the most expensive to design. Beware of super-enthusiastic clients who say they quickly want one of those widget things, and then briefly describe a full website application. They won't see the difference, and if the don't have a million squids in their back pocket... keep your eye on them, and slowly leave the room in reverse. Shut the door, and RUN.

What type of content can be carried with a widget?
All web content can be carried widget-wise. Video, games, music, social networking links, ratings, polls n votes… Whatever you want really.

How do you go about developing a widget?
There are stages in widget development though. First, you have to create the program that does the ‘cool thing’ people will want to use. Then you have to get content for it. Then you find a distribution channel and only at that stage does the widget actually reach the pc, laptop or mobile to use it. It’s not a simple process, and, from an advertising clients point of view, fraught with confusions and misinterpretations. Generally widgets are developed by developers, for developers… who’ll invest considerable sweat equity in the hope that it flies. It’s not like viral advertising. When it works? It’s cool though.
A marketer that does not wish to develop their own widget should consider piggy backing on someone else’s widget. Distribution networks are the next hurdle. The usual ones are HI5, Bebo, Myspace and the other social networks with (often) open api’s

Who’s making them and what do they provide?
Lots of companies, like ClearSpring and WidgetBox for example. Widgets tempt the user into… well, downloading and using them. Users interact with the widget interface. At this point page impressions, unique users, click throughs, view throughs (post view impressions) and all the usual palaver for advertising can be served. These can often be cut by time, number of feeds, or geo-targetted.
Ding… A worked example
Ding permits registered users to see live updates of website content, and get offers in real time. It makes €60m per year from registrations alone… and a whole lot more from advertising on Ding.

Widget Reach
Widgets are reported to have been 60% and 70% cumulative reach of the Internet audience around the world at a given time. Don’t believe it? Neither did I… but then I thought about it. Most people don’t even know they are interacting with a widget at a given time. I was ‘bitten’ on Facebook recently (by a vampire… don’t ask), and without meaning to, I bit an old friend (oh the embarrassment). It was a widget. I joined Hi5, and was asked to join a quiz. I filled out a short interview on Linkedin… and these are the ones I’ve done. I’ve ignored many others. I’ve also inserted a few mini-widgets onto this blog. Did I know they were widgets? Well, I knew they were small working programs on my page, but I hadn’t put that name on them. So yes. I believe the stats on reach for all widgets. Widget use is nearly as popular as web use itself.
Some mobile widgets I’ve seen recently may well become bigger!

How many? How big is this?
Facebook has 8,000 widgets with 31M active daily users. 80% of widget interactions are carried by 1% of the widgets available. The ‘Slide’ widget is the ninth largest Internet company with 17% of global Internet users. For the initiated, Slide designed ‘Poke’, ‘Superpoke’ and the ‘Funwall’. Slide is in 200 countries. They’re on many sites. There are 87million widget installations on facebook alone. 63% of users have a ‘Slide’ widget. Slide is gynormous.

How do we measure their use
We can’t. Not effectively anyway. Comscore are trying, globally, but there’s no real demographics, and nothing for the Irish market. There are also problems with widgets counting video on YouTube for content shown on other sites. Some developers can track their own widgets, but nothing beyond impressions, unques etc. No demographics. I’m working on something that will measure their rate of growth, but it’s not ready yet.

So, that should give you a good intro to the world of widgets.
If you want more advice on what do to about Widgets, and what they can do for you. Or, if you have one, and aren’t sure of next steps, talk to Emmet at

*Note: This post borrows wholesale from an inspiring presentation given by David Smith of MediaSmith, in Barcelona in 2008 (with his permission of course). He’s the widget king. Thanks David!

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