The Weight of the Widget, Volume III: Pitfalls

There are a few hurdles to face in the fresh world of widgets. Complaints can be heard coming from users, advertisers, and website owners alike.

Loading Time
The biggest concern voiced by widget users and site owners is
widget loading time. The time it takes to load a web page where a widget resides, is dependant on the third party code that exists on an entirely different server. Although some companies like Flickr are able to deliver fast and reliable service, smaller startup companies are often unable to handle the increase in demand, and end up failing to load the widget at all. And some critics predict that sites will become so cluttered with widgets that they won’t be effective whatsoever.

Another question companies ask when contemplating widget development is "how can widgets help our business make money?". Experts acknowledge that the economy of this type of online marketing tool is still being shaped. Without a pricing strategy, advertisers are apprehensive about paying top dollar for a widget that’s influence is unknown. So as marketers wait with baited breath for an idea of how to make a profit, widgets will continue to serve as tools to achieve brand awareness and lead generation.

The third obstacle lies in the measurement of usage. Given that users connect to widget content without opening any additional browser windows, counting page views and unique visitors will become obsolete. But people are getting closer to uncovering the answer with solutions to
measuring widget usage. As well, companies may need to identify specifically what qualifies as a widget before Internet traffic analysts are able to measure penetration.

So is widget marketing here to stay? I know a lot of younger demographics would argue them as a new age necessity. Generations that have been raised on the Internet have no time for a static banner. Their attitude isn’t just “what’s your brand going to do for me?” It’s “what’s your ad going to do for me?” But will there ever be a comprehensive method of measurement? And will the demand for widgets continue?


What I took away from FITC Toronto

I’ve just returned from the premiere Canadian new media trade show known as Flash in the Can. My head is now full of hope and inspiration for the future of rich media, and dynamic desktop applications.

There were so many wonderful things worth mentioning, and I fear I’ll only be able to only scratch the surface in a single article, so consider this a brief overview.

AirLet me start by discussing the potential for Adobe’s new product Air, which is a platform allowing flash developers to create dedicated desktop applications using all the same scripting and abilities of Flash CS3.

Before attending FITC I didn’t really appreciate the usefulness of a new platform to host Flash based applications. But now that I’m aware of its easy-to-use built-in SQL database, and the potential to access dynamic data both locally, online, and the possibility of syncing the offline with the online I’m eager to dive far deeper into this new dev platform. I’m thinking this would make an excellent platform for an Intranet, among other incredibly useful apps.

A few major websites such as PayPal, EBay, Google Analytics, FaceBook, and others have already built or are developing desktop versions of their huge and complicated sites to allow users a faster and more feature-rich experience then was ever possible before. In many cases it will allow their sites to operate offline which is a pretty major ability both for the company and their users.

Here is Adobe’s current Air app showcase site.

One other thing I took away from FITC was the incredible work being done by a few people in the realm of code generated artwork.

Flash has long been a favorite tool among groundbreaking designers to avoid the limitations of old-fashioned HTML/CSS styles, allowing the sites to be presented in ways that are near-impossible in most other traditional ways.

I strongly recommend viewing the work being done by Joshua Davis, Erik Natzke, and my personal favorite Grant Skinner. Skinner has managed to create some beautiful, natural looking trees and grass, entirely with code. It would take many pages to get into the details of how this is possible, but it essentially amounts to porn for Flash coders.

Anywho, it was a fantastic conference that will forever influence the way I approach my work.


The Weight of the Widget, Volume II: The Secret to Success

As a continuation of Volume I, this post explores the appropriate questions to ask when creating a widget and the key principles to a truly brand building application.

In an industry that is always enduring the trial and error of new trends, it’s fair to debate whether this new gadget will actually contribute to a brand’s success. Despite its popularity amongst hundreds of millions, widgets still need to serve a purpose in order to make a
successful connection between brand and audience.

Here’s an example:

Purina created a mini-applet that alerts pet owners of good dog-walking weather. By extending its brand experience beyond dog food, the brand makes an even larger impact on the consumer’s life. This widget is a way of saying “We’re about more than just feeding your dog. We understand the life of a pet-owner and we are here for you.”

Widgets also tend to last longer than traditional advertising. If it’s something consistently entertaining or informative to the user, they are likely to keep it part of their routine, grow accustom to it, and potentially shudder at the thought of living without it.

So what key considerations must one make?

1. Consider Your Brand

Don’t just tack on your brand message to some flashy, unrelated function. Allow the widget to be a practical extension of your brand. Offer content that while useful or entertaining, also subtly enforces your brand’s identity. Acura is known for having the best navigation system on the market, so they developed the Acura RDX Traffic widget that delivers real-time traffic flow to a user’s computer. Not only is it an extremely useful application, but also a functioning extension of Acura’s brand attributes.

"It is important to raise the widget to the level of the brand, not reduce the brand to the level of the widget.” -
Snipperoo Widget Blog

2. Consider Your Audience

While much of your effort will be spent designing and constructing a widget that is perfect for the user, you can’t forget about where you’ll be placing it. The placement is as important as the widget itself. There are millions of sites on the web that cover everything five times over, so it’s crucial to know the sites that not only achieve reach, but also have their own credible identity. And don’t forget, your widget should also enhance the site it’s on, making it a
mutually beneficial partnership. But you may be considering a desktop widget that engages users in a deeper connection, in which case you better hope that your content can hold the interest of the user.

“There’s no free parking on the desktop: Keep it meaningful and fresh.” – Kate Donaho, Group Creative Director, T3

So what kind of content can hold the user’s attention every day? Are RSS feeds the key to keeping it fresh? Are there interactive games that can stand the test of time and wear out?


The Weight of the Widget, Volume I: The Next Level of Brand Engagement

As a facebook user, I can admit that as I stroll about the network, most advertising doesn’t penetrate anything more than my peripheral. Despite its close proximity to the content on my screen, it still isn’t content. And this quick assessment of what deserves my attention is second nature, much like someone watching television and switching channels the instant a commercial sneaks onscreen. We all know how the story goes: you can lead ‘em to a banner, but you can’t make ‘em click.

Enter Facebook Applications: Little gadgets that allow users to interact in unique, entertaining ways. Advertisers are fighting tooth and nail to develop these gadgets and further involve users in their brand. However, many of these applications are producing overwhelming clutter on the site and require users to solicit these apps to their peers, causing resentment among millions. But at the core of the clutter lies the key to
new age brand engagementWidget marketing.

Widgets can be defined simply as small pieces of desktop or web content that offer functions from simple weather updates to more sophisticated and interactive applications. They have recently become a popular way for marketers to not only reach their audience but also to incorporate their brand into a user’s everyday routine. Apple and Microsoft have desktop tools that feature stock tickers, news feeds and airline schedules. Google’s fastest growing products are ‘gadgets’ for its personalized start pages, or websites that allow users to customize the displayed information.

In today’s marketing world, the widget is proving its place as an effective media strategy. Such tools have been successfully weaved into marketing plans for brands like
Adidas, Cingular, Sony Pictures, V05, and AT&T Wireless, along with many others. Many sectors like financial services, automotive, and personal care are testing the widget waters, which makes one wonder just how varied the demographic for this tool is. eMarketer estimates that U.S. companies will spend $40 million this year to create, promote and distribute widgets, up from $15 million in 2007 (which was prematurely dubbed ‘The Year of the Widget’).

Not appearing to be a passing fad, widgets are used by 230 million people a day. But are widgets appropriate for every marketing strategy? Behind every brand, is there a widget waiting to happen?

Look for our next installment of The Weight of the Widget: Volume II: The Secret to a Successful Widget


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Giving Money Online

Today I received an email from my brother asking for my money.

Let me clarify: my brother was asking for money on behalf of the
'Ride for Heart' event put on by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. He'll be participating in a 75 km bike ride (on his old mountain bike) and wants sponsors. His email starts out with a personal plea to donate (including an actual 'PLEEEEEEASE!'), followed by the very well-worded template copy derived by the Foundation.

Of course I donated, but not just because I think this is a worthy cause, but mostly because it's my brother. See, I like the idea of the torture he'll endure 'mountain biking' 75 km on pavement. Last time he climbed the CN Tower stairs. That was good too.

I arrived at his personalized web page which prominently displayed his fundraising meter, indicating he'd achieved over 50% of his goal after just a few days. Then, to the right, was the "Honour Roll" scrolling through the names of his donating peers.

I completed my transaction and up popped the 'Confirmation' page. I was immediately able to download my PDF receipt. Very cool. Now I want to see my name on that scrolly list on his page... But how do I get back to it? There was absolutely no link in sight to bring me back to my brother's page (though the page did also include a 'Thank-you' message, bullets on how the money will be used, 'contact us', etc). Even the email that arrived in my inbox a minute later did not contain a link to his personal page.

Such a simple thing, why would they have left it out? It was such a smooth and impressively easy process up to that point.

Could it have been an oversight on the Foundation's part? Even as a charity that otherwise portrays themselves as innovative and advanced? Or maybe I'm the only one vain enough to care about seeing my name on the 'honour roll'. Perhaps I didn't see enough of that while I was in school...


FITC Toronto 2008

Break it. Break your tools. Break your patterns. Break the norm. Break the standards. Break it.

FITC is a Canadian company that produces engaging design and technology events that inspire, educate and challenge the best new media designers and developers from around the globe.

Established in 2002 by new media guru and entrepreneur Shawn Pucknell, the company has held successful events across both Canada and the United States and is expanding overseas. According to FITC’s founder, the first step to producing a successful event is choosing a host city with a passion for the interactive arts. FITC has left its mark in the following geographies:

Canada: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg
USA: Chicago, Hollywood

The FITC name was derived from the first show that was produced in 2002 called ‘Flash in the Can’ -- a reference to Adobe’s (previously Macromedia’s) Flash software, and CAN taken from Canada. This inaugural event focused strictly on Flash, but the scope of future events has broadened with the explosion of interactive media to include all platforms including mobile, installations, motion graphics and games.

A few of us will be attending this years Flash in the Can conference. That is Pete, John, our intern Matt, and myself. If anyone's going to be looking for us there, we'll be the really good-looking ones.