Go-go Vista gadgets

Mini Web-based applications interchangeably called widgets and gadgets are enjoying increasing popularity in North America.

Marketers should view these programs — which often appear as tiny windows providing quick access to Internet sites, serve up streaming video, weather reports, news updates games and more — as vital vessels for navigating the viral waters of the Web 2.0 world.

Microsoft, for one, has embedded a gadget engine on its Windows Vista operating system called the Windows Sidebar to enable users to easily run such applications. The company also recently concluded a developer contest to encourage development of new gadget offerings.

Google, on the other hand, recently incorporated widgets to AdSense, its popular advertising serving program.

“Gadget deployment is definitely growing in the marketing community,” according to Scott Howlett, principal and co-founder of iMason Inc., a Toronto-based Internet marketing firm.

The estimated U.S. Web widget viewing audience in June was about 87.1 million, representing no less than 48.7 per cent penetration, according to a survey by comScore Inc., an Internet marketing trend tracking firm headquartered in Reston, Va.

The world wide widget audience for the same period was 239.3 million or 27.9 per cent penetration.

Vendors have come up with various names for their applications and to a certain extent some products are not totally interoperable. For instance, a Google widget might not run on a Vista side bar. However industry insiders believe the “boundaries are eroding.”

“It is the next big thing in online marketing,” said Carmi Levy, senior vice-president for strategic consulting for AR Communications Inc. of Toronto.

He said most Web-based marketing campaigns have mastered “page stickiness” but often “failed to monetize the captured eyeballs.”

A widget, however, can provide companies with a “beachhead” on a user’s machine. “Once a widget is downloaded onto a sidebar or desktop the company’s name is on that machine,” Levy said.

Such is the potential for a Vista gadget developed by Tony Cavaliere, a .Net developer for software development and consulting firm ObjectSharp Consulting of Toronto.

A self confessed “junkie” of the TVOntario flagship talk show Agenda, Cavaliere, created a gadget which can be downloaded onto a Vista sidebar. The mini application provides users rapid access to daily episodes and viewer generated content of the TV program.

Without the gadget, Agenda fans would have to launch the show’s Webpage to be able to view the episodes online.

Cavaliere’s work won third place in Microsoft’s Gadget vs. Gadget contest. While working on the project, Cavaliere generated so much interest within TVO that Rick Nye, producer of interactive and digital media for station and Jean-luc David, developer adviser for Microsoft, were always ready to assist him with integration matters. The TVO Agenda gadget is also now featured on the show’s website.

The model can be used to market almost any TV program, company or product, he said.

One of the selling points of gadgets and widgets is the relative economy and simplicity in development and deployment, according to Barnaby Jeans, audience marketing manager for Microsoft Canada.

“Gadgets enable business to develop marketing applications for the Web or desktops without the need of complicated code or sophisticated software,” Jeans said.

Jeans said gadgets are ideal for feeding specific information or data such as real simple syndication (RSS) news feeds, statistics, flight schedules, weather and climate reports, environmental monitors, to-do-lists and events calendars and streaming videos. “Successful gadgets offer brand recognition, connection and interaction.”

Merchants can deliver offers via widgets using images and digital coupons that viewers can click on to reach a landing page containing the featured product or service. Clever interactive tools can be tied-in to a campaign to produce ad revenue or brand awareness. Companies can also use widgets to deliver information to their internal staff.

Companies that seek to deploy gadgets “must focus on the audience” and make sure the functions or features are relevant to the user’s needs, says Howlett of iMason.

iMason earlier produced a gadget for the job posting website Workopolis.com. Among the gadget’s feature is a tracker that shows viewers how many available positions are present for a given job market.

Because not all of the application’s users will be tech savvy, gadgets need to be simple to operate and able to produce results within 30 seconds. “Most users will lose interest if they have to wait long for anything to happen. They could just decide to dump the gadget,” said Howlett.

Marketer should also watch the online community and tap into local and global digital needs and trends to determine what features to include in a gadget. At the moment the ability to display and tag photos, streaming images and music are very popular. Consumers also want to be able to “personalize” gadgets.

Like most Web 2.0 tool, widgets need to generate extensive and viral use to be effective. Levy suggest that companies develop traction by highlighting widgets on their homepages and e-mail campaigns as well as generating exposure in relevant communities and blogs. “Evangelism tools need good preachers.”

Widgets deployment, however, have a “strong correlation” with security issues, warns Levy.

Because the applications rely heavily on open Web-based interaction, they run the risk of opening security holes to a host of spyware and malware, he said.

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