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The Widget Bell Curve

No matter how you slice it, the numbers are compelling. MySpace now has over 110 million users and Facebook just passed 65 million. And the demographic profile is prime with the majority of users falling into the 18-35 bucket.

Not surprisingly, brand marketers are taking notice and scrambling to figure out the best way to take advantage of social networks. They are already dumping $1.6 billion a year into display advertising through these sites. But, as a new report in BusinessWeek illustrates, widgets are clearly the new black for social networks and advertisers are placing bets that they can crack the viral channel.

Widgets come in all shapes and sizes. Most are created by developers who use open APIs (Application Programming Interface) which social networks provide to encourage platform growth, commerce and ecosystem development. These mini-applications are interactive, customizable, can be added to users profiles in social networks, and most importantly, shared with friends, family, schoolmates, and work colleagues. These range from personality quizzes to music jukeboxes to dating services to stock tickers. And increasingly, these widgets come from brand marketers and are tied into broader advertising campaigns.

While there is a rapid proliferation of social network widgets, only a very small fraction ever go viral. For example, of the 17,000 widgets available to Facebook users, the number that have achieved over 1 million users ranges in the hundreds. BusinessWeek reporter, Rachael King, explains that the adoption of widgets through social networks looks like a steep bell curve where initial rapid adoption tends to drops off quick after the enthusiasm dies down.

So what kind of widgets go viral? It seems to me that the answer is a function of awareness, motivation, and ease of use. Sure there are widgets that are so funny or utilitarian that they catch fire with little or no strategic effort. But from a brand marketer perspective, careful attention to these factors is critical is you're going to have a shot at success.

  • The right users need to be aware of the widget. A mix of marketing communications needs to be used to raise the awareness of the widget among key influencers or "connectors" who will use it and promote it through social networks. The widget obviously needs to resonate with these targets, but getting a handful of advocates on board will help stack the deck in your favor.
  • The widget needs to answer basic motivations. The act of sharing a widget seems to be rooted in one of two motivations: 1) Users want peers to experience what they experienced through the widget, which results in approval, praise or positive recognition; and 2) Sharing the widget either directly results in, or improves the user's chances of, some kind of tangible material benefit.
  • Sharing the widget needs to be easy. Regardless of the motivation, cracking the viral channel requires that barriers to entry are extremely low. Ideally, widgets should be directly tied into a communication feature that leverages the friends/contacts database associated with the social network profile. This makes sharing the widget a click away.

It turns out that launching a widget that takes advantage of these considerations is incredibly difficult. But widget campaigns that take off really represent the gold standard for brand markers signaling active engagement, evangelism, and market dialog.

New agencies are popping up to help brand marketers develop and launch widget campaigns through social networks. Former SVP of Arnold Worldwide and a founding member of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, Jamie Tedford, has a new startup, Brand Networks Inc., which focuses on a combination of strategic consulting, widget development, and "Tokns," their redeemable social network currency. Tedford has already signed up clients such as Puma, Monster, and Houlihan's, reflecting a broader trend among brand marketers looking for innovative new approaches to tap into social networks.

While eMarketer reports that widget ad spending will only reach $40 million this year, it's clearly just the tip of the iceberg.

March 4, 2008 | Permalink

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