Until recently, the funny little word “widget” meant very little. Today, widgets have the power to change the face of the internet.

Not more than a year ago – two at the most – a widget was a nothing, a thingamajig, a doodad. I recall the word was used liberally in my economics classes: If a widget factory turned out 2,368 widgets on Monday and 927 widgets on Tuesday….

Today, “widget” remains a funny little word, yet widgets – those portable chunks of code that can be installed and executed throughout the online world – just may be the most disruptive force on the web today.

Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Still, I believe it to be not far from the truth. I would even venture to predict that widgets will eventually become an integral part of any company’s online marketing strategy. And the companies that begin now to harness the power of those little code snippets, and to exploit the ability to measure their widgets’ effectiveness, will be miles ahead of their competition.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, as many marketers I speak to still seem unclear on what a widget actually is. And that’s understandable, because there really hasn’t been an industry-wide standard for what the term even means.

Let’s look at the definition from Wikipedia:

A web widget is a portable chunk of code that can be installed and executed within any separate HTML-based web page by an end user without requiring additional compilation.

Clear as mud, right?

Perhaps the best way to describe a widget is to give an example. Apple offers a widget called My iTunes that lets users share their ratings, favorite songs, and new music purchases with anyone who visits their site. You can install the widget on your Facebook profile, MySpace page, personal blog, iGoogle page, or really any HTML page that you control. You can also customize the widget with different sizes and colors. If you lift up the hood, the widget works by transmitting feeds from your iTunes account to the widget itself, where the information is then displayed for your friends to see.

But not all widgets are from major online players directly – in fact, the majority are from third-party developers that just leverage data APIs that the major sites are now providing. Take for example eBay. A company called Widgetbox offers a widget for eBay that allows you to display your own auctions or favorite item searches on any HTML page that you control. Again, this could be your blog, iGoogle page, or other location.

This may all seem a bit trivial but it’s completely disruptive and really exciting. Widgets give websites the ability to become portable, to go anywhere. With both of the above examples, these online players are effectively reaching a much greater audience at a much lower cost than comparable means like search engine marketing or banner advertising.

Think about it. Thousands of people subscribe to widgets, and soon it will be millions as the value proposition continues to increase. Further, the audience for these widgets tends to be qualified by the very fact that the widgets are displaying content in the context of a social networking experience. Friends are looking at content that their friends are recommending and validating, and these friends share a multitude of common interests. As a result, there is a higher likelihood that these people will buy similar music, clothes, books, or items – and likewise read similar articles, content, etc – than the average visitor to the site that marketers are working so aggressively to attract.

Widgets can also be used to increase the effectiveness and relevance of content being served. For example, take the Cliq widget from Offermatica. Cliq allows a web publisher to place a widget on their site that pulls together featured stories, most popular stories, and related stories, both from the publisher’s own site and from third-party sites.

Widgets like this harness the power of social media while allowing for the sharing of readers and traffic.

So, as you begin thinking about using widgets as part of your marketing strategies, there are some basic things you’ll want to be able to know: How many websites have incorporated your widget? How much traffic is being generated from your widgets? Which of the websites that are referring traffic via the widget are the most effective? How effective is your widget campaign in terms of your overall marketing mix?

The basics of tracking and measuring widgets are not difficult. It’s usually a simple matter of adding a tracking code to the widget code. (If you have questions about this, give us a call. The good folks at Omniture can help make it happen.) Of course, as widgets increase in complexity, and you thirst for greater data insight, tracking widget success can increase in complexity as well.

So. Online marketers have a wonderful new way to expand our reach online via a tool that could be as big and game-changing as paid search.

Those of us ready and willing to jump in and get started could be leaps ahead of our competitors by the time widgets become truly mainstream. And if we have the power to measure our widgets, to understand how they contribute to our overall traffic, we’ll be that much more ahead of the game. What do you think?

4 comments
Justin Ewert
Justin Ewert

Good article. You are right about widgets being a powerful tool for online marketing. I definitely will re-think about the concept behind using widgets online. Happy to hear that widgets can be tracked as well. Very cool. Thanks!

Internet Marketing Legacy
Internet Marketing Legacy

I finally bought an iPhone. AMAZING! Now I'm in widget mode. It really opened my eyes to how to widgetize some of my sites. Thanks for the article. Great info.

Jeff F.
Jeff F.

Great Article Matt! Submitted to a few social bookmarking sites... Thanks for showing us a good time at the summit!

Rajive Jain
Rajive Jain

An insightful article indeed, thank you !