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 !