by Graeme Thickins

If you're in the online marketing game and are not yet hip to widgets, listen up. Two emerging Web 2.0 technology firms focused in this space have a message for you. Those companies are Widgetbox and ClearSpring, both of which presented in a session on Tuesday afternoon at Web 2.0 Expo that was billed as "Using Widget Syndication for Online Marketing and Measurement".

What is a widget? According to Ed Anuff, CEO and cofounder of Widgetbox, it's a "small piece of dynamic content" on your web site, blog, or social network page. Sometimes they're also called badges. An example of a widget is the Flash-based Flickr badge shown to the right, which is one I use in the sidebar of my blog.

Why do you need a widget strategy?

Why would you want to have a widget strategy, asked Anuff? Because they're contextual and personalized, they're social, they're visual and interactive, and they're viral. "They let you take an experience and share it with others," he said. They allow for self-expression, they provide site enhancement, and they facilitate ads and commerce - for example, a shopping cart can be implemented in a widget.

"Some remarkable CPMs are being driven now by widgets," said Anuff, on the subject of advertising impact. In fact, he said, widgets have the potential to get "a lot more traffic than your web site." Widgets are driven by "prosumers," said Anuff, meaning producer-consumers - as in user-generated content.

How do you launch a widget? Well, you can use Widgetbox or similar sites to feature your widget. And you should set up special SEO-optimized widget landing pages, said Anuff. Tapping blogger and social networking power users was another recommendation. The syndication network that Widgetbox has set up already has more than 30,000 domains, Anuff said (reminding us that MySpace represents just one!). The firm also has amassed opt-in lists of 50,000 "power bloggers and social networks." 

Also Widgetbox does some unique things with SEO - it claims to have more than 10,000 widget pages in Google. The widget analytics it provides integrates with your existing tracking systems. "You need to pay attention to your widget metrics," Anuff said, noting that impressions and clickthrough rates are not enough. "It's about getting that wildfire pickup we all desire," he said.

The birth of the widgetsphere

"We're witnessing the death of the portal and the birth of the widgetsphere," said the next speaker, Hooman Radfar - founder of Clearspring, another VC-backed widget syndication company. He said the old way was for portals to aggregate content for you. "But now the 'prosumer' is here, producing and consuming." Creation is easier than it was under the old portal model, bandwidth is cheaper, and we have Ajax and Flash. Radfar said that "we just need to give people the tools. Widgets are the building blocks for social aggregators." His definition of widgets: "Components that can be executed across multiple platforms without additional compilation." 

Hooman Radfar

Radfar said that widgets are a part of a fundamental change in the platform of the web - "and the widgetspace is not just MySpace. It's hi5, bebo, and many others - even Nokia is doing it."

So, what can marketers or businesses do to take advantage of this movement? Radfar said that your strategy should be to "build a virtual destination in the widgetsphere." Use promotional widgets: "You can think of them as flyers." How this differs from advertising he didn't say - except you obviously aren't paying for placement here. This is social media, friends.

How to get started

A standard size for a widget is 150 by 300 pixels. Flash is generally used for social networks, while Javascript tends to be used for widgets on blogs and start pages. There are basically three ways you can go: 

(1) build your own widgets;

(2) use destination-specific tools, such as at Google, or;

(3) go with an independent widget tools and syndication company like Clearspring.

Radfar recommends to "let the user play with your widget. Don't force them to download and post it. We've studied this and find it gets better results". 

He noted other widget galleries where you can list your widgets, such as Google, TagWorld, and Typepad. And he stressed that widgets, which are really little apps, need to be measured. Keep adapting the widget, keep iterating. Other tools are available at Netvibes and PageFlakes, he said. 

"Widgets are write once, run everywhere, and we've already served more than 2.5 billion of them," Radfar noted. In conclusion he said that a new platform is coming from Clearsping in May.