Why Aren’t More Advertisers Using Widgets?

Let’s see… why aren’t advertisers using widgets more often? Hmmm, maybe because advertisers are still largely defined by a display ad mentality that hinges on their ability to get consumers to click on a banner in response to cute creative or simply tricking them.

Until they go digital. Branded widgets are the refrigerator magnets of the Brave New World. These compact, portable little software apps — from video players to countdown clocks to makeup simulators — are inexpensive to distribute, free to the user and (often enough) distinctly useful. At a minimum, they carry an ad message wherever they go.

[From Garfield: Why Aren’t More Advertisers Using Widgets? – Advertising Age – News]

Widgets do offer a substantial upping of the ante for advertisers but a few things are lacking. First and foremost, while widgets use script blocks to deliver the hosted widget, there are still far too many inconsistencies with the way that the 40+ destination sites handle widgets.

HTML widgets offer far simpler authoring and more reliable playback, but many social networks only want Flash widgets. Google, on the other hand, would prefer to have as little Flash as possible. Then there is the size issue and the fact that widgets that are not well behaved will cause a number of browser issues on page load.

The ability to track and report on widget traffic is quite erratic from one network to another and instrumentation of widgets can impose network and service overhead that causes problems all it’s own.

The biggest problem for advertisers is that while widgets are free for users, they aren’t free for advertisers and publishers who have to pay directly and indirectly to support them. With the vast majority of widget traffic going into social networks the CPM is atrocious and advertising networks want little to do with them because they don’t like, despite their assertions to the contrary, the long tail. Advertisers want to know where their ads, or in this case widgets, are residing because they believe, rightly I would offer, that their brand integrity demands it.

Despite all that, I love widgets and believe that they offer many compelling advantages over display ads, we just have to get beyond an advertising culture issue to hit mainstream with them. It’s kind of like behavioral and micro-targeting, every advertiser and advertising network says these are definitely the future, but very few actually ever explore using these techniques.

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NewsGator as the Anti-AP

Considering this latest announcement is an evolution of things we have been working on all year, this is probably a lot less exciting to us than for people hearing it for the first time. But it is genuinely exciting because it delivers on a promise as old as the internet itself, the ability to integrate text on-the-fly from many sources.

NewsGator is building widgets for a consortium of 32 online papers — one for each team in the NFL. While the newspapers are not necessarily owned by the same companies, they’ve decided to share high quality content with one another in a novel way. Essentially, we’re talking about the atomization of content — where, esentially, content is broken up into many pieces and distributed (often standalone) across the web; in this case, the online newspapers we’re parterning with are atomizing their content through NewsGator widgets. (For an excellent introduction to atomization of content, check out PR Squared’s post on the subject.)

[From Introducing Reverse Syndication & Atomization of Content Our Novel, NFL Widget Campaign Breaks New Ground: NewsGator Widget Blog]

Why is this the anti-AP? Simply because the AP takes it upon themselves to create or aggregate content which is then distributed to their coop members, it defines syndication. What we are doing is enabling a peer-to-peer based model rather than the hub-and-spoke where our network participants are getting what they are sharing, in this case news content concerning football (American football, not soccer for those of you outside of the U.S.).

Our theory is that there is plenty of content, high quality content, from local sources and the limiting factor has been the ability to programmatically aggregate all this local content and then provide a distribution mechanism. Widgets and RSS solve both of those problems and point to a future where content owners and publishers can seamlessly share and consume the best content on specific or generalized subjects and do so with little cost and zero friction.

Reuters and NewsGator Partner on Election Coverage

I was remiss in not writing about another announcement we made yesterday. Reuters and NewsGator have teamed up to offer U.S. election coverage widgets for individuals and publishers.

The idea of doing widgets with specific event coverage is nothing new, but what makes this program unique is that we are offering full text Reuters coverage and video in a branded widget that can be co-branded and customized for a specific publisher.

When content in the widget is clicked on, the click brings you back not to Reuters site but to the partner site that is cobranding the widget, as is the case here with Joe the Plumber on the Denver Post site. Pretty cool, huh?

Reuters deserves a lot of credit for offering publishers the ability to take advantage of their content in a manner that benefits both the publisher and of course Reuters. With the AP struggling to maintain their customer list of newspapers, it is no surprise that other information service providers are jumping at the opportunity to disrupt the marketplace with innovative syndication offerings.

RSS technologies when combined with widget syndication offer the ideal vehicle for aggregating and distributing content in a manner that retains the integrity of the brand and ensures that monetization flows exactly where it should, to content owners and publishers.

Flash Widgets and SEO

I’m still not sold on the notion that Flash can be search optimized… it’s also one very big reason to not use Flash widget containers. NewsGator supports both but HTML/Javascript has many advantages beyond simply SEO, like the fact that it’s 1/40th the size of Flash containers, can be dynamically resized, and can be developed much more quickly.

I know, I know. Google’s indexing Flash and Flash developers can rejoice now that their content is SEO-friendly. Sorry – I don’t buy it for a second. Flash content is fundamentally different from HTML on webpage URLs and being able to parse links in the Flash code and text snippets does not make Flash search-engine friendly. I think it’s great that Google’s digging deeper into Flash, but I don’t believe web developers should be any less wary than they’ve been in the past about Flash-based websites or Flash-embedded content.

[From SEOmoz | Flash and SEO – Compelling Reasons Why Search Engines & Flash Still Don’t Mix]

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NewsGator and AFP Olympics Widgets, Guaranteed CPM

NewsGator and AFP have teamed up to offer a collection of widgets featuring their premium content covering the upcoming Beijing Olympics. These widgets are squarely targeted at media sites and popular blogs, and as part of this program we are guaranteeing a CPM to any approved site that runs the widgets on their site. Here’s a link to the press release we put out this am.

Why is this important? For us it’s significant because it shifts our business model from being purely a hosted service provider to a syndication network. Widgets have many use cases, a vehicle for brands to reach consumers is just one while what we predominately do, enable content owners and distributors to syndicate their content is another. This Olympics feature program is a perfect adaptation of several trends in widgets, including premium content syndication, display ad monetization, and mid-tier distribution site targeting.

We are making it drop dead easy for a premium service like AFP to expand their reach beyond their current clients and top tier media sites to the long tail. Blogs and small/medium traffic websites offer a terrific syndication opportunity for AFP but the cost of reaching these sites with their traditional mechanisms is punitive. What NewsGator’s widget services offers AFP is the ability to quickly and easily reach this long tail with a self service model and a monetization scheme that correlates to the channel.

Speaking of monetization, our ad network partner is Advertising.com, a premium online ad network by any definition. This is one reason why we have a qualification program around this, because advertisers really care about where their ads are showing up so we have to have a process to ensure that these widgets are being placed on sites that are topic and audience appropriate. What this means is that we have some qualification guidelines to be met in order to participate in the guaranteed revenue part of the program, there is nothing here that restricts anyone or any site from picking up these widgets and running them.

If your site is part of the revenue side of the program we are offering a co-branding opportunity. We have designed the creative for these widgets with a replacement logo placeholder that we can use to co-brand these widgets with your branding. This is appropriate for the kind of sites we envision running them and it’s a great way for small/mid tier sites to extend their own brands.

Lastly, I want to emphasize a couple of final thoughts. First and foremost, we are not changing our business at all, we are expanding it on top of the hosted widget service we have been successfully selling to publishers. Widgets are becoming a more complex business as they grow up, we intend to lead that by innovating the service offerings we are making available and bringing traditional media companies with us as their partner. AFP is a world class news agency who deserve a lot of credit for trying something new as a means of reaching new audience and satisfying the demands of online new media.

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Qponix Coupon Widgets

I’ve wondered why marketers haven’t done more stuff like this. Pampers could put out widgets on baby care and feature local promotions on related products and coupons for POS redemption. The most powerful engagement you can get with a consumer is to get them to install your widget on their startpage or blog.

Qponix provides retailers and consumer goods manufacturers the opportunity to engage with consumers during the purchase decision through a widget-based advertising network. Qponix seamlessly integrates promotion tools and coupons into an expanded lifestyle-related and organizational environment for consumers, placing the brand prominently and powerfully within the buying process.

[From Qponix Provides a Coupon Widget for Retailers [The Startup Review]]

A Response to Fred Wilson’s Talk at Widget Web Expo

Josh was asking me about the Fred Wilson keynote at WidgetWebExpo and I asked him to send me a list of questions that I would respond to and he could post. Here ya go.

Last week, Jeff Nolan — VP of NewsGator’s SaaS divison — attended the WidgetWebExpo in NYC. There, Fred Wilson gave a talk based on a blog post he published that morning called “Why Widgets is The Wrong Word for What We’re Doing.” That blog post and the discussion that took place at the conference provided a fair bit of fodder for discussion on the blogosphere as well as in the tech/widget space. I decided to ask Jeff if he’d like to provide another perspective in response to Fred’s comments. Enjoy!

[From Q & A with NewsGator Widget’s Jeff Nolan (Part. 1) A Response to Fred Wilson’s Talk at Widget Web Expo: NewsGator Widget Blog]

NewsGator Editor’s Desk Beta

We are beta testing a new version of our popular Editor’s Desk widget management application.

Managing the content of a widget has always been a strong point of our hosted service, with not only post level control over RSS feeds but also the ability to create search feeds that scour a broad range of sources and pre-bundled content feeds.

One of the more powerful aspects of the content management tool is the ability to aggregate a large number of feeds and control the display. The Enterprise Irregulars widget that runs in my sidebar pulls together 40 different feeds from the EI member sites, and then throws in Summize feeds for “Enterprise Irregulars” and “enterprise software” for good measure.

The widget displays all of these content sources in an orderly fashion, cycling 1 post item per feed per 8 slots, to ensure that high frequency blogs don’t dominate the presentation. This is the kind of control you get using our widget service, as well as the ability to pull out post items or make them “sticky” to stay in view up at the top of the widget.

The ability to syndicate content is a powerful capability that widgets provide. The Enterprise Irregulars widget gets about 22k impressions a month here but across the 30+ sites that have picked up this widget there is another 80k impressions per month that roll up. What that means is that I’m generating 100,000 widget impressions (analogous to a pageview) per month, extending the EI brand, and achieve a consistent 2-3% clickthrough rate on the content.

There is much more in this updated service, sign up and give it a try.


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Widget Metrics

We’re starting to publish some of the stats that our clients are pointing to as a measure of success for their widget strategies. To recap, we sell primarily to media companies so impressions and interaction rates matter to them. Interaction rates include not only the clickthroughs but also the take down rates, as in the frequency that another site picks up a widget and puts it on their site or an individual takes the widget and places it on their facebook profile page or start page.

We are committed to being as transparent as possible about what benchmarks are being established for viral media syndication. Having said that, this data doesn’t necessarily belong to us, it’s our client data so only when we have their permission to highlight it will we.

The quote I highlighted below when taken in isolation doesn’t necessarily mean much however we’ll be doing more to expose client experiences and best practices, so add our widget blog feed to your reader.

“I like the way NewsGator just keeps on giving, with 66% better [engagement] metrics since our relationship began. Oh, I mean, like, 166%, since there were none when our relationship began. See?”

[From How NewsGator has Helped Discovery News]

The Future of RSS

May 1st was RSS Awareness Day and while I have a seriously vested interest in this topic, I chose not to observe it. Why? In short, I was busy on other business but also I’ve had this subject gnawing at me and it just took a few days to compose my thoughts.

Let’s take a look at the main areas that RSS companies, like NewsGator, focus on and score the success:

  1. Blog syndication: This is game over, RSS is the prevailing mechanism by which blogs are syndicated, and a great many people consume blog and traditional media content through dedicated readers or start pages that have generic RSS capabilities.
  2. Enterprise: Success here has been more elusive. We are doing a robust business in the enterprise but selling a generic RSS platform into large companies is laborious and time intensive. As I have noted before, there is a broad disconnect between IT organizations and how users actually employ technology, RSS is a great example of this divide.
  3. Widgets: Strong success here, we have been deploying a widgets/data service to media companies that is entirely built on RSS technology. We are currently delivering 200 million widget impressions a month at this point, suggesting that RSS powered widgets are a bright spot.
  4. Media: Too many media sites put out partial text feeds, this impairs the ability of companies to build next generation consumption applications that rely on some degree of keyword/entity extraction for semantic features.
  5. Start pages: Great RSS use case here, it is estimated that about 60% of the activity in popular start pages is reading RSS feeds.
  6. Authenticated Feeds: In a nutshell, this is a disappointing area because the overwhelming majority of applications that could deliver personalized and user/password protected feeds just don’t. These applications include all of the popular enterprise applications and even popular on-demand apps like Salesforce.com.
  7. Feed Monetization: Mixed results here, FeedBurner enables dropping in of contextualized advertising but it’s not apparent that many people are doing this with great success. The problem with putting ads in feeds is that it’s to easy for client applications to strip out the ad units automatically.
  8. Desktop Client Apps: Of course we enjoy market dominating success here but it’s not shocking to suggest that desktop RSS apps appeal to a core heavy use audience and growth will be minimal to moderate at best.
  9. Mobile RSS: There are apps for mobile devices but none have really broken out as success stories. It’s my observation that applying a desktop RSS consumption mode to a mobile device is a nonstarter.
  10. Attention Streaming: This is something I am intensely interested in. We, as in a small group of leading companies, are just starting to get some momentum here so prognosis is good.
  11. APML: A promising initiative but while a lot of apps are generating it, very few are actually consuming it. I would also wager that a lot of potential developer partners are probably waiting for APML to move into a traditional standards process before committing. I think this was a failing of OPML as well, lacking a third party to move it forward it just plateaued. A lot of applications use OPML, for sure, but it’s all manual… imagine how much farther along we would be if there was a common feed store that enabled all applications that can consume subscription information to access a subscription, rather than having to update every application with new subscription information manually?

#10 is where I want to start with in terms of continued discussion. Basically the entire RSS market has been built around a use mode of subscribe-then-read, and that is likely to continue as an exclusive model for many users or in parallel to other use modes. The weakness in this approach is that you only know what you know, as in you have know about a feed before you can subscribe to it… and I generally work off the approach that it’s far more likely that the best content on any keyword is not necessarily found in my OPML.

There are an increasing array of companies that are working on a next generation of feed consumption use model, built not around the explicit subscribing of feeds and chronological consumption of content. In order for RSS to get to the next level of mainstreaming we have to think in terms of behavioral filtering of content and discovery of new content sources based on explicit preferences or inferred preferences derived from behaviors. This is exciting for me as a user.

I think one of the reasons why Techmeme has proven to be a consistent favorite is that this next generation model is partly how Gabe built the system. Through using Techmeme I am essentially outsourcing feed discovery to the service and consuming content not based on subscriptions but topics. As a users, ordinary or power, I would like to have a personal Techmeme that delivers content based on my consumption habits, or put another way, my attention streams.

To further develop this model, I would like to see a social dimension develop that pushes up/down content based on a collaborative filter that takes into account my social graph and what they are consuming and rating, explicitly or otherwise. The problem with rating that we need to overcome is that a very small percentage of people will actually score content, so that’s why the attention streams become valuable, through activities they are effectively scoring content.

For enterprises this is nothing but goodness, but unfortunately it will likely be that enterprise users are the last to benefit from these advances because they are dependent upon IT. It will happen but the use cases we have to build to will be specific and in some cases tedious in an effort to get a flywheel spinning that elevates RSS in the enterprise to a strategic focus.

Lastly, RSS is an ideal syndication technology for publishers to take advantage of to expand audience and monetization of content. The missing link up until recently is widget technology, because inserting ads directly into feeds is a nonstarter in my opinion. Charlene Li said it best when she said “wigets are RSS in a dress”. Charlene, who attributed the quote to someone else, wasn’t being facetious or otherwise inappropriate, she was observing something deceptively simple, widgets present a use mode that average users like because it puts them in control while presenting a visually compelling experience.

With traffic acquisition costs being what they are, media sites are unlikely to see significant growth in site traffic using linear techniques like adding more pages and/or better SEO. “Going viral” is popular to say but hard to do, widgets offer a simple and low cost mechanism for publishers to use to drive additional site traffic not by getting site traffic but by dispersing content to a variety of destinations, including social networking pages, blogs, start pages, and non-affiliated websites.

On balance RSS has been an exciting area to mine away in, with a diverse range of target markets, use cases, and a broad array of interesting companies. It’s here to stay but at the same time is begging for a new interaction model to drive broad mass market adoption; it’s still too geek. RSS in media is the ideal syndication technology and with newer technologies like widgets, finally able to be monetized.

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