Brian Braiker in Newsweek is suggesting that 2007 may be the Year of the Widget, a time in which web users start to customize their online experience to an unprecedented extent. Some marketing folks, most notably Steve Rubel (who gets a nice shout-out in the Newsweek article), have been talking up the potential of widgets for some time as well as looking at the dangers for companies and organizations who ignore them.
The Newsweek article is a good place to start, since it provides a nice overview of what widgets can do and how they’re becoming easier and easier for individual users to make and distribute (upcoming Apple and Microsoft operating systems will come embedded with both widgets and the ability to create more). Read all the way to the end — the last paragraph takes a look at how advertisers are creating branded widgets to stake out a constant presence on users’ desktops. The potential? Advocacy and electoral campaigns can create their own widgets, for fundraising, advocacy, or simply to push information out to supporters. The danger? That more and more readers will be consuming content in an environment THEY control, not us. RSS will become more and more important, the less obvious it is (many widgets will use RSS feeds without a reader even knowing what the letters stand for).
Now, let’s whip out some of my customary skepticism. First, will widgets completely replace your own campaign site as an information source? No time soon — and more than a few other much-touted technologies have failed to live up to their promise (remember “push” back in the late ’90s? Web portals?). Will the majority of users be out there building widgets? No way — as an analogy, what percentage of Word users ever actually learn to make a macro?
BUT, a significant chunk of your audience may soon be out their creating their own browsing environment, just as they’re currently cobbling together MySpace pages (many of them painfully unviewable, but still). Even if only a handful of people ever make a widget, many more are likely to use them, and even twenty or thirty percent of a potential audience can be A LOT of people. Some smart campaigns are going to figure out ways to use widgets to keep their name in front of supporters, to encourage them to spread the word and maybe even to raise a few bucks here and there. Keep an eye on this one.