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Lawrence Coburn On Marketing With Widgets

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I first met Lawrence Coburn when we presented together on a Public Relations panel during a WebmasterWorld Pubcon conference in Boston. Lawrence told a great story about being at the right place at the right time and taking proper advantage to build publicity for his web site, RateItAll.com.

At the recent Pubcon conference in Las Vegas, Lawrence presented on a panel about viral marketing where he focused on using widgets as a way to drive traffic and links. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this session since I was presentingon a different panel at the same time, but Karen and Jolina did and they came back with excellent feedback. Multiple people mentioned this session to me actually, including Rand Fishkin in this video interview.

There’s no doubt in my mind that widgets are going to be gaining a lot of attention from creative online marketers in the coming months, so what better time than now to talk to someone who is already in the thick of widget marketing? Read on to discover what widgets are, how they work, see some widget examples, learn about measuring widget results, resources and what Lawrence’s opinion is regarding whether widget marketing is just a passing fad or tactic.

Tell us about yourself and how did you start working with widgets?

I’ve been running a large social network and consumer ratings community called RateItAll since 1999. My interest in widgets was sparked by seeing the success that other online communities (like MySpace) have had in allowing their users to embed widgets, and the related success that widget publishers (like YouTube) have had in pushing their reach out beyond the confines of their domain.

With the possible exception of Google AdSense, the growing widget ecosystem is the single largest development in web publishing that I’ve seen in my seven plus years in the business.

What exactly IS a widget and how do they work?

When I talk about widgets, I am referring to web widgets – chunks of embeddable code that can be grabbed on one site, and embedded in another. Depending on who you’re talking to, widgets can also be referred to as gadgets, modules, badges, or blog bling. One of the neatest things about web widgets is that you don’t have to be a developer to make use of them. Anybody who understands copy/paste is able to display widgetized content or functionality on their own blog, social networking profile page, or personal web site. It’s sort of like opening up the world of mash-ups to non-technical web users.

What are some of the benefits to using widgets and how can they help companies engage in viral marketing?

From a site perspective, widgets are all about providing your users with the tools to promote your business. A properly executed widget can spread like wild fire – introducing your site’s content / functionality to new users who may not have known your site existed. Widgets are especially interesting to me as a site owner as a means of acquiring new customers at a minimal cost, pushing my site’s reach out to all corners of the Web, leveraging my site’s existing content, reducing my site’s dependence on SEO, and providing a nice source of organic, one-way, inbound links.

How do you measure the effect of a widget?

Widget analytics is still in its infancy. Currently, you can get a rough idea of how many times your widget has gotten picked up by doing backlink searches on Google, Yahoo, or Technorati using the “site:” qualifier to isolate the big widget aggregators like MySpace. Inbound traffic from widgets can be measured by checking your log files. However, as of now, there are no off the shelf solutions to help widget publishers understand exactly how folks are engaging with their widgets. There’s a company called Clearspring that is working on this problem, and I look forward to seeing how they progress.

Is it possible that widgets are just a fad like link baiting and social media?

Your question assumes that link baiting and social media are in fact fads, which I don’t think is accurate. (Perhaps “tactics” would be a better characterization – Lee) At their core, widgets are really about providing more control and a better experience to web users. Specifically, they’re about giving users the ability to be able to call up specific content and functionality when and where they want it. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, I don’t think that widgets are going away. Even if the largest aggregagators were to make the unwise decision to start blocking widget embeds, other communities would step up to take their place.

People like being able to customize their online presences with widgets. It’s a way for folks to provide a better experience to their friends / readers, and a way to broadcast to the world a little bit about themselves. I see widgets as part of the larger movements of citizen publishing and customization – which few would argue are fads.

What are some good examples of widgets?

A widget that I think is great is the iLike widget. iLike is a social music discovery site that features an iTunes plug in that captures all of your iTunes listening behavior. iLike spits out a widget that displays your most recently listened to tracks, as well as your top bands overall. The widget is also a music player that allows readers to play samples of the songs from your own iTunes history. This widget is updated in real time, and is a great example of a widget that is powered by implicit, personalized data.

Bitty Browser is another widget that I like, that I think provides a glimpse of the next generation of widgets. Bitty Browser is an embeddable web browser, that allows publishers to embed mini versions of their favorite sites within the expience of another site. Unlike most widgets which offer snapshots of content, Bitty Browser enables a fully functional experience within the body of the widget.

A third widget that I’m a big fan of is the community widget provided by MyBlogLog. The MyBlogLog widget attempts to provide social networking functionality like user profiles and user to user messaging across various blog properties. Blog publishers embed the MyBlogLog code in their sidebars, and MyBlogLog displays thumbnail photos of the blog’s readers within the widget. Clicking on a thumbnail launches the reader’s MyBlogLog profile page, and allows basic social network functionality like testimonials and messaging. Readers are also assigned to blog communities based on their reading habits, and introductions are facilitated to similar readers.

What are some useful resources for people that want to know more about widgets?

Sexy Widget is my own blog, and focuses almost exclusively on widget best practices and widget reviews.

Mashable is a great Web 2.0 blog that covers a lot of widget related news, including Mashable Labs which has some good stats on widget penetration on MySpace. Richard MacManus over at Read / Write Web also follows widgets closely, along with other Web 2.0 stuff. Other widget focused blogs include Widgify, Flying Seeds, and Widgets Lab. The guy who I consider the leading proponent of widgets on the web is VC blogger Fred Wilson of A VC. His blog is cluttered with just about every widget under the sun, and he invented the term “microchunking” which I think was a precursor to the whole widget movement.

What was your favorite part about the recent Las Vegas Pubcon?

The best presentation that I saw at Pubcon was Rand Fishkin’s stuff on linkbaiting. The most useful off the cuff remarks came from Todd Friesen, AKA Oilman. He mentioned something in passing that has helped me a lot in how to think about leveraging internal links for SEO purposes. I thought Guy Kawasaki gave a great keynote. As usual with Pubcons however, the real value comes from late night conversations with folks like Werty, Caveman, Stuntdubl, Jeff Coyle, RogerD, and Martinibuster.

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Lee Odden is President and Founder of
TopRank Online Marketing, specializing in organic SEO, blog
marketing and online public relations. He’s been cited as a search
marketing expert by publications including U.S. News & World Report and
The Economist and has implemented successful search marketing programs
with top BtoB companies of all sizes. Odden shares his marketing
expertise at Online Marketing Blog offering
daily news, interviews and best practices.

Lawrence Coburn On Marketing With Widgets
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About Lee Odden
Lee Odden is CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, a digital marketing and public relations firm in Minnesota that specializes in search, social and online PR consulting and training for companies worldwide. Odden has been cited for his internet marketing expertise over the past 10 years by the Economist, Forbes and U.S. News and contributed a chapter to the book, "Online Marketing Heroes" published by Wiley. For the past 5 years he has also been the editor of TopRank's Online Marketing Blog, a Technorati 100 favorite blog and one of the top marketing blogs according to Advertising Age. WebProNews Writer
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