They’re Not Your Father’s Widgets…

Back when I was an undergrad sitting in a Microeconomics course, the professor, who actually used a blackboard, spoke of widgets as units of output produced by a firm competing in the market economy. When I was in Accounting, a manufacturing company (say, Acme Electronics) was producing widgets and we were dissecting variable and fixed costs.

Today, the designation has re-emerged, actually exploded, into the common lexicon, but with a whole new meaning. These new widgets are not physical things; rather they exist on your desktop or mobile phone. Essentially, they are tiny programs, or apps in the common language that exist serve a specific, hopefully useful purpose. Today, most carry some type of marketing message or the function they serve is a marketing one. (Think automatic stock market updates, calendars – like those that appear on some blogs – or clocks.) Many are fun or entertaining.

Have fun interacting with a yellow cartoon antihero

(Homer Simpson Widget:

I had been interested in pursuing more knowledge around the nature of these new widgets, but had never really gotten a firm grasp on what they were. (I think I was reading too many techie sites trying to figure this out…)

This week in my Emerging Media class, our readings actually contained a couple articles about widgets, and explained them in a way that even I was able to understand and relate to. One article, What’s the Big Deal with Widgets? By Bob Garfield (2008) actually declared that modern widgets are akin to advertising novelties and are the digital media equivalent of REFRIGERATOR MAGNETS!


So, the fact is that one of the hottest trends in emerging media is the antithesis of what this media stands for. While emerging media is about personalized messaging and content, these little devices are all about one message for all.

The biggest divide within the marketing community on using widgets as part of your mix is whether they should be designed for :

1)      Viral distribution with limited life spans, i.e. big impact, but here today, gone tomorrow. For those of my generation, think pet rocks or mood rings.

2)      Or long lasting utility. Install on your computer and use it for years. In this case, think refrigerator magnets, insurance agent pens or even those bottle openers with a beverage distributors name on it.

There are strong arguments for both intentions. The problem with viral is that who can really predict what the next big thing is going to be. And if you do, will the widget go viral in a way that helps your company in any way?

The problem with long life utility is messaging. Going back to the refrigerator magnet example, we all have them on our refrigerator. They are truly useful for holding up our photos, kid’s art work, calendars, and anything else we think of.

But how much marketing equity is really there. While we all have them, can any of us remember how many we have on the fridge at this moment (We have 11, I just counted)? More importantly, do you remember what they all say? Do you remember what ANY of them say?

This is a topic we will explore further in coming weeks. Next time, Widgets: Short term phenom or long term friend?

Does this look familiar?

(Courtesy of


Garfield, B. (2008, December 1). What’s the big deal with widgets? Ad Age, 79 (44), p 1-27.


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2 Responses to “They’re Not Your Father’s Widgets…”

  1. Steve Hoover Says:

    When I was at Penn State MBA program in the early 80’s we talked about widgets galore then, too. Interesting progression of the term now used for software and other concepts we didn’t think of as “products” much back then.

    Good luck with your ongoing education and your blog!


  2. merritt111 Says:

    Another great widget is from Southwest airlines. I have used it for years and it is fantastic. It is a great resource to keep you updated on trip details or potential trips you may be planning. If you travel a lot like I do you may find it useful and you’ll save a few bucks along the way.

    The link is below.

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