Widgets have become the unexpected buzzword of 2007; just a few weeks ago I discussed how they can be used for marketers to disseminate information. But I'm realizing that this buzz is eerily similar to the buzz that surrounded desktop applications in the late '90s. Desktop applications and embedded applications became hot -- right up until they became overused and exploited. Basically they morphed into a nasty little term called "spyware," and companies like Gator and WhenU took the heat for the majority of the ills facing online advertising, either deservedly or undeservedly.
The age of spyware was directly tied to the cookie and pop-up debates, but started innocently enough from a marketing perspective. The idea was that you could download an application that would provide some minor value to the user, in many cases storing a local e-Wallet or other personal information. The intent was positive -- but what the publishers and the marketers did was embed other applications, tracking tools and data capture points in the download without the knowledge of the user, thereby adding more to a user's hard drive than was originally asked for. As some of the less-than-ethical companies began to deliver ads via these downloaded applications, users were in an uproar because their computing experience was horribly affected. So we developed anti-spyware software like McAfee, Norton and hundreds of others.
Fast-forward to 2007. Users are being tasked to download little applications or plug-ins that provide a minor value or are just something fun. These range from desktop ski report applications to music management applications to daily trivia applications. In sites like Facebook, with these widgets you can send a drink or throw food in a virtual food fight -- or almost anything that you can imagine. You can track your effect on the environment with "going green" widgets, and you can track your packages without opening the browser through a UPS widget. All these are user-initiated and relatively harmless, but it's only a matter of time before marketers of less-than-ethical standing start once again to use these as a gateway to the user's desktop, and widgets tread dangerously close to the spyware category that we are all trained to stay away from.
Marketers should certainly go ahead and use widgets to spread their brand message, as they can be a strong means of doing so. Starbucks can offer its own branded widget, and there can be brands embedded in the Widget actions. For example, if you're sending a drink on Facebook, why not send a cup of Starbucks to a friend?
But I ask that each of you, as a responsible and ethical marketer, be sure that you stay away from the spyware issues that plagued the industry less than five years ago. We are at a dangerous crossroads right now. Dollars are coming into the industry because we've matured -- but in the meantime, the economy is in rocky territory, and we need to be sure that we maintain a mature standing in consumers' eyes in order to maintain that growth.
Otherwise, if our industry suffers a setback, then it is possible that all of advertising could see a slide backwards, potentially triggering the recession that has so many people fearful. I was always taught that the advertising industry was a presage to what was happening in the overall economy -- and though we are seeing increases, things are definitely tender right now.
A recession would not necessarily be our fault -- but consumer spending and consumer confidence is what drives our economy in general. It appears that consumer spending is starting to decrease as a result of the housing problems, so consumer confidence is our only tent pole. Consumer confidence would be affected if spyware became an issue once again, and I know that I don't want to be responsible for that.