August 29, 2007, 12:00 AM

Strengthening the customer/e-retailer bond

Tiny desktop applications called widgets pack a lot of power in linking retailers to customers—and they don’t cost very much.

Earlier this year, clothing merchant Due Maternity was considering ways to foster closer ties with its expectant mother customers. It wanted alternatives to traditional marketing, advertising and other well-worn tactics because those can be very expensive.

This summer, the retailer introduced a tiny, downloadable web application that sits atop a user’s computer desktop. The application graphically renders for a mom-to-be a clock that counts down the time to her due date and provides links to DueMaternity.com for information on pregnancy as well as products, coupons and special offers.

“We needed a way to get our customers coming back to our site. We needed to reach out in a meaningful manner without spamming them with e-mails,” explains Albert DiPadova, vice president of marketing and co-founder of Due Maternity. “You have to give customers something fun to play with these days.”

And so the retailer’s Countdown Widget was born. Due Maternity hired a graphic designer to dream up the look of the desktop application’s clock; in-house technical staff handled the Java programming required, with an assist from a free Yahoo widget-making tool, to create the wee application and link it 24/7 to DueMaternity.com. The e-commerce site continuously feeds data to the application.

During the first 45 days after launch, the application (see page 32) was downloaded around 10,000 times-customers were enticed with a 10% discount on select purchases-and sales directly attributable to click-throughs from the application to the e-commerce site hit $7,500.

The cost? $600. “We’re on track to realize more than $75,000 by the end of the year through traffic driven to the site from the widget,” DiPadova says.

Widgets are no longer just fictional product examples for conversations about hypothetical business scenarios. Quite the contrary; they’re now tiny web applications that can drive real-world business by strengthening the bond between Internet users and Internet content publishers and e-retailers.

A desktop widget appears as a small window about 2 inches by 3 inches to 4 inches by 5 inches and can be minimized and maximized like most applications. A user downloads a widget from a widget creator’s site or a widget aggregator site like Yahoo Widgets or Google Desktop Gadgets, as widgets are sometimes called. Once downloaded and installed, a desktop widget-filled with graphical and textual content and hyperlinks-maintains a connection with its host site, which constantly updates content.

Internet users have a plethora of desktop widgets from which to choose. Interest in using and creating desktop widgets has been on the rise since they arrived on the scene a few years ago. Yahoo Widgets, which launched in 2005, offers more than 4,800 proprietary and third-party desktop widgets. Google Desktop Gadgets, which also launched in 2005, offers more than 9,000, though many are designed specifically for insertion into web pages and require transformation through the Google Desktop platform to operate as desktop widgets. Then there are smaller widget players. For example, yourminis, launched in 2006, offers more than 300.

Because desktop widgets still are relatively new, Internet research firms have only now begun to collect usage data. The number of desktop widget users may be small, but interest is growing, industry observers say. “25% of all 210 million U.S. Internet users knowingly download applications from the web, so desktop widget downloads would be a subset of that,” says Emily Riley, an analyst at JupiterResearch, which, like fellow research and consulting firms, does not yet have hard data on desktop widget use. “So today it’s a small percentage.”

The cost to create a desktop widget can range from $500 to $20,000, depending on desired functionality. “It doesn’t take much, but it requires some technical skill,” says Ray Valdes, research director for web services at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Another type of widget, crafted for placement on any web page, performs similar tasks often with more focused functionality. These web page-based widgets, also known as embeds, are distributed by Internet content publishers and e-retailers to the companies that host blogs, social networks, content sites and other web destinations. The goal is the same: to drive traffic and sales and boost brand awareness for the web page-based widget creators.

When it comes to desktop widgets, though, computer desktops are prime real estate, and space is limited. Computer users typically maintain important documents or spreadsheets, folders with routinely used files, and shortcuts to applications on their desktops. The aim of desktop widgets is to be included among these important items so e-retailers can be just as top of mind as the other items. To accomplish this, e-retailers have to learn how best to entice consumers to download their widgets and give them that prime space, and how to keep consumers interested so they retain the widget after the novelty of these mini-programs wears off.

However, once a widget is firmly planted on a customer’s desktop soil, it potentially can help an e-retailer reap rewards in terms of brand awareness, greater site traffic and increased sales by making the merchant a daily presence with consumers.

Desktop widgets create stronger customer/retailer bonds, increasing the level of engagement between the two, Valdes says. “A desktop widget is based on the notion of interaction and automating tasks. So a widget is providing value by helping a consumer offload a task-such as tracking new products-and giving back to them just-in-time information on an ongoing basis,” Valdes adds.

E-retailers with constantly changing product line-ups or extremely loyal customer bases are prime candidates for widgets, experts say. “Desktop widgets are good for products with routinely changing prices or products with highly anticipated launches, for instance,” Riley says. “Travel is a perfect example, with changing airfares consumers want to monitor. Another example is digital music, where a desktop widget user could see the top downloads of the day and be notified when new releases are expected. And any product that elicits passion from consumers would be a good fit; for example, a teenager who loves buying shoes could use a desktop widget from a shoe retailer to keep track of shoe sales.”

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