Thursday, April 24, 2008

Build a widget! Experience the disruption of distribution

I made my very own widget last night. It's very simple, made up of drag and drop elements and click-to-add bits from Sprout.
It's the orange box in the left hand col of my blog; Signature Posts.
I find it useful because it tidies up a bit of my blog and means if (and it's a big if, I'll grant) someone wants the 10 posts I currently select as representations of my thinking, they can display it on their own page/space (rather than take my latest which anyone of course can select using rss feeds).

The process of DIY reinforced something very important for me, as it so often does.
Just as I learn so much about the simple fact we are all content creators now by writing this blog, so I learn, from first hand experience, that we are all distributors now by creating a widget.
As I often say, don't just witness the power of the network – if you want to evolve to survive in this world then you have to live in its environment.

The mass distribution model found at the heart of mass media does not work here.
Build a widget for yourself to find out why.

I'd worked this out before now. But creating my own widget and trying to guess who might choose to share it, to pass it on, reveals the new challenges and opportunities for media.
Our old model is based on building destinations and harvesting eyeballs.

Think about this in the context of traditional advertising (and by association we'll realise we face the same issues with content, because as we discover over and over again, in this world they are heading towards becoming the same thing).

My first thought, on discovering that I can build my own basic widget (I don't code) and publish it, and all for free, was to consider ways the media company I work for could take advantage of this for low risk experiments in widget making.

Quick easy option: RSS feeds gathered into an easy-grab widget users can place where they choose. In other words disaggregation of our content for those who find the technical barrier of RSS still a little high.

This extends our reach and (if we limit the rss character count) it calls those interested in particular content back to our sites where they could be fed in-context related ads. All good.

But what about revenue models that integrate with the widget itself?

When I choose to distribute a widget that's been made on Sprout every iteration carries a link back to Sprout. Want to make your own? Click here?

Every youtube video functions in a similar way.

And if you have adsense on your page there's even a straightforward ad model to go with that.

But at the end of the day the ad and the content are regarded as separate entities. The distribution of the ad message is reliant upon users choosing to view and to participate in the distribution of editorial content.

What if the advert was the content the user chose to distribute? That suddenly raises the bar, doesn't it?

Would anyone choose to place 95% of 30-second slot TV, banner ads and the usual 'creative' solutions on their own (user-generated) content? Would they choose to grab it from where they see it and share it with others?

Oddly enough they kind of do in the model. Users get to choose if they would like ads on their UGC and if they do, then they can choose which ads. It neatly turns the who-wishes-to-be-associated-with-whom model on its head.

But it could be stronger still if the marketing industry played its part. The majority of advertising isn't meant for individual selection. It is mud slung at a wall to see what sticks.

The ad industry can't make an ad to suit every individual though, can it? That would be mad, wouldn't it? Except that it can with widgets.

Chris Cunningham's point made at Widgety Goodness (Chris is speaking at WidgetWebExpo in NYC in June, an event I've advised on) was that personal outcome is all important.

Sprout's tools are great for those of us seeking to extend reach, to broadcast through a series of niche channels with the intention of a mass result, but unless you allow each receipient to create their own iteration it remains a broadcast solution, not a networked one.

Take my simple widget (please!); it is an editorialised version of how widgets should be. First – I've decided the content. I have edited your choice, I've been the filter on the way in.

And that's hardly enabling a personalised outcome.

I would have preferred to make it a 'my favourite faster future post chooser' in which you could make up your personal outcome from the full selection. Maybe ones that get chosen more often would rise to the top of the list the community of users is then offered? You get the general idea.

The widget should allow you to make the choice. That which we create we embrace. If you participate in the process you're more likely to share the outcome and to actively promote it.

This is obviously true of the marketing too. I am more likely to choose to display the results of my personal choice of content and my personalised version of that content (ad message).

Its worth noting that this works because we live digitally in a community context. It's what the network is all about. There would be little point in me sharing what I think is cool unless I expect you might, too. We do this sharing within our networks of trust. Just as we share links in twitter or thoughts on blogposts. If you've found this it is because we share some interests.

There is residual mass media thinking in the notion that you should create a place on the web for people to show off what they have done (all those personal outcomes) as if just anyone, any old set of eyeballs, might be interested.

The real value is in the sharing of results with friends, who will be interested because that personal outcome involves a friend - in whom they are personally interested.

Then if they take the results and create their own personalised iteration, they'll have friends they may choose to share with, and so the iterations repeat, amplifying the original.

The outcome relies heavily on three things:
1. A willingness to relinquish control.
2. Toolkits users can play with.
3. Creative users.

Kind of different from mass marketing, huh?

2 and 3 are in place. Are you ready for No1?

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?