Interactive widgets are a great way to keep your company name and brand in front of potential customers/clients or referral sources. It seems like something that would be very complicated and require a heavy dose of programming. But in reality, using an Adobe technology called Flex, building widgets that can run on a web site or even on someone’s desktop is nowhere near as difficult as it was in years past.
So let’s step back. What is a widget and why would anyone want one? A widget is a small piece of code that can be added to a web page or run as a program on your local hard drive that provides some kind of functionality, generally involving the display of data.
Another example: you are a retailer of some kind of specialty product and you would like your customers to remain aware of what items you have in stock. You could create a desktop widget that your customers could install on their hard drives that would automatically update itself with your stock information, which would originate from an RSS file on your server. In this case, you would just need to make available an installable file for installation on your customers’ computers.
It should be obvious that the advantage of providing widgets like these to your customers or prospects is that it keeps your name in front of them. In the Web example, your company name would be featured prominently on the widget that displays the news items. So anyone visiting a site that uses your widget will see your company name. In addition, there is the possibility for a viral effect if enough people like it to start spreading it around. Imagine getting your own custom branded widget on a thousand web sites. Do you think that would be good for your business? In the desktop example, your customers would constantly be reminded of the items you have for sale. Visibility is critical in the marketing world, and widgets facilitate that.
Okay, widgets are great…but how would you get started on such a project? In my opinion, Adobe Flex is the number one tool for creating widgets. A Flex file is basically an XML file that contains scripting that gets compiled into a Flash file. Flex is an open source technology, but development is much quicker and easier using Adobe Flex Builder because it gives you a WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) interface. Flex can be used to build widgets as well as interactive Flash ads.
Another HUGE advantage of using Flex is that it can be used to create cross-platform desktop widgets; in other words, little programs that will run in both Windows and Mac. This is a huge advantage because of the time and cost savings. From a single code base, you can create something that can be placed on a web site, run on a PC, or run on a Mac. The kicker is that it requires desktops to have Adobe AIR, which is Adobe’s desktop runtime environment. AIR is spreading quickly and has already gained wide acceptance. Also, it is possible to program a widget “badge” that automatically downloads and installs AIR on a user’s computer prior to installing the widget. So the process is very smooth and painless.
I won’t lie to you and say that Flex is easy. It takes some time to learn. However, the Flex learning curve is much smaller than learning how to program Adobe Flash. Or if you choose not to go it alone, hiring a Flex developer will likely be more cost effective than hiring someone for other technologies because of its ease of use and adaptability to different platforms. The first part of the whole process is to define two things: what kind of widget would be useful to your customers or prospective customers; and second, if the widget is going to display some kind of data, where will that data come from? If you can answer these two questions, then you can find someone to help you build one of these widgets, and start using it to spread your brand and drive traffic to your web site.