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Which is an App and Which is a Widget?

Which does what?  Confused about the difference between a widget and an app?  Let’s break them down and discuss how they can benefit marketers.


A widget is a piece of downloadable software that can be used on a browser, desktop, social networking page, home page or mobile phone.  Widgets can as well be a bit of embeddable code that can be integrated into ones website at will.  The widget is a stand-alone application that engages the user and acts as a portal to content on a particular branded website.  A widget is not only meant to act as a utility that serves a purpose for the user that downloads or embeds it, but as an advertisement also.

One example of an effective widget is the DING! widget offered by Southwest Airlines.  Once downloaded the widget can be customized to notify the user when low fares to their common destinations are available through Southwest, eliminating the need to go to Southwest’s website and perform a search – the utility.  The commonly recognizable tail fin of the Southwest airliner sits in the user’s taskbar and the DING! sound it makes constantly reminds the user of Southwest – the advertisement.  When the user wants to book one of the low fare flights found through the DING! widget, the user is taken to the Southwest Airlines website.

Widgets can be incredibly beneficial for marketers because they are cheap to distribute; can have a high return on investment (ROI); can help acquire new customers; can help increase brand loyalty; are able to cut through ad clutter and can track user behavior and preferences.

Distribution of a widget can be cheap because of word-of mouth and social sharing.  The widget only needs to be made available for download in a few locations and word-of-mouth and social sharing will normally direct people to where the widget can be acquired.  Word-of-mouth and social sharing will also direct people to where the widget embed code can be found.  This virulence allows the marketer to save money by not having to place the widget in as many locations as would be required if placing a traditional banner or space ad online.  And because some widgets remain useful for a long while (think DING!), they keep advertising for as long as the user has it installed.

It is this social distribution of widgets that at times will make them so profitable for brands.  One study showed that the ROI from widgets will increase almost proportionately with the rate at which it spreads.  This sort of return depends on how shareable the widget is.  Ones that are made to be downloaded and used daily such as a weather widget or a stock quote widget are typically not as sharable because they aren’t as novel or interesting.

A widget can facilitate new customer acquisition by providing a medium for a first encounter.  If the widget is useful enough, even non customers may download it and the more they use it the more they are influenced by the brands message found on it which will increase the chance they will click through to the brands website and make a purchase.

Widgets can increase or create brand loyalty by giving the consumer another way to interact with and experience the brand.  The usefulness of the widget may have the consumer using it often and its usefulness will endear the consumer to the brand even further.  The DING! widget saves so much time and money, what would loyal Southwest customers do without it?  Can you imagine if Southwest got rid of it?

Widgets can cut through the ad clutter found online these days because of their semi to full permanence.  As was mentioned, some widgets will run their course quickly and be discarded such as games and entertainment widgets, but some will remain useful (again, think DING!).  Either way, if the widget is made correctly they will not only serve a purpose but be branded as well, conveying the brands message longer than a fleeting banner ad or space ad seen (or unseen) on the many websites surfed by the user.  In other words, the widget increases the frequency of exposure to the brand message without competition.

Lastly, widgets are useful to marketers because every download, every click through and every subsequent page viewed through the widget can be tracked.  This information can be used by marketers in numerous ways.


An app is a piece of downloadable software (not embeddable at will by website owners) that is used in 2 ways only; on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet or online by means of a browser such as Google Chrome.  The term “app” is short for “application” and “application” is short for “software application.”

An app is different from a widget in that an app has more interactive features and at times can function as a full website contained in a small package with streamlined features.  Some apps include e-commerce and customer service capabilities as well.  A widget usually revolves around a single interactive function (think DING! again) and is meant to lead the user to a separate branded website where they will interact with the brand.  As a result widgets don’t usually include e-commerce or customer service capabilities.  An app, like a widget is not only a utility that serves a purpose for the user that downloads it, but is an advertisement also.

There are some similarities and differences in how apps and widgets can benefit marketers.  Because each have different strengths, both an app and a widget may be useful in a marketing plan.

Apps are similar to widgets in that they too are cheap to distribute.  Apps, like widgets are distributed from a limited number of locations (app stores) thus the marketer doesn’t have to pay for ad space as they would with a traditional space ad and because of word-of-mouth and social sharing about the apps, friends and family are willing seek them out and download them with little prodding.

Apps can also have a high ROI.  A mobile app made to run on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry will run about $90,000 and reach around 600 users per dollar spent which equals around 54 million people.

Apps, like widgets can also help acquire new customers for the same reasons a widget can.  If the app is useful enough, even a non-customer may find it worthy of downloading and their use of the app may influence them to buy the brands products.  The customer acquisition process can be quickened by incorporating an e-commerce function into the app which makes the app even more useful.

Apps can cut through ad clutter just as well as widgets or better.  Apps are usually even more permanent than widgets and like a widget, hold the consumers attention captive while in use.  The permanence of the app increases the frequency of exposure to the brand message without competition, just like a widget.

Just like widgets, apps can increase or create brand loyalty.  Once again, the usefulness of the app may have the consumer using it often and its usefulness will endear the consumer to the brand even further.  What’s more useful than a simplified version of your favorite website complete with e-commerce in the palm of your hand?  Or a simplified version of a service you use now in the palm of your hand (think of the DirecTV app where you can tap into your DirecTV subscription and watch TV in the palm of your hand and control your TV remotely.)

E-commerce was mentioned as one thing that an app can provide that a widget can’t.  On a similar note, the app provides an additional revenue stream as the consumer is used to paying for many of the apps available to them.  The way widgets are distributed (outside of an “App Store” or “Market”) and because the consumer isn’t used to paying for them, it wouldn’t be feasible to charge for a widget.  Thus, widgets are still typically free and not a viable revenue stream.  The marketer relies on using the widget as an advertisement hoping they will lead to click through’s and conversions.

Another way that apps are different than widgets is that apps tend to carry an integrated social function.  Many app makers incorporate a way to share a high score on Facebook or Twitter or a way to collaborate with those in your social circles.  Nike’s Nike + GPS app for example, allows you to share how far you have run with friends who can check up on your activity through Facebook while you run.  Friends can show their support by “Liking” your running status which produces an audible cheer in the headphones of the runner.

The last thing that is different between widgets and apps is that some apps can’t track user behaviors and preferences.  Only if the user allows the app to collect such data will the brand learn anything from them and this is only when the app is built with this capability.  Many apps such as branded games and entertainment are just that, games and entertainment, not a portal through which the user can eventually chose to click and go purchase something from the sponsoring brand.  These sorts of apps act more like widgets in that they hope the user connects with the brands message and seek their product out through their webpage or store.

Overall, widgets are not apps and vice versa as you can see here.  They do share many of the same benefits but their differences make them useful for different purposes.

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Posted by on February 1, 2012 in New Media


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