Widgets drive Web readers

Hearst’s Chris Johnson talks about using social apps to increase online circulation

Q: How is Hearst using widgets to drive traffic to its content sites?

A: In January, we launched two widgets for different audiences. The Daily Freebie, for Seventeen, is basically an everyday free giveaway, that can be embedded MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, wherever you want. By May, it had received 400,000 views and driven 65,000 referrals to our site. These are examples of real life data points that help [marketers figure] out, “How do you optimize these?” The other widget is for a site called thedailygreen.com, and it contains news headlines. That widget, as of May, had generated 10 million views, but had only driven 120,000 referrals.

Q: How do you measure a widget’s performance?

A: The Seventeen widget had a stronger proportional performance. [We look] at the conversion rate of views vs. refer­rals, measuring referrals as a click on somebody else’s site that drives them to our site. If you look at the pure conver­sion rate — 400,000 Seventeen views to 65,000 clicks on our site — that’s a conversion rate that is much better than you are going to get on anything other than a super-sexy dedicated e-mail. What we learn from these widgets is that they can be a great way to distribute content, but they need to be designed so that users who want to be updated on the content can place them on their site.

Q: What is the best way for a magazine to use a widget?

A: You design a widget with the user in mind — which is different for publishers who are used to designing with the business model in mind. There is no established business model for widgets. Some people have very successful ones from a distribution standpoint, and I think there are some experiments [today] in terms of generating ad revenue which are interesting, but I wouldn’t say that they’ve reached any sort of critical mass. There’s a minimum number of ad dollars going towards widgets right now. Most of the ad dollars go towards producing the widgets, which can be phenomenally expensive. The strategy is to craft the widget to the audience, and then build an audience around it and think about content.

Q: What’s your prediction for the wid­get in driving online publishing?

A: It’s still early in the world of social networks, and we are beginning to see some widgets that perform well. YouTube’s embeddable video player is perfect. But I don’t think there’s a killer app in the magazine world. Mostly, there’s no replicable model. That’s the sticking point with a widget — because of its viral nature, one takes off. Suddenly you go from 1,000 people using it to 1 million to 2 million. There’s no point in making a “me too” widget when somebody already has those 2 million people who are interested in an idea — for example, environmental headlines — locked up.

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