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A New Way to Create Buzz

Washington Redskins fans don't mind shilling for their favorite team by wearing a jersey, just as some people are willing to show their allegiance for a school or radio station with a bumper sticker. Marketers are trying to harness that impulse for brands on the Web.

Slide, an online photo-sharing company in San Francisco, has been offering tools that allow users to create custom photo slide shows with images and animations for their blogs or social-networking pages. Now, the company is cutting deals with studios and video-game makers so users can decorate their free online photo viewer with official logos and characters.

It plans to add tools that allow viewers of these slide shows -- friends with similar interests -- to buy games, order movie tickets or download soundtracks directly from the slide show window. The new form of advertising appears on Web tools called widgets. When installed on a Web site, a widget looks like a picture-in-picture photo viewer, video player or news ticker. They are designed to display information in a way that keeps users on the same site.

As Internet advertising evolves beyond text, banner and pop-up ads, companies are looking for ways to home in on specific audiences -- an age group or fan base that is interested in its product or service. They're also trying to translate those ads into sales.

Widgets have become good vehicles for advertising because they've become popular over the past year. Professional football and basketball teams, Hollywood studios, and cable channels like Discovery see widgets as a way to market their brands or drive traffic to their sites. Some companies, like Slide, are adding vanity features that explicitly promote products or services within the widget. A site called Rock You, for example, promotes music by allowing users to add popular tracks to their photo slide shows.

In April, ComScore of Reston started to monitor widget traffic separately from Web traffic. In June, widgets caught the attention of more than 239 million unique visitors, up from 177 million in April, according to ComScore. Slide ranked as the most popular with 134 million visitors in June, up from 117 million in April. Rock You trailed with 101 million in June, up from 82 million in April.

Because friends, co-workers and families are already networking online, these tools act as a kind of word-of-mouth advertising, said Lisa Weinstein, Chicago-based managing director for Mindshare, a media-marketing firm. When people select the brands they want to champion, their colleagues are more likely to pay attention, she said.

"Every brand is looking to tap into the power of their own evangelists," she said "What people's friends think or say to each other is a leading channel of influence."

One recent such campaign involved Universal Pictures, which launched a widget through Freewebs that promoted the upcoming film "Mr. Bean's Holiday." Freewebs helps users build their own Web sites. Freewebs also used widgets to sponsor campaigns for Adidas, AT&T and others.

This summer, the Bebo social-networking site posted ads for the movie "Bratz" on a widget. Slide made a "Bratz" online photo frame available to Bebo members and incorporated songs from the movie's soundtrack into the slide show viewer.

"We build something that makes your site a more interesting place to be," said Slide chief executive Max Levchin, who co-founded PayPal, an online payment company. "Until now, all of that [widget] traffic has been there to entertain the users. . . . Here's a way for widget makers to make money."

And marketers are looking for alternative ways of advertising online.

"They're becoming more and more savvy," said Mindshare's Weinstein. "They know what widgets are, and they're starting to understand the potential impact."

Discovery Networks is launching a Slide widget campaign around the "Shark Week" TV show and an upcoming program called "Last One Standing." It also has mini-versions of Web sites for popular shows like "Deadliest Catch" and Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor," which users can add to their sites.

Chris Schembri, a senior vice president with Discovery, said it's too soon to gauge the success of its widget campaign but said it could shape how the cable channel thinks about future advertising campaigns.

"Learning how to work in this space is more important that reaching a bajillion people," he said. "If you took the time to post it on your page, your interest level is much higher than someone flipping through a magazine and seeing an ad."

Original Article URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/24/AR2007082402016.html