As companies look for more ways of attracting customers and prospects to their Web sites and generating business online, personalization is emerging as an important component of managing the Web experience for site visitors—and delivering business value.Personalization enables you to tailor the Web experience to each of your Web site visitors by creating a unique and personal flavor that matches a particular visitor’s interests and preferences. By providing this individualized view each time a visitor logs on, companies can ensure that their Web sites deliver an optimal Web experience. As a result, visitors stay on a Web site longer, return to it more often and are more inclined to use the site to conduct business with the company.Of course, personalized or targeted content delivery has been possible for some time. Web gadget mashups are now providing a new spin on this concept by making it possible for users to add new features and functionality to a Web experience with nothing more than the drag of a mouse. A Web gadget mashup is a Web page or application that integrates complementary elements from multiple sources. Web gadget mashups are quickly gaining in popularity as powerful personalization tools. With gadget mashup functionality enabled on your Website, you can assign each site visitor their own personal space where they can quickly assemble Web pages simply by combining a few gadgets.Typically, each gadget provides access to a separate source of information or to a different application. For instance, one gadget can be used to display financial news. Another gadget can be used to show the weather forecast at the visitor’s location. Yet another gadget can be used to display a mortgage calculator. Web sites can provide some gadgets and allow visitors to combine them with gadgets from outside sources, so visitors can create truly personal pages with mashups of content and applications compiled from a variety of different sources.There are many examples of this technology in action. Amongst the publicly available Web sites, iGoogle.com and netvibes.com are some of the most visible examples. Global broadcasting and media companies have also created their own gadget mashups. BBC offers one that allows you to mix and match gadgets with information from the numerous areas on BBC Web sites. As a result, each BBC visitor can create a personal news page, a great example of personalization in action. Instead of buying a newspaper and reading only 10% of the content, you can create your own personalized news dashboard on BBC.com and read all of the news targeted to your own preferences with your morning coffee.Mashups as a Business ToolThere are a few different ways organizations can begin participating in the Web gadget ecosystem. First, you can be a provider of Web gadgets. Second, you can be a provider of a Web gadget dashboard. Third, you can do both.The first one is a no-brainer. Web site owners typically want to drive traffic to their sites, a goal that can be achieved through paid advertising to increase interest and awareness or by word-of-mouth referrals. By delivering engaging Web content or making applications available as Web gadgets, you can create an excellent viral marketing mechanism. As the gadgets start appearing on the various gadget dashboards, they will start to draw traffic to your site.UNIQLO, a Japanese casual clothes retailer, is a great example of driving Web traffic to their site through Web referrals. Like the many other clothing retailers online, UNIQLO’s Web site features numerous photos of their latest styles. In order to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack, the company started an innovative Web project named UNIQLOCK that features a clock displayed in the Web browser. The unique twist on the display is that every few seconds, the clock is replaced by a full-window view of ballet dancers in action clothed in UNIQLO attire. The project was an instant hit, and word spread like wildfire across the Internet.So, the company combined something as ordinary as a clock with something extraordinary (dancers in UNIQLO) and made it available to visitors as a Web gadget. This gadget is now sitting in numerous Web dashboards and the blog entries have resulted in increased traffic to the company Web site. This is viral marketing at its best, and Web gadget mashups were a key enabling component.Providing a gadget dashboard can be an equally powerful personalization and marketing tool. I often hear from naysayers who think that by offering a dashboard they might be competing with Google, Yahoo or BBC. These sentiments are often unwarranted. It is not a matter of competing with a popular content aggregator. Rather, it is a matter of delivering effective online personalization to each and every Web site visitor.If your Web site contains distinct areas with content in different categories, you can make this content available as Web gadgets, with one gadget per area. The home page of your Website can then become a gadget dashboard where registered users can create their own personalized combination of gadgets as they deem necessary or convenient.The beauty of a gadget dashboard on your site is that you can reserve one of the gadget slots for displaying promotional material. Content on your dashboard can be driven by content from external gadgets. For instance, a retailer can feature a promotion on soccer balls that shows a soccer ball displayed next to a gadget that lists the current scores of favorite or local soccer teams. A promotion for a raincoat can be shown next to a gadget showing local weather with a rain forecast. Not only do you deliver improved Web experience to your Website visitors, you also achieve better click-through rates on your Web ads.Infrastructure RequirementsServing GadgetsLet us consider what you need to do in order to deliver Web gadgets. There are several approaches. The simplest one is to make your Website content available as an RSS feed. RSS is an XML-based protocol for distributing Web content in opt-in feeds. Feeds allow the user to have new content delivered to a computer or mobile device as soon as it is published. An RSS aggregator or RSS reader allows the user to see summaries of all their feeds in one place. Instead of visiting multiple Web pages to check for new content, the user can look at the summaries and choose which sites to visit for the full versions.There are many RSS readers available as Web gadgets. It is possible to add an RSS reader gadget to a gadget dashboard and point it to your site’s RSS feed. Once this is done, all updates made to your site will automatically be displayed in this RSS feed gadget.If you offer Web content that is particularly unique, quirky or interesting enough to draw the attention of other Web enthusiasts, they might take the opportunity to develop gadgets that are placed on some of the more popular previously mentioned gadget dashboards (iGoogle.com and netvibes.com). There are numerous examples of these gadgets available today for content provided by media companies like CNN, MSNBC and more.The problem with this simple approach is that it requires your readers to think and work in order to display your content. They have to find an RSS gadget and configure it to process an RSS feed from your Web site.An alternative approach is to use a Web content management (WCM) system that automatically renders your Web content as a gadget that is compatible with a number of popular gadget dashboards like iGoogle, netvibes and others. Modern WCM systems can easily repurpose content for different channels such as Web, print, e-mail and mobile. Gadget dashboards are just another channel for content delivery. If your WCM system does not support gadgets out of the box, it can often be customized to do so.Finally, you can ask a Web application developer or a designer to wrap your content in JavaScript or XML to make it look and work like a Web gadget. You will most certainly have to take this route if you want to achieve a sophisticated and engaging end user experience, like the one delivered by UNIQLO. Such gadgets are usually built as rich Internet applications that dynamically access content stored in a WCM system.Hosting GadgetsIn order to host a gadget dashboard on your site, you need to have a gadget server installed. This server can be deployed side by side with your Web server or your WCM system, and it performs several important functions.First, it maintains a catalog of Web gadgets that are available to your Website visitors. This is the so-called gadget white list. There are likely millions of gadgets available on the Internet, many of which have inappropriate content. Some of them may try to divert traffic to other competing sites. You, therefore, need to go through a careful selection process to determine which gadgets you want to display on your site. A gadget server gives you the tool that makes this possible.Second, the gadget server maintains a list of gadgets for each of the users registered on your site. As visitors build their own personal gadget dashboards on your Web site, all their relevant information is stored and processed by the gadget server. So, when the visitor returns to your site, his or her gadget dashboard is rendered automatically. A good gadget server can also guess or recommend a list of gadgets that must be shown to an unregistered user. This list can be deduced from the visitor’s geographic location or from their past behavior and viewing habits when visiting your site.Third, the gadget server maintains settings and preferences entered by each site visitor for his or her gadgets. Two different visitors, for instance, may both choose a weather gadget for their dashboard. One of them may set the gadget to display the weather in New York, while the other one may configure the gadget to show San Francisco’s forecast. Each of their preferences will be stored and managed by the gadget server.Fourth, the gadget server must provide a platform for rendering gadgets in a Web browser. This is a very sophisticated component that handles the dashboard layout, secure intergadget communication, drag-and-drop and rearrangement of gadgets in the browser, security, Web single sign-on and many other important aspects of gadget mashups. These are just some of the gadget server facilities. There may be many others depending on the focus of the vendor offering the gadget server, such as integration with social networks, integration with WCM systems, support for server-side gadget specific or user specific storage.Whether you create your own Web gadgets or use gadgets offered by popular third-party gadget dashboards, you can leverage these tools to deliver a more personalized experience to your Web site visitors. With this model, visitors will be able to access the exact content and applications they need through your site. By enabling the powerful personalization mechanisms discussed here, you can deliver a superior Web experience, increase site traffic, strengthen relationships with site visitors and customers and drive positive results for your business.Dmitri Tcherevik is CTO of FatWire Software.This article was originally published at Information-Management.com.

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