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Pizza chains 'fan' sales flames by adding widgets to social networking sites


After spending years of effort and millions of dollars to develop online ordering channels — to simplify the already-simple process of ordering a pizza — Papa John's and Pizza Hut earlier this year rolled out web widgets to make that task even easier and, arguably, more fun.

In a nutshell, widgets are computer applications that allow customers to order online with without having to surf a website. When activated, the pizza chains' widgets stream store specials in real time directly to a customer's computer, with no waiting for the comparably slow e-mail marketing message.

In the past several weeks, Pizza Hut and Papa John's added their widgets to social networking sites such as Facebook. Because while having widgets on customers' desktops is great, placing it where customers "hang out" online has even greater advantages, according to Bob Kraut, senior director of digital marketing at Pizza Hut.

"Having the widget there keeps those users within that environment when they order," Kraut said. Customers don't have to go "away from what they're currently doing. They stay on Facebook but use our application."

According to Andy Lloyd, chief executive of Fluid Inc., if a company's widget is on a Facebook page, that serves as a tacit endorsement of the product. His company, which develops e-commerce applications for the retail sector, has seen that proven in other industries.

"When people park stuff on their personal pages, they often share it with friends," said Lloyd, hinting at the potential viral spread of widgets. "It's almost like they're saying a certain product is cool and you should see this.'"

According to Bob Ford, director of digital marketing at Papa John's, it's not just the hyperspace hipsters who are using widgets, a fact that surprised him.

"The widgets are being used across a wide range of demographics, though I suspected it would be the more tech-savvy younger crowd," he said. "Even the older crowd that already uses online ordering is using widgets."

Stan Garber, senior sales manager for Onosys, a web application developer, said his company has developed several widgets. However, he said he found in discussions with "big chains I can't name" and in commissioned market research proof that the restaurant industry isn't really ready to use the widgets.

"We've found [their customers] are not using them much, especially compared to regular online ordering," said Garber. "The technology is really neat, and we've got three or four of our own ready, but they're sort of sitting there."

Garber believes widgets will take off when they're developed for mobile phones and PDAs.

"If you're at a computer desktop, it's not that big deal to order online. But if you can order with just a couple of clicks from a mobile phone, that's big," Garber said.

Fluid's Lloyd believes widgets will come of age sooner rather than later and will be valuable marketing tools for restaurants. Any restaurateur already marketing through e-mail can keep doing so — but faster — with a widget.

"Why not use a widget to push out that day's specials to your customers? They see it that day, even before dinner," Lloyd said. "If you try that with just e-mail, they may not even open it up the same day."

Both Lloyd and Garber said widgets aren't unreasonably expensive if companies much smaller than Papa John's or Pizza Hut wanted to experiment with them. Neither, however, believed creating one was wise unless other traditional electronic marketing programs — web and e-mail — were established and well utilized. Without that, Garber said, "A widget would deliver a bad return on investment; it wouldn't make sense."

They do make sense to Papa John's and Pizza Hut because they help make dollars, lots of them. Many restaurant companies claim online order averages are significantly higher than orders placed directly to stores. So, as Ford said, any effort that simplifies the buying experience likely will pay dividends.

"That widget on a Facebook page or your desktop serves as a constant reminder of Papa John's," he added. "It's a great shortcut into our system; it can't get any easier to order from us."

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