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Marketing strategy - Animated, talking characters 

With broadband rapidly becoming more accessible and affordable to Internet users around the world, finally the possibilities of utilizing rich media and interactivity in marketing are starting to become a reality.

In a previous article, I covered using audio marketing as a strategy to help make web sites a little more personal. I've noticed over the months that more and more site owners are using the technology; but usually this has been confined to small operators wanting to establish a more human presence.

Animated characters coming of age

A couple of years ago, I started to look at the experiments of various developers in using interactive, animated avatars (characters) in combination with voice to add more of a human touch to web sites. At that time the technology was still bug-ridden and broadband usage still wasn't at a point where I believed it to be viable.

This is all rapidly changing. I came across a company a while back who really seemed to be making inroads into using animated characters in combination with voice, offering their services in very affordable packages via a product called Site Pal. They offer a free trial so you can get comfortable with creating animated characters and spiels and evaluate the value of the service for your online business.

Site Pal is an interactive Flash animation service which works on any web page or site. It allows you to create characters from a comprehensive library, alter certain elements of their features and program them to "talk" to your visitors via a very simple process.

Below is an example - SitePal have made great improvements to file sizes since first launching a couple of years back; this one and most basic characters weigh in at around 40k - perfect for broadband and not unrealistic for 56k modem users.

Type a message into the box and the character
will read it back to you. Also try moving your 
mouse around near the character, "her" head and
eyes should follow your movements.

The online interface for setting up your character is excellent - very simple to use; you can try a demo of the customization interface on the Site Pal web site.

There's 20 different interactive Sitepal models to choose from, plus you are able to customize each character:

- Age 
- Gender 
- Hair Style 
- Skin, hair and eye color 
- Make-up 
- Clothing and accessories 

You can also specify your own backgrounds - this could place the character outside an image of your office or business!

The Site Pal service allows you to record your own audio greeting using a very accurate text to voice translation system, or you can choose from a library of pre-recorded greetings. Furthermore, you can update what your animated character says by recording audio messages over the phone - it will update instantly.

There's also an Artificial Intelligence (AI) module available if you wish to offer a chat based Q&A feature for your visitors and potential clients. The characters can even be used on eBay and some social networking sites.

Advantages of this marketing strategy?

I had a lot of fun playing around with the Site Pal service, but what about the actual application of the technology - is there really a call for it as yet?

I believe that with the decreasing price of Internet access and increasing reliability and speed of that access, there now is. This was one of the first truly useful Flash applications that I stumbled across.

Not only is it a great way of conveying your message to the visually impaired, but it could also be of benefit to those who don't like reading, have poor reading skills or are illiterate. According to the CIA factbook, 3% of Americans are illiterate - this doesn't include those who have poor literacy skills.

Although the characters are merely cartoon animations, I feel that their presence also gets around the issues of a disembodied voice playing - it gives people something that's related to look at; delivering the message more effectively. With the Site Pal system, the character will also move it's head and eyes to follow the location of the mouse.. another touch of interactive "intelligence". 

Using a voice recording also allows people to move away from their computer and attend to something else while listening to the message.

I have no doubt that this kind of animated helper application, much like live chat/support software will continue to gain popularity with site owners over the next couple of years; yet another tool to add to the marketing arsenal for capturing "hearts and minds" - and sales.

Related learning resources:

Audio marketing tools

Video marketing for small business

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
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