Does Your Web Site Need a Pal?

When it comes to running your company’s Web site — whether you’re selling online or providing information to drive sales at your brick-and-mortar location — it pays to differentiate your business from the competition. Oddcast, a New York City-based company, believes its SitePalservice is just the tool to make small business sites stand out in an overpopulated Internet.

Oddcast specializes in what it calls “conversational character software products.” The SitePal service lets you add animated, talking characters to your site where they then interact with, and provide information to, current and potential customers. The idea, according to Adi Sideman, CEO of Oddcast, is to help companies increase Web sales and customer conversion rates.

A SitePal avatar
A Friendly Face — SitePal let’s you add talking characters to your Web site or eBay auction.

“Eighty-five percent of consumers have speakers on their PCs, but businesses continue to sell silently,” said Sideman. “Business owners aren’t taking advantage of the second sense — hearing. This technology lets you use talking characters for a variety of projects: online stores, eBay auctions, virtual sales, as instructors for e-learning or as virtual marketers.”

Sideman said his company currently has over 3,300 customers, including household names such as L’Oreal, McAfee, ESPN, Viacom, Pontiac and Coca Cola. “But 3,100 of our customers fall squarely into the small business category. The service is easy to use, and you don’t need any kind of technical knowledge about scripting or computer programming language,” he said.

How it Works
SitePal, a hosted, Web-based service, is available in three different packages, Bronze, Silver and Gold. No matter which package you choose, the foundation of the product remains the same.

Using your browser, you select one of the many animated characters (human andnon-human — think robots and aliens) or design one of your own starting with one of SitePal’s base models. The software lets you choose and adjust your character’s features, including, hair, eyes, age, skin color, clothes and physical background.

Once you’ve finished designing your character, you add an audio message. “Audio files can be up to one-minute long with unlimited updates, and you can change the message every day, which is great for pointing out daily sale specials,” said Sideman.

You add an audio file in one of five ways: by microphone, telephone, text-to-speech (TTS), uploading MP3 or .WAV files or by using SitePal’s professional voice talent services. Sideman recommends recording your voice with a microphone for best results.

The final step involves publishing your avatar on your Web site. According to SitePal, the procedure involves cutting and pasting HTML tags, but Sideman asserts that you don’t need any knowledge of HTML to do this. “It’s just like adding a .jpeg image to your Web site,” he said. The Silver and Gold packages are designed to let you export your avatar to your eBay auctions with a few mouse clicks.

Gimmick or Godsend?
Does having an animated “person” interacting with online customers really add to your bottom line, or is this just another cutesy Internet craze destined to annoy the crap out of unsuspecting shoppers?

It’s no shock that Sideman ascribes to the first opinion, and he pointed to a study that Symantec, an Oddcast customer, conducted to see the effect a SitePal character had on its customers. “Symantec ran a 50-50 test where 50 percent of its site visitors saw an avatar on the site and 50 percent didn’t,” he said. “After two months, the company saw a 10 percent sales increase on the avatar site.”

Judy Thornell is a co-partner of Goldfish software, a Las Vegas, Nevada-based small business e-commerce site that sells Sage software exclusively. She said that having a SitePal character has helped her site generate more revenue, and that customers seem to relate quite well to their avatar, “Kate.”

Goldfish Software uses a SitePal avatar.2.0
Click here for a larger image.

“We were looking for something to make our site different from our competition,” said Thornell. “We also wanted something that was more than just cool. It had to help us achieve our objectives — increase visitors’ time on our site, increase repeat visits and help us convert surfers to shoppers.”

Thus “Kate” joined the Web site to communicate the company’s marketing messages. She reported on various specials throughout the year, and her wardrobe often reflected special events. During the site’s Super Bowl promotion, “Kate” wore a sports jersey.

Goldfish received positive feedback on the avatar, with customers (the company caters to other small businesses) often commenting when “Kate” said something new, or according to Thornell, asking to hear her online messages more frequently.

More to the point, using an avatar added to the company’s bottom line. “Since we added ‘Kate,’ we’ve increased our conversion rate — turning browsers into buyers — by 30-to-33 percent, and we’ve increased our repeat visitors by 20-to-25 percent” said Thornell. “The avatar’s memorable and non-intimidating,” she added. “There haven’t been any negatives, and she’s branding well. ‘Kate’ helps us keep the site fresh and interesting.”

Sitepal offers its services in three different price packages. A brief description follows, and you can get amore detailed comparison here.

Bronze:Sells for $9.95 a month or $99.50 a year. Lets you design up to five animated speaking characters, publish them to any Web page and does not require any programming.

Silver:Sells for $19.95 a month or $199.50 a year. Lets you design up to 10 animated speaking characters. Includes features found in the Bronze package, plus you can publish characters to eBay auctions and add audio using TTS.

Gold:Sells for $49.95 a month or $499.50 a year. Lets you design up to 25 animated speaking characters. Includes features found in the Bronze and Silver packages, plus you can use JavaScript API, integrate with Flash, use Artificial Intelligence (lets customers type questions to, and receive intelligent answers from, avatars) and the ability to remove SitePal branding.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of

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