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May 04, 2004
Case Study

New Personalized Talking Character eCard Format Generates 10X More Viral Response

SUMMARY: Are your ecard offering results lagging? Check out the test results from a highly creative campaign the Sympatico portal's been trying in Canada this spring.

Consumers like the personalized talking character ecards so much that Sympatico's getting ten times the regular ecard traffic, and an average 130% email click rate.

This Case Study includes enormously fun live samples; plus, fascinating data on how French-language and English-language users react differently. (If you're doing a multi-lingual campaign, definitely read on...)

"We were looking for something fun that would breathe some new life into ecards," says Veronica Holmes, Senior Director Corporate Development for Web portal Sympatico (a division of Bell Canada.)

"We often do ecards that compliment either the content we have or the marketers we partner with. For example, we did NHL cards at Christmas." However, no matter how much effort the art department put into the card creative, response was fairly flat. "We probably send 15,000-20,000 cards a month normally."

As marketers across the Web have discovered, while ecards used to be thrilling and new, they're now a routine tactic with solid but unexciting results. You have to work a lot harder to make your offering stand out -- especially if you're counting on viral pass-along to enhance results.

Plus, Sympatico's development team had to deal with the Canadian factor -- whatever they created had to be presented and work equally well in both French and English.


Holmes was inspired by VoiceNet, an unusual service Bell Canada and Sympatico launched about a year ago. Cell phone users on the VoiceNet plan can call in to hear their email read to them in their choice of French or English.

Holmes and her team wondered, why not test a talking ecard using the same idea? The sender would be able to type in their message, and the recipient would hear the message instead of reading it.

To add icing to the cake, they found some marketing tech that would let them tie an on-screen visual to the personalized audio. So, the audio message would appear to be coming from the mouth of a photographed head. The character would lip synch along "saying" the sender's message in the sender's choice of a male or female voice. The mouth, eyes, and even head moved about to fit the words, whether in French or English.

Armed with the big idea, the team had four steps to launch it:

Launch step #1. Name the service

Choosing a name was harder than you might think. "We had trouble with it," Holmes explains. "We wanted to pick an engaging brand name that evokes exactly the experience you would be having. Just saying 'talking cards' or 'speaking cards' didn't work. We wanted to pick something that would evoke the idea without actually saying it. And, we were ideally looking for something that would be bilingual."

Although the team of four brainstormed like crazy ("I personally came up with hundreds," laughs Holmes), it was impossible to find one single name to fit all requirements.

So they picked two -- Saymail for English and VoxCartes for French.

Why not a more direct translation? "It wouldn't work. It would be a long huge name and wouldn't make any sense at all." (This is a lesson marketers translating brand messaging too literally for other cultures should take heed of.)

Launch step #2. Select characters for ecard users to animate

Offering a bit of selection is critical to grow ecard use. So, the team came up with a half-dozen characters - such as a cuddly kitten, an infant, a handsome man, a beautiful woman, and a garden gnome. None, however, were cartoons because the team figured consumers are too used to seeing cartoons talk. There's a lot more impact when a photo of baby goat starts speaking at you.

Holmes says, "In the picture, the face had to be well framed. We were looking for pictures where the head, eyes and mouth were really clear and could move easily."

Also, the team decided to allow consumers to load their own photos and graphics to animate. So a visitor would have the choice of using a pre-loaded character or any face they had a digital file of on their computer. (We tested the system using a photo of a dog.)

After the campaign had been running for a few weeks, the team freshened it up by replacing less-used characters with new ones. (In fact, they recommend you do this as an ongoing process.)

Launch step #3. Create a high-impact landing page

The team deliberately kept the landing page as clean and simple as possible. It's designed to be viewable, without scrolling, on an average-sized monitor set at 800x600 resolution. There's very little text, and only a few easy choices. (Link to sample below.)

The key is, no matter how complex the underlying technology, using it should appear to be as fun and easy as possible.

To heighten impact, the second the page loaded on a viewer's screen the picture of the infant began to talk, "Read my lips. No more boring email!" Holmes says, "He's the cutest picture, and it's kind of alarming to hear him talk to you when you first come to the page. We wanted to encourage people to try different things."

After creating their cards, users could send them to up to three email addresses. The campaign was fairly standard thereon. Recipients got a text-email telling them to go pick up their card. Then the card links stayed live for 14 days.

Launch step #4. Run promos to get the word out

Holmes didn't want to make a huge splash with such a new test. Instead she decided to launch the card -- with fairly small announcements on Sympatico's French and English-language home pages. The ads launched February 4th 2004. (Link to samples below.)

"It was only on the home page four times in eight weeks, for eight hours each time. We wanted to make sure everything worked perfectly before going crazy and promoting it."


"We've been up for only eight weeks, and users have sent over 400,000 cards. That's pretty substantial - it's performed well beyond what our other cards have," says Holmes. "We also received a lot of positive emails from users saying thank you."

More data:

- An average of 1.75% of unique users who saw Sympatico's small home page mentions on the ecards, clicked to the landing page. This is impressive considering how many zillions of other links there are on that page, and proves that something that looks like an informational mention will do better than something that looks like a promo banner.

- Although highly attractive, the man and woman characters weren't very popular, even around Valentine's Day. The baby was about average. The cute kitten was the real-standout. So, it appears that baby animals are more fun to animate than anonymous people. In fact, 65% of cards sent using the pre-loaded characters were non-human photos.

- When the campaign first launched, only 35% of users opted to upload an image of their own. However, recipients of that 35% were far more likely to try the system using their own unique images as well. So the average system-wide grew to roughly 52% within about 10 days of launch.

- English-language card creators were 50% more likely to upload their own images than French-language users who vastly preferred selecting an image from the pre-loaded choices. "I don't know why," says Holmes.

She does note that while she wasn't expecting this particular result, in general you can't always count on French Canadians to respond the exact same way other Canadians do to online ads. Sometimes your best choice is separate -- not just translated -- creative.

- English-language users sent their cards to 1.44 people on average, French-language users sent to 1.33 people. (Presumably if you've done the extra work to load in your own image, you'll be more involved and want more people to see it.)

- Click rates for the ecards were always over 100%. "We often get a click rate of 120-150% depending on the day. People tend to open the card over and over again."

Holmes advice to other marketers considering launching a similar program: "The quality of the voice is really key to the experience. If you sound too robotic or things are mispronounced that reduces the quality of the experience. Particularly in French you have to capture all the nuances of pronunciation."

Useful links related to this article:

Samples of the promos and landing pages to entice visitors to send ecards (Yes, includes a working sample so you can try this out for yourself.)

Pulse3D - the tech vendor behind animating the faces for the talking ecards

ScanSoft - the tech vendor behind translating typed words into "spoken" audio in French and English:

MarketingSherpa Article: Using Talking Heads in Your Online Ads - Test Results, Creative Tips & Useful Links

(Paid access -- low fee)

MarketingSherpa Article: Top 10 Ways to Sabotage Your Viral Marketing Program (Yes, You're Probably Doing One of Them)


See Also:

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