Whether you call them "talking heads", "avatars," or "virtual hosts" (or vHosts), banners and sites containing cartooned-heads that can interact with visitors, are the hot new creative in rich media advertising.
As Judy Gern of agency Carat Interactive says, "The ability to create a character, have it talk to you, and personalize what it says … it's something we couldn't pass up testing." Adi Sideman of Oddcast, one of the tech companies making talking heads possible, explains, "People are drawn to people, even if it's virtual. Human faces attract the most attention."
That's the theory anyway. But do they work? Do talking heads annoy Web surfers, or do they get more clicks? And, are the clicks worth anything in terms of conversions? We interviewed the teams behind two recent campaigns to get creative tips and data for you.
Dean Harris, VP Marketing Vonage, is a heavy Internet advertiser who's tested just about every ad format out there, from plain text to rich media, to get more folks to sign up for Internet phone service. Working with Carat Interactive, he tested a banner containing a talking head character, powered by Oddcast, in a national campaign that appeared on Yahoo last fall.
Mark McNeil, General Manager of Sun Pontiac GMC in Mesa Arizona has had a Web site for about seven years. He tested the talking head character "Abby" powered by Eidoserve in a local campaign that launched last fall. His goal was to drive visitors to his site who'd convert to either buying cars or scheduling service.
-> a. Creative tips
Both marketers chose to go with brown-haired adult female characters who looked both intelligent and purposeful. In both cases they tested and tweaked the look and sound of the character a great deal before launching.
Harris says, "We've had greater success with online ads and DRTV using women characters than men. We tried to come up with someone who looks hip, with a little bit of attitude -- someone who represents brand essence. We had a bunch of iterations before launch, tweaking the hair, adding wrinkles, removing wrinkles, etc."
Carat's Judy Gern adds, "The hardest part was getting the voice right. It's a sensitive thing when you think about what this ad unit does. We listened to a bunch of voices, had a couple of people read for it, and picked a voice that was distinctive. We didn't want a bland announcery voice."
Don Knechtges of Great Lakes Innovation & Development Enterprise (GLIDE) who headed the creative team that invented the Abby character McNeil chose to run in his Mesa ads, says, "First we tested a white Anglo Saxon man and the women in focus groups had a problem with that. It was kind of same old, same old. They thought 'you're only recruiting males. You don't really want our business.' That went away when we went to a female figure."
Next his creative team tried to "take the ethnicity out of the figure" so more people would relate to her (especially in the multi-ethnic Mesa area.) "When somebody in a focus group thought she was Spanish and somebody else said she was obviously black, we knew were on the right track because that told us she'd started to be American."
In both cases, the figure in the banner only speaks briefly -- for no more than 10-20 seconds at first. It's certainly possible to have a talking head go on much longer, but Oddcast's Adi Sideman warns that will probably annoy Web surfers.
"Be short, give your elevator pitch. Don't try to cram your whole message in. Focus on one single, short pitch," he says.
"And remember about 20% of people do not have soundcards, so the ad has to have copy on it so people can experience it even if they can't hear it. Audio enhances it, drives the point home."
For added impact, Vonage based its banner background on a TV campaign it was running at the time (link to sample below.) The TV commercial wasn't copied or streamed exactly, but the main ideas in it were transitioned into the character's world.
GMC Mesa's banner background featured the dealerships' logo and a line drawing of a car.
-> b. Media buying
Carat's Gern advises that it's best to test any unusual new ad creative on a site that you've already had plenty of experience with so you've got a results baseline for comparison purposes. So, Vonage tested the campaign as a 425x425 on Yahoo email home which has always been a top performing size and spot for the brand.
GMC Mesa's McNeil decided on his local Chamber of Commerce site because, "We're not Chevrolet or Ford. We don't have the ad budget that allows us to take over the Phoenix metro online media market, so we have to do things differently."
He didn't expect the Chamber of Commerce site to perform incredibly well because it's not related to car buying and at least some portion of the audience would be outsiders looking into relocation. But, he hoped the banner was powerful enough to get the most clicks possible from the segment of visitors who were right for him.
One thing you need to be aware of when media buying for any audio ad is the fact that each site has different rules about audio. Some let you launch your sound with the page your ad is on. Others either make you wait a few beats, or only allow you to launch audio on user command.
The Mesa ad launches the minute you hit the site, which probably helps response rates because it's a fairly small ad unit positioned among half-a dozen others below the fold. The audio forces the visitor to scroll down to look for where the sound is coming from.
The Yahoo ad, which dominated the screen above the fold, only launched audio when the visitor clicked to hear to it. To encourage this, the ad copy clearly says click to hear audio. Plus, the character is already visibly talking - albeit muted - as soon as the page loads, so we bet many visitors clicked in curiosity to hear what she was saying.
-> c. Test results
Both campaigns were judged on the basis of return on investment rather than clicks. As Judy Gern says, "We look at clicks. They're mildly interesting, we say 'Isn't that nice.'" But, if they don't convert into new customers, who cares in the long run?
Happily, the Vonage ad performed 93% better on a cost per acquisition basis than any other creative - including other rich media tests - the team had put on Yahoo email in the past. So, the team is planning on using the tactic again in 2004.
Oddcast's Adi Sideman notes that across all the campaigns his company has powered (now in the hundreds), the average click rate is 2.78%. The highest ever was 6.24%.
The Mesa ad also performed well, with strong clicks gaining McNeil at least two car sales over the past four months, as well as a handful of service appointments. On average, 9.3% of Chamber of Commerce site visitors interacted with Abby for roughly 2.6 minutes each, asking her 1.6 questions.
-> d. Beyond the banner - landing pages and Web sites
Vonage chose to have their banner click through to a landing page without the Oddcast character because they'd tested pages quite heavily in the past and knew what worked best for their conversions.
We've actually heard mixed results for pages with talking heads. For example, a Case Study we wrote late last year about a Xerox test revealed that a standard Flash intro substantially outperformed an interactive talking head character attempting to talk visitors through a registration form. (Link below.)
The answer may be in the type of visitor you attract. Both McNeil and the GLIDE folks who've tested talking heads on their site report that a small segment of visitors find them intensely annoying. These tend to be the heaviest Net users -- people who like to be in control, and move swiftly and decisively to their online objective.
People who are in the newbie or less heavy Net-user population often have equally strong feelings -- they adore an interactive character helping them to understand how to use a site.
-> e. The Future
Everyone we spoke with agreed that talking heads are the wave of the future. GMC Mesa's campaign is ongoing, and Vonage plans to roll out more tests this year. However, much of the value currently comes from "uniqueness" so we bet clicks will fall as talking heads become more prevelant.
The biggest future may not be banner ads at all -- instead, everyone predicted that interactive talking heads would have a significant role in online customer service and support, similar to live chat with CSRs - only quicker and perhaps more convenient.
This application may not only save money, it also will enable site owners to database and learn from queries on both an individual customer level and a site-wide trend level.
Creatively, everyone shuddered away from the term "cartoon." So, expect to see these virtual people become as realistic as possible, without portraying actual individuals who might leave a company. Useful links
Vonage banner creativehttp://www.staging.oddcast.com/clientsite/carat/banner/index.html
Sun Pontiac GMC banner on Mesa Chamber of Commerce site:
Cool Talking Head vs Standard Flash Intro: Xerox's Surprising Landing Page Test Results (This Case Study requires a fee for access)