Not long ago I wanted to increase newsletter signups here at Small Business Trends. So I conducted a test using my SitePal avatar  — or animated character — to see whether it could be used to drive signups. The results of that test wildly exceeded my expectations. The avatar increased newsletter subscriptions by 144%.
The test holds a number of lessons, so I’d like to share my experiences with you. Perhaps you will find them valuable.
Designing The Test
The test consisted of showing two different versions of the home page of this site to visitors, on a random basis. The test, known as an A/B split test, showed half of the visitors my custom-designed SitePal avatar, along with a message recorded in my voice asking visitors to subscribe. The other half of the visitors saw a plain photograph of me, as the Editor of the site. Everything else on the page remained the same for both versions. We used a sample size of 11,058 unique visitors to the site, feeling that if we got at least that many it would be a statistically significant size.
To set up the A/B test and track results I used Google Website Optimizer. Google Optimizer is an excellent free tool which helps you easily do A/B testing and track results. The Website Optimizer tool is housed in the Google AdWords control panel. However, you do not need to buy Google AdWords to use with it.
While it is not exactly difficult to set up a Google Optimizer test, it is rather technical. You have to read the instructions carefully, go step by step through the Optimizer tool, and install code on to the affected pages of your site. Rather than spending a couple of hours myself fiddling with the technology, I asked Tim Grahl, our webmaster here, to actually install the tracking code. I knew he could do it faster and troubleshoot any issues.
We also temporarily removed the email subscription option for the RSS feed, to avoid confusion. It’s now back in the header (next to the yellow RSS subscriber counter), but it was gone during the test so that there would be only one subscription option visible on the home page.
Using the SitePal avatar, newsletter signups more than doubled when compared with the static photograph. In fact, the avatar did 144% better. Needless to say, I was ecstatic with the results.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of using the SitePal avatar is that it reduces your overall cost per acquisition of a customer. As a small business, advertising to get visitors can be expensive and other methods can take a lot of time. Whether you are looking at time or money, it is too expensive to just let visitors walk away without trying to engage them and entice them to become part of your community, or buy something before they turn around and leave. Maximizing the investment it takes to get visitors to your site is of the utmost importance and a speaking avatar can help you reduce the cost of new customer acquisition.
Tips for Using a Talking Character to Drive Conversions
(1) To maximize conversions, set your avatar to autoplay the audio message for visitors immediately when they arrive on the page. You can set a SitePal avatar to play just once in a 30-day period for a given visitor, and that’s what I did — that way the visitor doesn’t have to hear the same message over and over. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how the autoplay feature would be received, but it actually worked quite well. I did have one reader email me to say that he not like to visit sites with audio playing automatically. But overall, the increased results told me that autoplay is a powerful feature to drive conversions, because ever since I ended the test and turned off the autoplay feature the subscriber rate has not been as high. Perhaps someday I’ll conduct another test and compare autoplay and non-autoplay head to head.
(2) For the best results, customize your avatar. In my case SitePal created a custom avatar that looks like me, from my photograph. I also recorded the message in my own voice. And I didn’t make the message sound “too” perfect — I tried to keep it natural sounding. The personalization helps a lot, because it makes it feel more like a one-to-one message. In fact, a personalized avatar is a remarkable ice-breaker and conversation piece, online and off. I can’t tell you how many people remark on it. I’ve even had past colleagues contact me out of the blue, prompted by seeing the avatar.
(3) Use a persuasive recorded message. We actually started the A/B test for a few days, then stopped it and started afresh, because I wanted to re-record the message to make it sound more persuasive. I recommend a fairly brief message of no more than 45 to 60 seconds. Otherwise, it takes too much of your visitor’s time. Don’t make it a hard sell, just be descriptive about the benefits. Because it is short, you have to make it count. It took me an hour to write the message –mostly to edit out extra words and make it sound more powerful — but only about 4 or 5 minutes to record it a few times until it sounded OK. SitePal has a recording feature built right into the administrative control panel, so all you need is an inexpensive microphone plugged into your computer.
(4) Invest a little time to learn how to use the avatar technology. A few months ago I interviewed Adi Sideman, the CEO of Oddcast (makers of SitePal) on my radio show . As we were doing the interview, Adi said something that stuck in my mind. He said, “To get the most out of a SitePal avatar you have to show it some love and attention.” What he meant was, the more you learn how to use it, the more value you will get out of it.
Throughout this process of conducting the A/B test, I certainly found that to be true. The more I used the SitePal avatar, the more I understood its potential to help meet my business goals. For instance, I was able to fine tune features like autoplay and animation, by spending time in the control panel learning how to use it.
I shared the results of my A/B test with SitePal and they actually published it as a case study. You can read the case study here. Thanks, SitePal!
Avatars, or electronic characters are “in” these days. Between the explosion in online gaming and virtual worlds like Second Life, avatars have become cool. But beyond being cool, avatars can help drive conversions on your website. If you are looking for something unique to persuade visitors to make a purchase or subscribe to a newsletter or otherwise convert to an action, and want to maximize the investment it took to get visitors to your site, you should check out SitePal.