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By Adi Sideman

French New Wave cinema legend FranÁois Truffaut's called the film director ďthe engineer of the audiences' emotions.Ē Since the 1930s moving image and sound have been synched to solicit emotions, create illusions and manipulate audiences. Itís hard to imagine any marketer choosing to run his TV spot silently. Today, a vast majority of PCs have speakers. Multimedia applications are popular.

Yet millions of online businesses sell silently.

It isnít that the advertising industry didnít try. Virtual conversational characters, known as "avatars," got a bad rap in the late 90s. Several large ventures tried to launch virtual character products. They never delivered on the promise to create real value for businesses.

Miss Boo--of the notorious fashion site boo.com--burned through $115 million before her plug was officially pulled. Ananova, the virtual newswoman, is hard to find--even at her own website, Ananova.com.

More recently, however, technologies have surfaced that make the development of conversational characters easier, faster and more cost-effective. Now companies can deliver key marketing messages to help drive increased conversions and turn browsers into buyers without the technology and design challenges that characterized the past.

These new talking character technologies are catching on with businesses of all sizes. Let's look at one example. McAfee (www.shopmcafee.com), the developer of computer security solutions, now uses a talking salesperson to increase sales for one of its most popular products.

McAfee executives knew that they had to succinctly communicate key product messages in order to convert browsers into buyers. This is where the virtual salesperson took over.

To ensure that the technology would increase conversations and sales, McAfee first tested the avatar technology with top revenue generator ASaP Virus Scan. There was a control group and a test group. Half of the site visitors saw the conversational character and the other half got the same page without the character. This approach was designed to provide a return on investment (ROI) comparison.

The results speak for themselves. The average close ratio for customers that experienced the conversational character was 10 percent higher than those who were not exposed to the character. When analyzed against past sales data the increase in average daily sales went up by 10 percent during the time that the character was deployed on the ASaP Virus Scan product. McAfee now plans to extend the use of avatar technology to other portions of their site.

Today, over 3,00 businesses worldwide use avatar technology for sales, marketing, training and customer support. Imagine an employee who works 24/7, knows all the prices, speaks any language and remembers customers' names and--based on recent purchases--their taste. This is not science fiction. It is happening today. As this trend matures, virtual salespeople will be ever-more commonplace in rich media and ecommerce applications across the Internet.

Adi Sideman is the founder, President and CEO of Oddcast .

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