The Nearly Personal Touch

Frank Ahrens
Frank Ahrens and Frank Ahrens 2.0.
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

For the Internet bleeding-edgers, avatars are de rigueur. Users create an animated online version of themselves that either mirrors their real-life appearance or transforms them into a beautiful, idealized online version of themselves, ready to talk with friends, shop and communicate with other avatars.

Now, advertisers and marketers -- who have been experimenting with ways to reach consumers beyond television commercials, newspaper ads or billboards -- are turning to avatars with increased fervor. As company pitchmen, avatars spread the marketing message in an ever-more viral and insidious way by using friendships to hawk products.

Companies such as Accuweather Inc., L'Oreal Co. and Global Gillette are avatar-equipped. Even auto giant DaimlerChrysler AG has drawn a low-tech avatar of its chief executive, Dieter Zetsche, to answer online questions as "Dr. Z."

The real-life Zetsche is starring in a television commercial campaign that plays up the German engineering of the company -- possibly as a way for the company to distance itself from the troubled American auto industry. But it's his avatar that's in the spotlight on the Web site, interacting with consumers wanting to learn more about the cars.

"We wanted to do something with Dieter, but also we were aware we couldn't have Dieter working the site and answering questions personally, so we felt the avatar was a wonderful way to translate Dieter's relationship with the customer," said Christine MacKenzie, executive director of multi-brand marketing and agency relations for DaimlerChrysler. "Also, it's something that young Web users are very familiar with."

Next week, the acid-reflux drug Nexium is expected to launch a campaign that lets users create their own avatar, record a greeting for the avatar to repeat and send a "Purple Pill postcard" e-mail to friends detailing "healthy-living" activities in vacation spots such as the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Research by New York-based Oddcast Inc., which created the Nexium avatar, shows that if a straight-ahead e-mail pitch from any company shows up in consumers' inboxes, it has about a 15 percent chance of being opened.

But the consumer-created avatars sent to friends -- that carry a product pitch with them -- get opened about 70 percent of the time. Additionally, about 30 percent of those who receive such avatars from friends create and send their own, passing along the advertiser's name, product and slogan like a virus.

So, basically, such avatars are exploiting the trust of a person receiving an e-mail from a friend?

"That's exactly right," said Oddcast's chief executive, Adi Sideman. Oddcast has about 200 major clients, including AstraZenica PLC (Nexium), McDonald's Corp., ESPN, CBS Sportsline and CareerBuilder.com, and has licensed its software to more than 5,000 others, he said. Other avatar designers include Organic Inc., Comverse Technology Inc., Meez.com and Imvu.com.

Oddcast launched a pass-along avatar for CareerBuilder, an online job Web site, five months ago. Starring the monkeys from the CareerBuilder television commercials, users can choose a monkey avatar, dress him and have him speak a short message that the user creates by typing text or dialing a phone number and recording it.

The monkeys have made 44 million hops -- from one computer to another -- around the world since they came online, Sideman said. Prominently displayed on each monk-e-mail is the tagline, "Brought to you by CareerBuilder.com."


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