Podcast: Animated Characters for Conversion with Jake Levant

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In this episode of Landing Page Optimization, Tim Ash chats with Jake Levant, CMO of Toonimo, about using customized animated helpers to increase conversions.


Tim and Jake start the discussion by looking back to Microsoft Office’s Clippy. They agree that Clippy wasn’t very helpful because it showed up when it had something to say, and not to listen to the user. However, Jake points out that marketers learned from Clippy’s failure to identify what’s working and what’s not working, and when people are shutting something off.

Tim adds that Clippy didn’t work because people are made up of basic survival defenses that come into play even when we’re in front of a web browser. We don’t want random stuff showing up when we don’t expect them, and we react to sudden and unusual things in the environment.

Toonimo is trying to find the right balance between not shocking the visitors but guiding them through the process. Jake shares that they’re trying to understand the typical user flow when they come to the page – where they stray and where they need help.

Animated Characters and Branding

Jake shares that the look of Toonimo’s animations is similar to Pixar’s characters – fun, animated, innocent, and not too exaggerated. They also put in things that reflect human habit but can’t be associated to or remind users of specific people.

Tim asks Jake about circumstances where an animated character as a guide for an online experience might go against corporate branding or might be perceived as gimmicky or child-like. Jake says that they’re starting with really conversant-centric people- performance marketers who really run to solutions similar to what Toonimo offers. Brands ask them to animate their logos or their own characters and bring them to life in the web environment. Clients are not necessarily weary of the gimmick factor; they’re just brand protective. They’ve already invested in an asset, and they want to maximize that asset.

Character’s Gender, Personality, and Appearance

The attributes of the character are decided on through conversations with the website owner or the marketing manager. Jake explains that this way you get a sense of who the site visitors are, the things they’re looking for, and the barriers they encounter. From those, you can get an idea of who the visitors are expecting to meet on the page. The character can be male or female, a kid or an adult, or someone more authoritative or a little bit diminutive. They are also dressed based on the perception that you want your visitors to have of the character (e.g. professional, medical).

Tim asks if certain attributes generally perform better than others. Jake shares that in terms of health and relationship, females seem to be delivering higher. He also tells of an instance where a blonde-haired character outperformed a brown-haired one in a Japanese market. Tim speculates that this could be because everyone has dark hair in Japan, so blonde hair would stand out and would be perceived as more interesting.

Sometimes people want to make the process lighter and more fluid, so they like to put a younger character. Jake says for a page for downloads and installs, they tried a woman and a kid, and the kid really seemed to outperform. This is some of the psychology that they’re trying to get deeper on and understand.

Tim notes that age and gender matter, and that this can be thought of as a refinement process – top level distinction on gender and age first, then refine the hair color, the clothing, and other attributes. It’s basically a series of quick split tests to get the character’s appearance dialed in.

Scripts and Behavioral Triggers

The character’s script is also a key variable. Jake says it matters whether they’re long-winded or short and to the point and more action-oriented.

He explains that what the characters say is triggered on certain behaviors. For example, for users who are about to leave the site, they might pop in an animation saying, “Hey, I want to tell you one more thing about the process,” or, “Rest assured your credit card details will remain safe with us.” There are different codes for different behaviors which will pop up the character.

Form filling is also an opportunity for an animated helper because people get confused with what to put in certain fields. Jake explains that as the page owner, you might think everything is obvious and simple because everything is written on your site, but sometimes users need someone to speak about it. Some visitors like the audio-visual experience – they like having someone pitch the message instead of having to read the message themselves.

Dangers of Video

Jake stresses the importance of understanding your message, your audience, and the right timing. He points out that it can be annoying if every time someone comes to your page, you have something popping up. He also reminds that audio-visual on the page is very powerful, so you have to make sure that your customer knows how to use it. He warns against overusing audio-visual because if it becomes numbing, people will quickly turn it off.

Tim notes that with video you have to consider whether to auto-play it and whether to show it to a repeat visitor in exactly the same format. He adds that on some sites, a user goes off the home page deeper into the site, and when they come back to the home page on the same session, the page triggers the video off the fact that the user is on a page rather than the knowledge that the user has been there before.

This is why knowing the users and their context is important. Jake says, on a dating site, for example, you can’t auto-play the animation if someone’s visiting during work hours. You can build in triggers like not playing the audio until after a certain time of the day.
Jake reminds that the key to not overusing video is to be selective and identify the main things we need to help users with.

A New Approach

Jake says that the character is always on the screen and can be clicked for replay. Sometimes it auto-plays depending on the customer. It also calls out different things that it’s talking about on the screen, so it’s more obvious what the user needs to do next. The character is typically positioned near the call-to-action so they can draw attention there.

Animation is a new way to approach your customers. Jake explains that when a customer comes to your landing page, they have little time to understand your message and decide whether or not they’re going to take the next step. If you’re relying on them reading, chances are, you've perfected that. (e.g. you’ve changed the button from green to red) Animation is significantly different in a good way. Jake stresses, however, that first you have to identify the key message of your landing page , then use the character on the page to articulate the message because there is too much clutter on your landing page, and point out to the visitor what is next.

Tim expresses his concern that introducing motion and animation adds to the clutter on the page where the animation screams the loudest asking for the visitor’s attention. Jake agrees that it is ideal for a page to be able to speak for itself and says they’re taking more landing pages in that direction. However, he points out that when they get to the optimal landing page, still somehow they’re able to improve the conversion by pitching the message.

Video Spokesperson versus Animated Characters

Jake says that using either a video spokesperson or an animated character helps conversion. However, he observes that companies who want to build their seriousness and credentials go with videos. They’re looking for a very authoritative person, and they don’t necessarily feel that they can achieve that with the cartooning.

Tim points out too that if it’s a site of an actual person, then it has to be that person who comes out, not his/her cartoon version.

The decision to use a video spokesperson or animation depends on brand guidelines, but Jake notes that animation is practical. You don’t need to call someone back when you change the script, and you don’t have to reshoot the whole thing. Also, when what you show varies depending on the visitors’ behavior, that can be cost-intensive when you have real models.

Jake adds that animation also allows them to make iterations and see which one is outperforming. He says this is going to be really costly if you had to bring in a model to the studio every time you wanted to see if you can create something that will outperform the previous clip.

Conversion Lift

Jake shares that they consistently see a double-digit increase in conversions. The results greatly depend on how much optimization the clients have done and how effective their pages are to begin with. However, even with clients who have really refined their pages, they still see a double-digit improvement. With the first version - just by bringing in the scripting and making it alive on the page - they already see a 10 to 20 percent lift. They optimize from there, and Toonimo generally sees a 30 percent conversion improvement, but in some cases they double the conversion.

First Air Date: March 10, 2014

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