From the July 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

Imagine visitors to your website being greeted by a lifelike animated character that follows their mouse movements with its eyes and even talks to them.

Sound far-fetched? It's not--and it's relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, thanks to Sitepal from Oddcast, an internet-based subscription service. Sitepal allows businesses to create animated, talking avatars and add them to their websites for a variety of professional and personal applications. They can be used, for example, as intelligent online customer service agents, virtual salespeople to promote products, or even virtual auctioneers for eBay listings.

"Right now, at any given moment, there are 10,000 auctions running with Sitepal virtual salespeople selling a specific product on eBay," says Oren Levy, executive vice president of New York City-based Oddcast, the only company currently offering the technology in an easy-to-use format for SMB websites.

There are lots of ways to personalize your character. During the sign-up process, you can choose what you want your character to say and select from 13 languages in 60 different voices. Or you can record a message in your own voice by microphone or telephone. It's easy to add the character to your site and make changes to it when needed.

The avatars aren't just fun--they can produce real results. "I like the Sitepal application for its ability to give [customers] information they may not be able to get through text," says Sucharita Mulpuru, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And according to Levy, when Oddcast customers add a character next to a specific product, "[they] see an immediate increase in conversion for that product." He says one customer saw a 33 percent increase in sales after using Sitepal's animated characters.

Talking avatars work best with high-consideration products like computers, large appliances and travel services. They're also a good choice for products that face stiff market competition. "It's a great way to differentiate yourself," says Mulpuru. Pricing starts at $9.95 per month or $99.50 per year.

Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.