the new world of virtual influencers

Caitlin Ammann
Caitlin Ammann
November 17, 2020 . 3min read

In an October edition of The Inside Edge, we explored a range of ways in which influencer marketing has evolved in 2020. In one example, we looked at the World Health Organisation partnering with computer-generated influencer Knox Frost to help inform Gen Z about the importance social distancing. We were exploring the fact that influencers are increasingly being tapped as news anchors for a generation who don’t consume traditional news – but we ignored what many people’s natural reaction would be to such information: “wait, what the **** is a computer-generated influencer??”

So we decided to rectify that and put together this deep-dive into virtual influencers.

What are virtual influencers and how do they work?
Virtual influencers, or CGI influencers are “fictional computer generated ‘people’ who have the realistic characteristics, features and personalities of humans”. They are created by brands, individuals, and companies who understand what works in the world of influencers, and who have access to some powerful technology, and can appear anywhere from eerily lifelike to cartoonish. If you haven’t seen one of these before, have a look at Lil Miquela’s Instagram. At first glance she looks like a trendy Gen Z model, out there living her best life, but take a closer look and the face is a little too perfect. By far the most popular with 2.8 million Instagram followers, Miquela sits atop a growing list of robot personalities like Shudu, Bermuda, and Noonoouri. There’s even a digital modelling agency to help manage all these fake faces.

Why are they influential?
Authenticity has been the catchcry of the influencer world for years. While it may sound contradictory, it appears many consumers find virtual influencers more authentic than human ones. With issues of trust and transparency always on the forefront of influencer strategy discussions – we’ll never really know if someone genuinely loves that new face mask or if they’re only saying it to get paid – and with research showing it’s getting harder to separate the real from the fake, the fact that we all know these characters are fake somehow makes it more permissible.

Authenticity has been the catchcry of the influencer world for years. While it may sound contradictory, it appears many consumers find virtual influencers more authentic than human ones.

There are no hidden agendas, and it’s all quite obvious they exist solely to influence you. Their trick is in openly acknowledging that these people aren’t actually people at all. Otherwise it’s just weird (if you ask me).

What can they do for brands?
The core audience – according to HypeAuditor – is women between 18 and 24, so it’s no surprise that fashion brands like Dior, Coach, and Balenciaga have so far lead the way. But now more mainstream brands like Samsung, Renault and KFC are having a go. Even a U.S. NBA team – the Washington Wizards – has an ‘official virtual influencer’, to reach out to Japanese fans.

The most obvious advantages to marketers are flexibility and control. Brands working with a CGI personality have total control over the message, and won’t suffer any embarrassing gaffes if their influencer gets a bit too wild on a weekend in Vegas. As Sam Bradley writes in the Drum, “They can be anywhere at any time, photographed in any way. Their personalities can be tailored to match the values of the brand they’re representing, while reflecting the perfect audience persona back at their followers.”

They are also immensely popular. According to HypeAuditor, virtual influencers see nearly three times as much engagement as human influencers, and according to a Mindshare UK, nearly 75% of younger consumers (18-35) and 54% of the general population find virtual influencers appealing on some level.

Should your brand care?
The types of brands that should be paying close attention to this space today are those that are looking to stay ahead of the curve, to be seen as innovative and cutting edge, and who want to reach out to a whole new type of audience. However, I feel it’s inevitable that any brand that relies on influencer or spokesperson marketing will some day be working with a virtual influencer. Their ability to create characters with values and personality to resonate with a precise audience is unmatched in the real world.

How can you get involved?
Well you can work directly with characters like Lil Miquela – but they ain’t cheap! Thankfully, your approach doesn’t have to be limited to characters like Lil Miquela. The same principles apply when implementing a chatbot – a virtual assistant that can get to know your customers and make personal recommendations. Once a purely functional alternative to call centres, today’s chat bots have personalities and profiles all their own, and serve as the perfect kiddie pool for brands to play around with AI and virtual influence, before diving all the way into the deep end.

Image credit: @lilmiquela | Instagram 2018

Caitlin Ammann

Caitlin Ammann

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