As you are probably aware by now, I’m currently writing my dissertation about influencer fraud within the influencer marketing industry. A topic that you would think I’d be bored to tears of right now, has actually made me more intrigued than ever. One topic I touch upon within my dissertation is ‘virtual influencers’.
These virtual influencers are created through CGI and artificial intelligence and the more I read about them, the more freaked out I become. More and more brands are starting to create their own virtual influencer as there are both great benefits that come with them but also a few drawbacks.
Virtual influencers such as Lil Miquela (who has 1.5 million followers) and Imma (who has 44,000 followers) have both partnered with fashion brands and even graced the cover of magazines. They’re life-like and from their Instagram profiles, you would think they were real people, interacting with followers, posting about their outfits and even appearing to be at the world’s most glamorous and popular events – Lil Miquela even appeared to be at Coachella over the weekend.
Is this the future of influencer marketing? Are we going to get rid of real content creators and instead create virtual ones? What would be the reason and would it work? Below I’m going to look at the benefits and limitations of these virtual influencers and I would also love to get your thoughts on them. I’m unsure of the longevity and to be honest, they just freak me out and make me a little scared of the future and how digital the world is going to become.
They can’t go rogue and say something they shouldn’t
The virtual influencer can avoid such situations as the Listerine Instagram Ad, the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner or even influencers going completely off the scale such as Logan Paul and the Japanese Suicide Forest video. Brands put their reputations in the hands of these influencers, and once that has been tarnished, it’s hard to come back from.
Beca Alexander, President of Socialite said, “In some ways it is an ideal scenario for brands: they get the value of an influencer with none of the headaches that often occur when working with maintenance-free celebrities and inexperienced teenagers.”
Stays on brand with the company controlling the content
Sometimes when you send products to influencers you hope that they mention them, maybe even post about them or better yet, include them in a YouTube video. Above all, you hope that the dialogue from the influencer is positive and they throw a hashtag or mention somewhere in there too for good measure. With virtual influencers, there is no need to hope as a team behind your brand is in complete control of the content.
The brand can put as many hashtags and positive comments out there as they wish. If it’s coming from the brand itself, does it need to have #ad or #gifted when there has been no money or ‘gifting’ as such handed over? Is this the loophole that all marketers have wished for? An avoidance of the Advertising Standards Authority?
A lot of consumers don’t really care for brands pushing content in their faces promoting their own products and that’s why we have influencers. Just look at LUSH’s decision to quit social – is there no need for the brand itself to be active on these platforms anymore? But what happens when brands create their own influencers and push out content through them? It’s just the brand in disguise really, but does it have a different effect?
Great for the influencer marketing budget
Since these virtual influencers are virtual and not real, they don’t have a bank account waiting to be paid after every collaboration. However, when virtual influencers set up by agencies that have no affiliations to any brands start collaborating – where does the payment go? Does the agency get paid? The team behind the virtual influencer? Should there be any money crossing hands when this influencer is coded-up by some tech wizard?
For a brand to have their own virtual influencer with thousands of followers, they may have to do a lot less influencer out-reach campaigns as they have their own virtual influencer doing the work for them and bringing in sales.
No emotional connection
A lot of influencers earn their following due to being relatable to their audiences. My favourite influencers are the ones that are completely real, let you know how their day is going – bad or good – and probably overshare with things they shouldn’t, like Lewis Capaldi and #PlungerGate. Influencers like @oenone give their opinions on politics, periods and feminism all the while being known as fitness influencers. They are able to connect with their followers, empathise with them and relate. How can a virtual influencer do this?
Virtual influencers showcase their best lives; attending the best events, wearing the best clothes and being artificially perfect looks-wise. Is this, as an audience, what we like to see? Someone with no flaws whatsoever living their best life making the rest of us jealous, all the while being completely imaginary?
Will consumers buy into this form of marketing even though the virtual influencer isn’t a real person? Surely there can’t be a connection on a personal level where micro-influencers perform well as they are seen as more of a ‘friend’ than a celebrity of sorts.
Still a small risk of going rogue
Even though the content and influencer is in complete control of the brand, there is still a human behind the virtual influencer and its Instagram account. And humans, as we all know, make mistakes.
Artist Cameron-James Wilson, the person behind the virtual influencer Shudu said that he has received numerous offers from brands looking to partner with Shudu and are willing to pay big money to do so. But Wilson wants to think carefully about what brands should work with Shudu and where Shudu’s influence is headed. Wilson treats Shudu like a real influencer, and the brand has to be the correct fit for both Shudu and her audience.
However, there is always the possibility of the creator suddenly wanting to use their virtual influencer to voice their own personal opinions on politics or Brexit or anything controversial, which could lead to backlash. Virtual influencers, although not real, are still at the hands (and tongue) of their creator.
Do they really have any influence?
Can these virtual influencers really influence customer buying habits? After all, isn’t that what paid influencers are there to do? How can I know that an outfit that looks good on a virtual influencer will look good on me? The same goes for makeup as virtual influencer Shudu went viral after posting an image wearing Fenty Beauty lipstick.
To me, it seems like these virtual influencers are just a bit of fun and not actually a realistic marketing tactic. I think for brands, they might work quite well as KFC have shown, to make a virtual mascot for their brand and kind of put their brand into the form of a person. Otherwise, I don’t think a virtual influencer has much influence over my personal buying habits, but they do seem to be taking off in Japan. So we will see where it goes.
What does this mean for the future of influencer marketing?
Are we getting rid of real-life content creators? Is this the future for influencer marketing – artificial intelligence? KFC have also recently jumped on the virtual influencer bandwagon, although seemingly to make a joke of it. The food chain has created its own virtual Colonel, with a millennial aesthetic – beard and tattoos in tow.
Can today’s influencers co-exist alongside these virtual influencers who are able to promote brands and make money from doing so? Personally, I can’t really see these virtual influencers making much damage in the influencer world as they wouldn’t be something I’d find myself following and engaging with. There’s a lot of influencers I choose not to follow because their life seems too artificial, so there’s no way following a virtual influencer whose life is perfect is going to make me feel any better about my own life.
But with virtual influencers now on the scene, what’s next? Hover boards, flying cars, holograms in our homes? The future is a scary thing to think about but I’m sure all of the above will be with us very soon.
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