Virtual Influencers: A New Face of Influencer Marketing

Virtual influencers have dominated the headlines for a few months so you probably have heard about them. But there’s one big question you may be wondering… Are they a fad or are they here to stay?

The owners of the CGI influencers have brought a new layer of innovation to the influencer marketing industry. And they are already working with a range of global brands to promote and endorse products. In short, a virtual influencer is just like any other social media influencer. There’s just one difference – these influencers are not human!

In fact, virtual influencers are CGI – computer generated images. What’s more, their personas are computerised too. Each relies on a sophisticated computer algorithm, that has been programmed to function as a next-gen social media influencer.

So, virtual influencers are essentially bots designed to masquerade as an influencer – they’re not ‘real’, human influencers. But don’t be mistaken – these CGI characters are actually becoming some of the world’s biggest, most well-known – and best paid social media stars.

But how do these virtual influencers work in reality? What makes their persona, and their social media content, so appealing to consumers? And most importantly – why are so many brands now opting to work with these virtual influencers?

 

 

What Are Virtual Influencers?

To recap, virtual influencers are CGIs that utilise algorithms. They are typically developed by artificial intelligence and robotics firms. For instance, various start-up companies have reportedly been backed financially by a number of venture capital firms. These companies specialise in both AI and robotics. 

One of the first developed, and world’s best-known virtual influencers is Lil Miquela. Lil Miquela is a CGI character who appears as a young, female DJ and model from California. The company developed her persona and then gave her a social media presence, which has ultimately led to Lil Miquela becoming one of the world’s most popular influencers. She’s particularly popular among young people, like Generation Z – even though she’s actually a character!

And she’s even got a song on Spotify! Enjoy it here.

Other virtual influencers that have been developed include Ronnie Blawko, a male influencer, and Bermuda, another young female – and Lil Miquela’s nemesis.

But they are not the only virtual influencers. Take Cameron-James Wilson, for instance. Wilson’s a photographer by trade. But in recent years, he’s begun to work with CGIs, too. This resulted in the creation of Shudu – a CGI who appears as a female fashion model, and whose Instagram account is also hugely popular. Shudu is even known as the first ‘digital’ supermodel!

 

virtual influencers

 

Virtual Influencers in Influencer Marketing

As you can see, these virtual influencers may just be CGI – but that doesn’t prevent them from growing huge followings on social media, just like any other influencer. And – like other influencers – this means that virtual influencers also promote and endorse brands on their social media.

Shudu’s already got several brand collaborations under her belt. She models both beauty products (like Rihanna’s ‘Fenty’ cosmetics line) and fashion brands (such as Semhal Nasreddin’s SOULSKY clothing line). So, it seems like Shudu’s really dominating the market – but don’t worry. Shudu’s counterparts, the other virtual influencers are not missing out on any of the business deals. Lil Miquela, for instance, models clothing from designer brands like Prada, Kenzo and Coach on her Instagram.

It’s therefore clear that virtual influencers are already working closely with a number of global brands. But it remains unknown how far these collaborations mirror traditional influencer marketing campaigns. 

Having said that, the teams behind virtual influencers are making a certain amount of profit. For instance, Lil Miquela recently collaborated with the news site Highsnobiety on an $80 patterned shirt. Miquela’s team received a cut of the profits earned from Miquela’s own online shop. However, for now, it remains unclear whether virtual influencer creators will see larger profits in the future…

 

 

The Ethics of Virtual Influencers

Whether money is being exchanged or not, it’s clear that these CGIs have a significant amount of influence over their followers – and that their teams are using this influence to promote brands and products. But precisely because of this, there’s understandably some controversy around the presence of virtual influencers on social media.

Firstly, many people are questioning how virtual influencers can endorse products when they cannot actually try them. This makes a mockery of the very foundations that influencer marketing is built upon. After all, consumers respond to influencer marketing because they trust their experience and reviews – something robots cannot replicate! For this reason, virtual influencers run the risk of eroding the trusting relationship between consumers, brands and influencers share.

At the moment it is pretty clear that these influencers are CGIs. However, if it ever becomes unclear whether a virtual influencer is human or not, it could cause major issues. It should be clear to consumers that these virtual influencers are not real: they’re not humans reviewing products. They’re simply online mannequins modelling brands. This view has even been echoed by a number of top academics. For example, Olivier Toubia, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School, says ‘it should be clear who is real and who is not real.’

As we’ve outlined here, it’s simply vital that brands are upfront about the use and role of virtual influencers in their campaigns. When brands do this, they can continue to enjoy a trusting relationship with consumers – whilst reaping the benefits of their virtual influencer marketing campaign.

 

 

The Benefits of Virtual Influencers

So, what are these benefits? How can virtual influencers make your life easier, when it comes to finding new ways to reach consumers?

The answer might surprise you! After all, in some ways, working with virtual influencers and robots might seem overly complicated. But in reality, in many ways, launching a campaign with a virtual influencer might be pretty simple!

On the one hand, it can be very easy to meet your campaign’s goal when you collaborate with a virtual influencer. Why? Because when brands work with virtual influencers, there are no limits. CGIs are much easier to direct than people. So, with computer images, you can achieve whatever shot or angle your campaign requires. Therefore, providing you make this clear to the virtual influencer’s team, you can design your campaign exactly how you want it.

Despite this, you lose the personal touch and built trust that comes from a human influencer, which is one of the most valuable factors in influencer marketing. 

 

 

Reach Consumers with Virtual Influencers

It’s easy to see why brands are increasingly opting to work with virtual influencers. Their current CGI status of certain characters offers brands a lot of PR coverage and social media awareness. The owner of Lil Miquela has grown over 1.3M followers and is attracting the interest of brands already. 

Despite this, the coverage may only last a small period of time. One reason people are so interested is that of shock value and sheer fascination of virtual influencers – Something that will fade.

On the other hand, as we briefly mentioned earlier, CGIs like Lil Miquela are particularly popular among younger social media users, including members of Generation Z   – and there is a good reason for this. Gen Z is the generation that have grown up with CGI and social media. Therefore, they don’t bat an eyelid at the presence of virtual influencers. Instead, they’re likely to be more open to the idea that these CGIs are just the same as their other favourite influencers.

For this reason, in particular, certain brands are becoming equally open to the idea of virtual influencers. CGI or not, many brands are quickly learning that it’s these influencers who will help them to reach younger generations of consumers.  Marissa Rosenblum, VP of content at Barneys New York said as much when she opted to collaborate with Lil Miquela on a recent campaign. For Barneys, the collaboration with Miquela wasn’t about reaching out to virtual influencers in particular. The brand was simply looking to reach Miquela’s audience.

Sometimes, it really is that simple. Working with CGIs has its benefits for the brands – You’re able to reach your thousands to millions of your target audience. In contrast, in terms of achieving acquisitions, you’re better off opting for ‘traditional’ human influencers.

 

The Future of Virtual Influencers

The rise of virtual influencers in influencer marketing will bring about both new challenges and new opportunities.

As we’ve stressed today, brands doubtlessly need to be cautious when embarking on virtual influencer campaigns. In order to maintain trusting relationships with consumers, and ensure a campaign’s overall success, it’s vital that virtual influencer campaigns remain transparent and ethical.

Having said that, when this balance is achieved, brands can really gain positive attention from certain audiences! But in our opinion, we cannot see this trend translating to audiences of many industries outside of the likes of gaming. For example, it is difficult to imagine that the general audience of fashion influencers will opt to follow a host of computer-generated influencers in oppose to real human influencers.

Computer-generated influencers are definitely more suited for specific audiences – particularly younger generations and those who are interested in animation. People who follow computer-generated influencers tend to have an interest in gaming and the likes of anime. And others are following because of the sheer fascination – something that we expect to fade in the near future.

If you’re interested in learning about more ways to reach consumers on social media, get in touch with us at PMYB today – and don’t forget to stay up to date with our blog for all the latest news and views in influencer marketing.

 

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