The pandemic isn’t a problem when you’re computer-generated. – Bloomberg
Influencer marketing is a big business. Though it’s definitely not new, it is tied to the growth of social media making the platforms one of the largest pools of lead generation. Companies tend to use different tools to prove their authenticity, and the best way to do so is to recruit the right ambassadors for your brand: someone who has the respect and authority, and a loyal following. But why hire a celebrity, an Instagram influencer or even an up and coming TikTok creator to market your product when you can create the ideal brand ambassador from scratch?
Over the past few years, brands such as Balmain, Yoox and even KFC decided to give a new form of influencer marketing a go by creating so-called virtual ambassadors of their own and taking humans out of the equation. Many will argue that nothing beats human to human interaction and while that might as well be the case in real life, the stats clearly show that millions of people around the world are taking to Instagram to follow and engage with a new wave of online personalities: virtual influencers.
By definition, virtual influencers or CGI influencers are fictional computer-generated ‘people’ who have the realistic characteristics, features and personalities of humans. CGI influencers not just live a life which is often more interesting than ours, especially with the majority of us still spending most of our time at home but also take part in fashion shows, play live concerts – and earn real money.
While it might be a while before robots become part of our daily life social media is one place where H2R (Human 2 Robot) interaction is evolving at a rapid pace.
At a time when interacting safely with other humans can no longer be taken for granted, the appetite for digital spokespeople is accelerating. Brands are expected to spend as much as $15 billion annually on influencer marketing by 2022, up from $8 billion last year, according to Business Insider Intelligence. A growing slice of that money belongs to virtual influencers.
The pandemic may be bringing virtual influencers to the forefront but the trend’s real driver is Gen Z.
Behind every virtual influencer is a team of creators, either a skilled CGI agency or brands themselves who remain faceless, while growing the virtual influencers’ brand awareness on social media. A strange thing to think about, but virtual influencers lead a life that’s a unique mix of reality and hyper-reality. You will never actually run into them at Coachella or your favorite cafe, yet they wear real clothing brands, drive real cars and get their takeout from the same little corner place you do.
Virtual influencers might not be real, but they do have real business potential. To those with experience of working with influencers and celebrities, the advantages of collaborating with virtual influencers are apparent. On average, they are cheaper to work with in the long run and they offer the brand full control over the narrative. They can be anywhere at any time and their personalities can be altered to completely align with your brand message. Why fly out influencers to far-flung locations and hope for a few decent snaps with the appropriate hashtag when you can show off your product to your target audience in the best possible light while also saving time and money.
CGI influencers may not be as relatable as real humans are, but despite being pure programmed fantasy their computer-generated lives are as believable and relatable as picture-perfect snaps and reels we’re seeing from their human counterparts. The audience is well aware that no one’s life is as flawless as it looks on social media, and virtual influencers sometimes present a more realistic alternative to the heavily staged lives of real influencers.
Recent research conducted by UK’s Mindshare Futures revealed that over a third of users between the ages of 18 and 34 follow profiles on social media that they know aren’t real. The research also found that 54% of all UK consumers find virtual entities appealing on some level, rising to 70% for those who dwell in tech.
Globally, the influencer market is a billion-dollar industry with some very ambitious predictions suggesting it could rise to $15bn in the next couple of years. Virtual influencers own a very small part of that landscape. On YouTube, virtual influencers number a little over 5,000 with about 200 of them dominating Instagram and TikTok.
This phenomenon began in 2016, when Lil Miquela, a 19-year-old American influencer on all screens and exploded the counters on Instagram. Since then the company called Brud had established partnerships with numerous brands, and going so far as having Lil Miquela star in fashion adverts alongside the supermodel Bella Hadid and artist Steve Aoki. But not all virtual characters are built to be social media influencers. More and more brands are presenting virtual customer assistants. By creating a character, brands have the opportunity to give the audience a chance to speak to their very own brand ambassador face-to-face about their products and services.
We won’t be taking the tube with robots anytime soon but when it comes to our interactions with brands online, 90% of the people who interacted with virtual assistants claim they got the answer they wanted and provided a much higher positive customer satisfaction rating.
CGI influencers are not for everyone, or at least not yet. While it’s true their image and messaging can easily be altered to fit your brand’s campaign it’s still crucial to identify your target audience and the right influencers who speak to your potential customers. High engagement and reach are great but whether your influencer is real or not, it’s important to make sure they are interacting with the people you do want to reach in the first place.
While novelty and the unprecedented situation we’re in play a major role in the recent rise of virtual influencers, it’s also worth mentioning that just like with everything else in the digital landscape, as they become more commonplace, they’ll lose some of that initial interest.
If you think about it there’s not a big difference between Lil Miquela and Alexa or Siri, besides her strong social media presence. To date, social media has largely been the domain of real humans being fake and creating idealized fully virtual identities to promote and sell products to real humans feels like a logical step. In the face of this increased competition, real influencers have no choice but to offer higher quality content and find a way to engage with their following in new and creative ways and build loyalty.
At the moment virtual influencers present a high-risk high-reward approach but are are you ready to take the leap?