These AI-generated beings are no longer a fad and are keeping their fans hooked – just like a human influencer.
Cristiano Ronaldo. Justin Bieber. Ariana Grande. Apart from being some of the world’s top A-list personalities, they are the three most powerful influencers across all social media platforms. Collectively, they have 1.4 BILLION followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, and that makes them a dream partner of marketers.
Welcome to influencer marketing, a multibillion industry (US$15 billion projected this year) where influencers—from top-tier celebrities and athletes to the wannabees—use their power over dedicated followers to hawk various products from big brands to one of the thousands of Amazon Sellers. While this is no different from your traditional celebrity endorsement, influencer marketing is targeted and more authentic, using acknowledged experts in a niche field as endorsers. And of course, there is the use of social media platforms, instead of just traditional print, TV, or online ads.
You’ve seen them, like TikTok megastar (86.2 million followers) Addison Rae teaming up with American Eagle for a fashion campaign or model Chrissy Teigen (36.7 million followers on Instagram) collaborating with Becca Cosmetics for a new product line. This strategy has grown from just a one-off activity to becoming a critical part of the marketing mix for the brand—with almost 17% of the entire marketing budget being allocated to influencer marketing.
But now imagine if a brand opted for a more innovative approach. What if instead of getting a real-life brand ambassador to connect with their community, they elected for a digitally-created personality to engage with their audience? This is the next wave of influencer marketing. Say hello to virtual influencers.
THE ROBOTS ARE HERE!
Virtual influencers—as its name suggests—are virtual beings specifically created to bring in social media followers and engagement. They are AI-generated characters that mimic humans—the features, personalities, thoughts and even feelings—but controlled entirely by a brand.
This isn’t a new concept at all. One can argue that mascots such as Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger or Cheetos’ Chester the Cheetah were the progenitors of these virtual influencers. In 2003, Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza created Lu Do Magalu to become the face of the brand and its primary endorser on YouTube. Lu has done what any human YouTuber would do: produce unboxing videos, share product reviews, and post updates on her other social media platforms, and in the process amass over 25 million followers across all platforms.
Since that initial foray, there have been other brands that launched their own virtual avatars or studios that have created their own digital models. Lil Miquela is probably the best example of the latter. Created by tech startup Brud, Miquela has been part of the marketing campaigns of luxury brands including Prada and Dior. To date, she has over 3 million Instagram followers (dubbed “Miquelites”) and over 2.5 million TikTok followers and has also launched a music career dropping several singles annually.
Another virtual influencer of note is someone you already know: Barbie. In addition to her primary job of bringing joy to little kids, she’s also a vlogger and podcaster, garnering over 12 million social media followers, including 200,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. And she’s more than just a brand endorser. This Barbie is also socially aware, supporting multiple causes such as the LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter movements.
VIRTUAL VS REAL INFLUENCERS
Despite the excitement offered by virtual influencers, there aren’t too many of them in the market. As of last count there are barely 150 of them and their reach still pales in comparison to real influencers. Compare the top 3 human influencers (Ronaldo, Bieber, and Grande) and their 1.4 billion followers against the 43 million followers of the 3 most popular virtual influencers (Lu, Miquela, and Barbie) – there is still a long way to go in replacing humans.
So why go into it at all? Apart from being a cool, shiny marketing tool, virtual influencers offer inherent advantages over humans. Because they are purposely built, virtual influencers offer brands more control over messaging. They can imbibe specific looks or values to give a more accurate representation of the brand.
Virtual influencers also pose less risk. Whereas influencers have the tendency to do or publish something controversial and gain backlash (or worse, get cancelled), every move of a virtual influencer is controlled and calculated by the programmer.
They also cost less. Lil Miquela charges around US$8,000 to promote to her 3 million followers, while the going rate for an influencer with a million followers would be about US$250,000 per post.
And most importantly—and surprisingly—virtual influencers are more influential than their human counterparts. In a study published by social media analytics firm HypeAuditor, it revealed that “virtual influencers have almost three times the engagement of real influencers” and that “real influencers should make almost four times more Instagram posts to gain the same number of followers as virtual influencers”. Challenging mega influencers (over 1 million followers) may be out of the question for now, but they can certainly give micro (10,000 – 100,000 followers) and macro (100,000 – 1 million followers) a run for their money.
THE FUTURE OF INFLUENCER MARKETING
All these have made virtual influencers more appealing to brands. And many have jumped on the bandwagon. Names such as Samsung, KFC and IKEA have all contracted or built their own virtual influencers to preach their message, attract new followers and engage with their community. And with COVID-19 still raging worldwide, virtual influencers—who are not subject to any physical restrictions—will remain an important marketing tool.
Yet, despite the allure of virtual influencers, issues remain. Questions such as how can a brand create “a human connection” with their community if they use a virtual personality arise. Ethics also come into play when a brand disseminates information using deepfake and AI technology. Where does reality stop and fantasy begin? This has led some to suggest that brands disclose to their followers when they are not interacting with a real person.
Virtual influencers are also guilty of creating a new set of unrealistic beauty standards. While there are digital avatars that have cartoony or anthropomorphic features, most are life-like. It’s bad enough that social media users are constantly exposed to the surgically-enhanced bodies and digitally-altered photos of human influencers, and now comes a new set of digital models with inhumanly perfect features.
However, virtual influencers are here to stay. In a short span of time, they’ve made a strong argument that they are more than just a niche marketing tool and as their popularity and influence grows, they will soon be mainstream. Ultimately it will be up to us whether to engage or ignore them. Because unlike virtual influencers, we humans still have free will and the power to make our own choices.