Virtual Influencers: Hasta la Vista, Humans

Author: Gabriella Speed, Freelance Creative and Brand Strategist

Shudu, the striking supermodel who went viral after wearing Rhianna’s Fenty lipstickImma, the pink-bobbed influencer who just landed an IKEA campaignKnox Frost, the 20 year old health and wellness influencer who is helping the WHO combat Coronavirus.

Apart from agreeable aesthetics and accolades at painfully young ages, what do these individuals have in common?

They only exist in the digital world; they are Virtual Influencers (VIs).

No longer just a trend, VIs are rapidly taking over virtual and real worlds alike as brands try to successfully engage with younger audiences (Gen Z and Mills, obvs). Take Lil Miquela, the first VI to go mainstream and currently boasting 2.8m followers on Instagram. With 15 Spotify singles under her digital belt - she also debuted a new music video at this year’s online-only Lollapalooza festival - she has even fronted Calvin Klein campaigns whilst snogging Bella Hadid.

But what actually is a VI?

Like their human counterparts, VIs aim to engage as large an audience as possible. But unlike human influencers, VI characteristics (from age and gender to tone of voice and aesthetics) are meticulously tailored - by a dedicated team of copywriters, designers and programmers - to perfectly appeal to a particular audience. Spooky.

Despite the unsettling creation process, it seems inevitable that VIs are going to become a major feature of our everyday lives. 

The influencer market is expected to reach $15bn in the coming years. Combine that with predictions from the International Data Corporation which claim that AI spending could surpass £35bn globally, and VIs start to become even more attractive to brands.

Moreover, brands can have a greater degree of control over the timings, frequency and content of VI social posts which drastically reduces the chances of a brand scandal. VIs are also cost-effective as they are cheaper to work with than humans in the long run. They never age or die. They can be anywhere at any time - despite Coronavirus restrictions, VIs have been able to continue work as normal. Just look at Seraphine, the ‘starry eyed songstress’ who recently ‘travelled’ to Shanghai during lockdown to promote her music.

But the most compelling reason for brands to incorporate VIs into their digital marketing strategies?

VIs generate 3x more engagement than human influencers. And, they acquire followers at significantly higher rates.

Awesome. But isn’t this hella counter-intuitive?!

The whole point of influencer marketing is for influencers to be authentic, their genuine self. Only then can they build a trustworthy rapport with their followers. But VIs are fabricated beings. They are a product of applied psychology, social listening and machine learning analysis. Their ‘personalities’ are determined by scriptwriters. For consumers who crave authenticity, trust and transparency above all, it seems odd that VIs are held in such high-esteem.

Yes, it could be assumed that these influencers are universally and automatically known to be virtual. The overt transparency in itself therefore renders the VI authentically fake. Perhaps it is better to be a known, fake robot than a deceptive, perfectly edited human influencer.

Or maybe it is less about authenticity and more about relatability. Just because a VI is fictional doesn’t mean audiences can’t resonate with them. Just think of the film and literary characters with whom consumers foster genuine connections. And one can’t deny that a VI’s aspirational content is eye-catching.

Even so, it seems as though consumers are signing up to be lied to when engaging with VIs. But even if that is the case, that is not a problem in itself. If people want to be swept away by emotive yet fictional VI storylines, then brands are perfectly entitled to do so.

However, it is essential that willing consumers, and only willing consumers, are swept away ethically. They need to know what is happening and agree to take part in it. According to YouGov, 42% of Gen Z and Millennials - the most media-savvy and scrupulous cohort - were not aware that an influencer they were following was not a real person. 

And whilst earlier VIs such as Lil Miquela are easier to spot as not real, it will only become harder and harder to spot a VI amongst humans as CGI and robotic technology develops. Already, VI Yumi (below) performed an extremely realistic skin cleansing tutorial at Cannes Lions last year.

For consumers to be aware that certain influencers are fake and that their ‘lives’ are manufactured, brands (and social media platforms) must build an element of consumer consent into their VI marketing strategies. It could be as simple as applying the #ad mechanic to VI profiles, where verified VIs have green ticks as opposed to blue ones. Or, similar to when Netflix asks if you reaaaaallly want to exit, consumers can be asked if they reaaaaallly want to follow an influencer who isn’t real.

Because once a consumer knows that an influencer is virtual, all the other issues more readily associated with VIs melt away. For example, when a teenager sees Shudu’s impossibly toned physique on Instagram yet knows she is merely a collection of codes, it makes it harder to engage in the serious self-comparison that would normally result in poor mental health and self-esteem.

Or, when a VI like Lil Miquela posts a vlog about being sexually assaulted by a Lyft driver - an abhorrent action for numerous reasons - Lyft as a brand would not experience any backlash as everyone would know the story was fake news. Fabricated by a virtual person.

As VIs are clearly here to stay, more legal and regulatory considerations need to be implemented to ensure consumers are protected. Otherwise, we could be well on our way towards the social media version of The Terminator.

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