Influencer marketing has had its fair share of scandals and flops. Take the classic case of Fyre Festival or the rise of fooling businesses with fake followers.
Some predict the trust is breaking between brand and influencer, others profess this marketing avenue is far from over. But now, we’re seeing a new wave of so-called brand ambassadors to tap into - virtual influencers.
Yes, you heard that right. These computer-generated personas are blowing up online with the introduction of Miquela Sousa in 2016, better known as Lil Miquela on Instagram. As a digital project run by a Los Angeles startup, Brud, she’s paving the way for a new type of online social celebrity.
So, what makes brands buy into this ‘unreal’ influencer trend? We take a look at why users and businesses are trusting CGI over real humans and what this means for social influence in the future.
Bots and Bias in Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing reaps an immense return on investment, if and only if the audience engages. So choosing an influencer to represent your brand is no easy feat. In this day and age, a click of a button can instantly grow an online community where bots have since become the easy go-to to fool businesses with an impressive following.
This is where the question of integrity comes in to play. How can you trust someone you may not know to represent and promote your business? Research, research and more research.
Whilst this may seem easy, it takes time and is unpredictable. Influencers, like the rest of us, are human. Controversial opinions, human error and of course the sensitivity of a sponsored #ad makes for a risky agreement.
Could the answer lie in virtual reality?
Fake It to Make It
To put it simply, virtual influencers can be controlled. They are unbiased, unpaid and can work 24/7. This was clearly demonstrated when China’s Xinhua News decided to use an AI presenter to cover the news 24/7 and work through the night.
Businesses have since clocked on to the potential of buying into the virtual trend. Since the birth of Lil Miquela, she has partnered with various high-profile brands including Calvin Klein, Prada, Highsnobiety and more.
Her popularity is soaring and with that her professional reputation along with it. Additionally, using a virtual influencer is much less of a PR liability than a human influencer is.
Deborah Davis, the founder of NKLS, a company that specialises in virtual and augmented reality, expresses that:
"With a virtual influencer, so much more thought has to be put into the message. It's not just someone with a Twitter stream. It's more carefully constructed and thought through, and therefore can be controlled."
With reduced risk and more opportunity to control the message, it’s no wonder businesses are jumping on the VR bandwagon.
But what about relatability and real connections - can virtual influencers really develop meaningful relationships with a brand’s audience?
Human Connection vs. Virtual Entertainment
People associate social media platforms with reality and real people. After all, that’s who they’re made for. Building a network, interacting with friends and sharing real experiences is what makes social media platforms tick.
But recently, there’s been an uptake in the strive for ultimate transparency. Influencers left, right and centre are continuously being called out for falsifying information or fabricating certain lifestyles. Not to mention, constantly justifying their every move to avoid backlash.
Caroline Calloway, a notable influencer was one to fall into this trap when it was found out most of her personal Instagram content had been written by a ghostwriter. Yikes!
With that said, human influencers are relatable. Going through ups and downs, scandals and successes are what makes people tune in. People see themselves in influencers and ultimately that’s what builds a loyal community - and this doesn’t seem to be dying out any time soon.
On the other hand, virtual influencers represent the future and a new emerging space on social media. The question is whether people are really ready to embrace it, especially when it comes to emotive storytelling. At this point in time, virtual influencers are entertaining, but whether they are truly emotionally influential is up for debate.
Notably, Lil Miquela uploaded a poignant vlog talking about her experience of sexual assault - something, in reality, the virtual influencer hasn’t actually gone through. It is this disconnect which could mark the difference between virtual and real-world influencer impact.
Virtual influencers may get there in time, transforming the influencer space we all know. But will true human connections continue to hinder this from fully coming into fruition? Let us know how you think the influencer realm will look like in the future!
The JA. Team