By now, most of us are used to the idea of influencer marketing. After all, this marketing method has proven itself to be very effective at connecting with customers. So much so, in fact, that influencer marketing has reduced the need for traditional online ads. In some ways, the influencer trend demonstrates what sales professionals always knew – people buy from people they know, like and trust. Or, at the very least, relationships matter.
However, as with several other industries over the last year, marketing is undergoing an evolution. AI, once considered a tool that would only enhance productivity, is now replacing many of the people who once did the heavy lifting. Part of this evolution includes virtual influencers. In this article, I’ll explain what you need to know.
What is Influencer Marketing, and What is Its Relationship with AI and Virtual Influencers?
Marketing has taken many forms over the years, from crude advertisements scribbled on scrap paper to sponsored news publications and Superbowl ads. In the last 25 or 30 years, internet marketing and its more recent iterations of digital and social media marketing have become a major source of revenue and leads for most business.
However, up until the last decade or so, most marketing messages came from the brands themselves. The ability of people to easily create and publish content independently has led to a further evolution in marketing. Now, brands can ask end users to help them sell products.
These new abilities are the backbone of influencer marketing.
Defining Influencer Marketing
Influencer marketing is a form of marketing that leverages the power of social media users, sometimes called influencers because of their large following base, who have a large and engaged audience, to promote a brand or product through authentic and relatable content.
One reason that influencer marketing is so effective is that people relate to other humans better than they do to brands. Furthermore, people trust social media influencers in part because of their “authenticity.” In other words, influencers speak honestly because their overall paycheck doesn’t depend on one particular company. Even if they are compensated for an endorsement, influencers are free to support what they think is best because they are independent professionals.
The emergence of virtual influencers
The rise of virtual influencers can be attributed to the increasing demand for unique and engaging content in the digital age, as these computer-generated personalities offer brands a new and innovative way to connect with their target audience. Plus, virtual influencers don’t have the independence to pick and choose what they like in the way that human influencers can. Like all AI, they are trained on certain data and can only operate within it.
With that said, virtual influencers must have the ability to connect with people. This has been a challenge in the computing world for a long time, but “bots” have gotten much better at this aspect of humanlike behavior.
Artificial intelligence and its role in creating virtual influencers
AI plays a crucial role in the creation of virtual influencers by utilizing advanced algorithms and machine-learning techniques to generate realistic and interactive digital personas. These personalities can adapt and respond to various marketing needs and audience preferences.
At the same time, they need a certain amount of input from operators if they are to remain effective. For instance, people must keep the AI informed of certain developments, such as situations in the economy or high inflation, so the bot can stay relevant in their dialogue.
For several years now, chatbots and other less sophisticated forms of AI have helped brands sell goods and services. They’ve also helped improve customer service by eliminating most of the wait time to communicate with a live operator. In many cases, the chatbot can answer a customer’s questions independently so that they don’t need to interact with a live employee at all.
In many ways, virtual influencers are a logical progression from the same idea because they help drive sales.
What Exactly Are Virtual Influencers?
Before I can talk about the benefits of virtual influencers or even give examples, it’s important to define some terms. The idea of machines having influence over human behavior is something that philosophers and ethicists have discussed at length over the last 30 years. However, this issue is becoming a reality, and we need to understand how to navigate the changes.
Definition and characteristics of virtual influencers
Virtual influencers are entirely computer-generated, enabling their creators to have complete control over their appearance, personality, and actions without the limitations and unpredictability of human influencers. For instance, a virtual influencer cannot “go rogue” and endorse a competing product. Similarly, they can’t independently cause controversy by getting arrested or embarrassing themselves in public.
Just like other AI-based tools, these online personas are predetermined. However, they are more sophisticated because they come with pictures and personalities. Virtual influencers are designed using advanced 3D modeling and animation techniques, which allow for highly realistic and engaging visuals that attract attention and boost their online presence. Often, the people who control these influencers don’t even need to create content by hand. They just make sure that everything runs smoothly.
Virtual influencers often have detailed backstories and unique personalities, enabling them to connect with audiences on a deeper level, similar to how human influencers develop their personal brands. The personalities include virtual characters and digital avatars. Therefore, followers will see the influencer’s “face” and can even follow its “adventures.”
Comparison between virtual and human influencers
While human influencers have real-life experiences and can provide genuine, authentic content, virtual influencers are not limited by physical constraints and can be tailored to fit any desired persona or marketing strategy.
Practically speaking, the made-to-order status of a virtual influencer means that it can appeal to a target demographic more or less perfectly. For instance, if a niche group likes the “stay-at-home mom” lifestyle, then the virtual influencer can match this. She would cook, clean, and take kids to baseball practice all the time and not work.
By contrast, human influencers often have to balance their personal lives with their online presence, which can lead to burnout or scandals. In the SAH mom example, the influencer might have to get a part-time job to help pay rising living expenses. Here, she would fail to follow the lifestyle as closely.
Here’s another example. After the recent Bud Light and Dylan Mulvaney scandal, Mulvaney essentially retreated into the background. When she resurfaced, her persona was much different from the glamorous influencer of the pre-Bud Light days. On the other hand, a virtual influencer with an LGBTQ persona will always have that. The brand can’t control a backlash, but it can minimize risk in other ways.
With that said, humans continue to have a role in virtual influencers’ “lives.” Brand managers can make changes to reflect current trends, add inputs for new product launches, and more. In other words, the “bot” is always under human control on some level.
Clearly, virtual influencers aren’t the same as their human counterparts. For instance, they won’t deal with funerals or weddings. Similarly, AI-created characters don’t lose their day jobs or get into virtual arguments with other influencers. And as I mentioned before, this eliminates the possibility of an influencer embarrassing their brand (unless the operator makes a mistake).
Despite being different from humans, digital influencers have a distinct role in the influencer marketing space.
Content creation and brand partnerships
Virtual influencers can be easily tailored to fit any brand’s aesthetic or campaign theme, making them an attractive option for marketers looking to create unique and memorable content. At the same time, AI can save marketers a lot of time by coming up with ideas that always fit the mold. You don’t even need people to connect individually with followers.
While working with human influencers can be expensive and time-consuming, virtual influencers can be more affordable and efficient, as their content can be produced and updated quickly without the need for travel, scheduling, or other logistical concerns. Similarly, you don’t need to pay a virtual influencer for its work, either through per-post fees or commissions. All you need is the time and software to create and manage the personality.
Finally, flexibility and adaptability are major strengths of virtual influencers. Because you don’t have to worry about their individual values or beliefs, you won’t deal with “I can’t do that, bug someone else.” Similarly, if your business pivots or there’s an unexpected event like a natural disaster, you only need to make some adjustments to the AI. This means you have nearly endless possibilities for adaptation. Best of all, these changes can happen much faster than they would with even the most flexible human influencer.
Further Reading: How Much Does Influencer Marketing Cost Today?
Audience engagement and online presence
Virtual influencers often generate curiosity and interest due to their cutting-edge technology and striking visuals, leading to increased engagement and a strong online presence. If nothing else, people like to see what the character comes up with next. AI-generated artwork and edited photographs are as much a cutting-edge technology as text-generating AI right now. Plus, some of the graphics are stunning to look at. People will often come for the content and stay for the personality.
Virtual influencers can maintain a consistent online presence and content schedule, as they are not affected by personal issues, fatigue, or other factors that may impact human influencers. This consistency can help build a loyal and engaged audience. Of course, it would be interesting to see if human followers make comments (or think to themselves) about the fact that these influencers appear to never sleep or take a vacation.
Naturally, human influencers have some ways to ensure that they post regularly, such as with social media scheduling apps. However, they still get tired, and manually responding to comments from fans can still take time. When you consider that people love getting quick responses, it’s easy to see why not being bound to schedules can give virtual influencers an advantage.
Interactive campaigns and personalized experiences
Virtual influencers can be integrated into interactive campaigns, such as augmented reality experiences or gamified marketing strategies, providing audiences with immersive and engaging content that fosters a deeper connection with the brand.
For instance, they can run contests or offer the opportunity to interact with the influencer personally (like adding your picture to a photo of the influencer). While contests are common with human influencers, augmented reality would likely be too time-consuming for them to implement at scale.
Furthermore, virtual influencers can be programmed to interact with audiences in a personalized manner, such as responding to individual comments or participating in live chats, creating a more authentic and memorable experience for users. Again, humans can do some level of personalization, but doing so can be very time-consuming. Many content creators find that once their account starts making money, it quickly becomes a full-time job.
Of course, there’s another potential opportunity for virtual influencers to customize. While humans don’t generally have time to learn about their audiences, AI may be able to pull information on someone from other sources, such as their browsing history. This allows a virtual influencer to more convincingly meet its audience where they are.
Finally, virtual influencers pave the way for immersive storytelling, where people can go on virtual adventures. Maybe the influencer can “take” people to their “hometown” and see famous sights. Or, they could explore an alternative reality where shared ideals are practiced and respected. In this context, it makes sense that people would buy real-life products that fit in with the AR fantasy.
10 Examples of Successful Virtual Influencers
No discussion of virtual influencers would be complete without describing some of the more famous ones. While this area of influencer marketing is still somewhat niche, people are engaging with virtual personalities more often. If we are to work in this area successfully, then we need to learn the secrets to their success.
With that in mind, here are some of the most successful virtual influencers.
She is the most famous virtual influencer with millions of followers on Instagram. Since her debut in 2016, she is a 19-year-old Brazilian-American model, singer, and activist. For example, Miquela speaks out on social justice issues, which may be somewhat risky in the current “anti-woke” client.
Over the years, her character has had several changes. For instance, she had a boyfriend for a while and announced their “breakup” on Instagram. CGI “pictures” of Lil Miquela look human, though she also uses filters occasionally.
As a fashion-forward influencer, Miquela has worked with several high-profile fashion brands. Examples include Calvin Klein and Prada. These are consistent with her music career and social justice emphasis.
She is a virtual influencer created by Brazilian retail company Magazine Luiza (AKA Magalu) The flagship brand, Magazine Luiza, sells a variety of household goods from cookware and gadgets to TVs and mattresses. In other words, it’s similar to Sears or another tech-heavy department store. Because of this, it has grown to become the largest retailer in Brazil.
Lu do Magalu is known for her cheerful personality and her love for technology and gadgets. Her persona started in 2003, when she was created as the voice of Magalu’s e-commerce site. Over time, this persona has evolved into a character that not only runs an Instagram account but also appears in TV shows and other forums. In that sense, she’s larger than life.
Guggimon, part of the duo Guggimon and Janky, is a computer-generated rabbit figure. He is a virtual influencer with a gothic and punk-inspired style. He is known for his dark humor and his love for horror movies. The major way in which he gained influence was through videos and similar content.
Niche-wise, Guggimon appeals to the artistic community, particularly goths. This is a particular subset of fashion that likes everything dark, which makes sense when you consider Guggimon’s humor. According to his profile, his interests include toys and handbags, both of which provide ample collaboration opportunities.
He is a virtual influencer with a futuristic and cyberpunk-inspired style. He is known for his love for technology and his passion for music. Knox is based in Atlanta and chronicles his life through the world of virtual life. Interestingly, he doesn’t know he’s a robot. Not officially.
Knox’ most famous collab over the last several years was working with the WHO and CDC. He helped spread awareness about how the disease is transmitted and what people can do to help slow the spread. This was especially effective because Knox Frost’s virtual persona is as a young, urban minority. When you consider that COVID spread especially fast in those communities, working with Knox was a good call.
Imma is a virtual influencer from Japan, where her name means “now.” She is known for her cute and bubbly personality and her love for fashion and beauty. So much so that Imma appears in magazines and other publications. This is especially significant when you consider that Japanese culture is more comfortable with robots and virtual characters than many other advanced societies. Nonetheless, Imma is the first Japanese virtual influencer, automatically making her a trailblazer.
Collaboration-wise, Imma has worked with many fashion and e-commerce brands. For instance, she’s worked with Amazon, Calvin Klein, Valentino, and Dior. She’s even worked with Porsche, demonstrating she’s a gal that enjoys the finer things in life.
Bermuda is a virtual influencer with a curvy body and a sassy personality. She is known for her love for fashion and her outspoken opinions on social issues. Most of Bermuda’s content features a glamorous woman who loves fancy accessories. She also showcases her Mercedes van, which she says makes her feel like a queen. Supposedly, she used to be a Trump supporter, which is probably why Bermuda hasn’t posted in a couple of years.
Shudu is a virtual influencer with a dark skin tone and stunning beauty. She is known for her fashion-forward style and her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. This has become especially important over the last decade, especially as minority and third-world countries have seen a rising professional class. With this development, people with darker skin tones have more money to spend on fashion and beauty, among other things.
Shudu’s backstory is that she’s a supermodel from South Africa. You can find her modeling all sorts of fashions, from traditional African design to Western fashion houses like Prada and makeup companies like Shiseido.
Any is unique because she is a completely animated cartoon character. Rather than trying to look realistic or taking the form of a toy, Any is like vintage Looney Tunes or anime with a twist. She first appeared in Brazil in 2015, and has an expanded presence on Instagram and YouTube. Her influence has grown to the point that she has her own show on Cartoon Network.
However, Any Malu is not your typical cartoon character. Rather, she has a very quirky personality that endears her to her fans. And if a brand wants to collaborate with Any Malu, it should consider her love for art and her unique sense of fashion. This is especially important for brands with a suitably quirky brand voice.
Kizuna AI is a virtual influencer from Japan. She is known for her cute and energetic personality and her love for video games and technology. Style-wise, she is a classic anime character but has a more humanlike personality. In keeping with the Japanese acceptance of AI and technology, Kizuna is the first computer-generated YouTuber. Her content is produced primarily in Japanese, though she has enough bilingual followers that you can get English translations. You can also find Kizuna on the Chinese Internet.
Virtual Influencer from Lisbon, Portugal. Nobody Sausage is a cheerful animated sausage star of social media videos and comical commercials. The sausage is best known for its dance videos on TikTok, and the animation style is very basic. However, Nobody Sausage is also known for having given “interviews” that help build its personality and influence.
3 Case Studies of the Impact of Virtual Influencers on Influencer Marketing
Although brands and media companies will always try something once to see if it works, they won’t continue to invest on Ineffective advertising methods. The fact that virtual influencers are so popular indicates that they are effective for brands and enjoyable for humans. Let’s look at some examples of how this works in real life.
Lil Miquela is a computer-generated virtual influencer created by Brud, an LA-based technology company. Her appearance is humanlike, and she has a significant appeal in the Latin American community here in the US.
With millions of followers on Instagram, she has collaborated with several high-profile brands like Prada, Calvin Klein, and Samsung. In 2018, Lil Miquela was featured in a controversial Calvin Klein advertisement with supermodel Bella Hadid, which generated significant buzz and conversation around the use of virtual influencers in marketing campaigns.
Of course, for the Calvin Klein collaboration, Lil Miquela had a human partner. But this is not usually the case, especially considering that she has her own fans. Nonetheless, Collaborations with a clearly virtual influencer are much more like a fancy, technologically-savvy commercial than through influencer marketing.
Shudu Gram is a digital supermodel created by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. She has classic African features and very dark skin, which is consistent with her South African persona. This makes her an ideal influencer for that section of the population, both in Africa and abroad.
As the world’s first digital supermodel, Shudu has attracted attention from major fashion brands like Balmain and Fenty Beauty. In 2018, Shudu was featured in a campaign for the luxury fashion brand Balmain, which helped establish her as a legitimate fashion influencer and demonstrated the potential of virtual influencers in high-fashion marketing.
Imma is a Japanese virtual influencer created by the Tokyo-based company ModelingCafe. Despite being from Japan, she has fans from all over the world, including anime enthusiasts.
With a unique sense of style and a strong presence on Instagram, Imma has collaborated with brands like Porsche, Valentino, and Dior. In 2020, Imma was featured in a campaign for Porsche, where she was seen driving the Taycan, the brand’s first all-electric sports car.
The campaign showcased the potential of virtual influencers in promoting luxury products and reaching new audiences. Of course, there were certain limitations because Imma can’t do certain things that humans can, such as actually driving the Porsche. Instead, the pictures had to be produced digitally.
The Future of Virtual Influencers and Influencer Marketing
Although there have been Virtual Influencers for several years now, the topic is still relatively controversial. There are both practical and ethical concerns connected to virtual personalities that media companies and marketers still haven’t worked through fully. At the same time, evidence indicates that engaging with these influencers is effective. The future of influencer marketing will depend somewhat on how corporations and governments navigate emerging realities.
Potential challenges and ethical concerns
The rise of virtual influencers raises questions about authenticity and the potential for manipulation, as audiences may have difficulty discerning between genuine human experiences and computer-generated content, leading to concerns about trust and transparency.
Fortunately, some of the virtual influencers are clearly fake, and in these cases, it’s relatively simple for people to realize that it is a corporate entity controlling the personality. In some cases like Lu do Magalu, the character was developed to buy a retailer or brand and primarily focuses on featuring items for sale. These personalities are clue literally just fancy commercials.
Something else I noticed was that several characters we mentioned above indicated on their Instagram profiles that they are AI or virtual characters. Once again, there’s labeling involved. It will be interesting to see how regulators and businesses draw the line between genuine influencers and traditional advertisements with modern technology.
Further Reading: The Top 15 Influencer Marketplaces for Your Next Influencer Campaign
The role of artificial intelligence in shaping the future of influencer marketing
AI-driven algorithms and data analysis can help identify and predict trends, enabling virtual influencers to stay ahead of the curve and create highly relevant and engaging content that appeals to their target audience. This is true both for virtual influencers and for their human counterparts. Truthfully, AI is everywhere in the marketing world because various AI tools have become a major part of marketing practice. In fact, I wrote an ebook on the role of ai in influencer marketing which eventually became the final chapter of The Age of Influence. You can download the ebook here.
You can thus argue that AI influencers are the next part of the evolution. However, you have to wonder if virtual influencers, when used in a broader context, will lose a significant portion of their advantage due to the loss of authenticity and true human-to-human connections.
The Impact of AI on the Creation and Management of Virtual Influencers
AI can analyze audience preferences and behavior, allowing virtual influencers to optimize their content and strategy to maximize engagement and reach. In other words, AI takes much of the guesswork out of customer targeting. This is one reason why it is so effective.
Similarly, AI-powered CGI and motion capture can create increasingly realistic and expressive virtual influencers, resulting in more authentic and relatable digital personas. Some of the virtual influencers I mentioned earlier in the article look very realistic. However, they aren’t completely lifelike yet, and some other examples made no attempt at seeming real because of their cartoon character status.
AI can be used to create immersive and interactive experiences for audiences, integrating virtual influencers into AR and VR environments, and providing new avenues for marketing and storytelling. These are cutting-edge technologies, and marketers aren’t yet certain how much effect they will have on advertising. The relatively poor uptake of virtual reality technologies from Meta and other companies over the last couple of years gives us an opportunity to learn about the pitfalls of new technology and people’s tolerance for having experiences that may not be genuine.
With that said, some less demanding AI-based technologies like augmented reality are doing relatively well. And, people have fun with AI characters, as we can see through the influencers discussed above. People seem to enjoy these things, but only in moderation. Bombardment may produce a backlash.
Opportunities for growth and collaboration between human and virtual influencers
By combining the strengths of both human and virtual influencers, brands can create unique and innovative campaigns that leverage the authenticity of real-life personalities with the flexibility and technological capabilities of virtual characters, resulting in a more diverse and engaging influencer landscape.
On the one hand, virtual influencers are great for feeding fantasies and exploring a world where ideals are reality. Here, people can have fun thinking about what is possible, while also recognizing that their current experience is not with a real person. On the other hand, Virtual Influencers lack a degree of authenticity, because they only do certain things because paid professionals have them do it. When the novelty of Virtual Influencers wears off, there’s a chance these characters will lose a measure of effectiveness.
Another phenomenon worth examining is quite virtual and human influencers work together. The Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid collaboration was controversial. But that may not be as true in the future. Because the human influencer has a right to decline the assignment. By working with the virtual influencer, they can expand their reach and give the virtual influencers followers a treat. Over time, this approach may prove very effective.
In a world where more content and characters are computer-generated, it’s unsurprising that virtual influencers are taking root on social media. In fact, you might even argue that using bots to influence human behavior is inevitable. However, it’s important to remember that there are legal and ethical considerations behind Leveraging these powerful tools. As technology evolves and improves, ethical boundaries will become more clear. In the meantime, it’s best to make sure your brand constituency would enjoy interacting with virtual influencers before signing up for a collaboration.
Hero Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
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