One interesting development in influencer marketing which is likely to create some buzz in the coming months is the introduction of virtual influencers!
Thats right! The influencer industry is already a buzz with both positive and negative opinions on the potential of this new type of CGI generated influencer.
Fast-paced’ is a great term to describe the speed at which influencer marketing moves. With its foundations built on the ever-changing and increasingly complex social media platforms, it can be tricky to keep up with the who’s who and what’s what in the influencer marketing space.
But what are virtual influencers and what could they mean for the future of influencer marketing, the wider marketing space and us as consumers?
Virtual Influencers: What are they?
Let’s start by getting a handle what we actually mean by the term ‘virtual influencer’.
With this being such a new and explosive concept, there seems to be no official and agreed definition of a virtual influencer. However, the general concept of the term could be explained in the following way:
“A virtual influencer is a computer-generated human representation which plays the role of what we would ordinarily recognise as a social media influencer.”
For example, where we may be used to seeing our favourite influencers creating high-quality content and promoting brands in their niche. Virtual influencers will work in a very similar way, but instead of an actual human, a Sims-like virtual human will be the subject of that content and those promotions.
The most current and famous example of this would be @lilmiquela.
Miquela was the first widely recognised virtual influencer, being launched out of nowhere in April 2016. Since then she has built her influencer profile by representing fashion brands and even producing music.
What does it mean for the influencer industry?
At first sight, the concept of virtual influencers can be immensely exciting and scary at the same time. Can virtual humans really have an everlasting impact and influence over trends and buying decisions? Many assume this is just a short-lived gimmick…but what does it really mean?
The fact that virtual influencers have already been met with so much buzz, both good and bad, shows that they have the ability to generate strong emotions from humans. This goes some of the way to showing that they could genuinely influence us in one way or another.
After all, whether it is desire or excitement around a product or feelings of guilt or concern around a social issue, real influence is the ability to impact the emotions of humans.
So, virtual influencers are certainly capable of stirring emotion. But more important, is whether we will ever truly trust their opinions in their specific niche.
When it comes to the likes of Miquela, trust may not be as important. When promoting an aesthetical product such as fashion, virtual influencers can act more from a space of representation that recommendation.
Much like you may not ‘trust’ a fashion model, but if the clothes look good then you would consider buying them.
But what about when it comes to areas where trust is paramount. For example, would we trust a virtual influencer who makes a recommendation on the sound quality of a pair of headphones or the taste and quality of food at a specific restaurant?
Only time will truly tell. However, as consumer trust in ordinary social media influencers begins to dip, we need to remember two things:
- Often influencers make recommendations based purely on financial gain rather than genuine advocacy.
- Even when recommendations are made on genuine advocacy, that advocacy is based on personal opinion.
It is possible then that virtual influencers will be able to make recommendations based on data rather than opinion, which may actually better meet our needs.
For example, there is a possibility that virtual influencer account owners could analyse audience data and make personalised recommendations based on their findings.
In addition, virtual influencers offer a huge opportunity for brands. Where traditional influencers present human restraints and the ability to miss the brief, virtual influencers provide a more reliable and consistent content producer. This in turn will allow the influencers to meet platform requirements such as meeting best practices in line with the Instagram algorithms.
Are virtual influencers Good or Bad?
So, are virtual influencers going to be a good or a bad thing for marketing?
At the end of the day, we are likely to see the same issues with virtual influencers as we are seeing in the current influencer marketing space.
We will see virtual influencer accounts which are run by ethical and long-term thinkers providing quality content and expert recommendations. These accounts could take us into the next age of influencer marketing, with the potential to deliver data-driven recommendations and even get more personalised with content.
However, we will also see many account owners being financially driven, using dubious methods in an attempt to leverage follower counts to their benefit. At this early stage of virtual influencer adoption, we should be seeking to put in place best practices to limit this sort of activity as we move into a new age of influence.
“The question about trust and V.Is is a question about humans. Do you trust or should you trust humans? Tech isn’t good or bad, its tech, it’s the humans that use them that determine if it is good…or bad. But, what all tech needs is accountability, inbuilt ethics and I believe regulation […] It’s why I created a Virtual Human code of ethics which says all V.Is should be water marked so we know who owns them and their motivations.
And we need to know if they are the representative of a company, individual or creator. Clarity and accountability is everything in the Virtual world. ” – Dudley Nevill-Spencer. Founder, Virtual Influencer Agency.
We can see that virtual influencers offer an exciting opportunity in the social media marketing space. All businesses that want to future proof themselves should be keeping a close eye on this new tool. Early adopters are likely to find the biggest benefits from the novelty of virtual influencers.