This year saw the beginnings of an evolution in the marketing industry. Despite speculation of an inevitable plateauing of influencer market, demand continues to grow. A report carried out by the World Federation of Advertisers found that 65% of marketers said they were looking to increase their use of influencers within the next 12 months. This is despite sponsored content posts holding a hefty price tag; David Beckham reportedly earns upwards of £228,000 per sponsored post and Kylie Jenner, £768,200.

The rise of the machines

In early 2016, when 19-year-old Brazilian-Spanish virtual influencer known as Lil Miquela first started posting on Instagram, a new type of computer-generated influencer began to emerge. Lil Miquela’s creator/s remain anonymous but another virtual influencer, Shudu, who calls herself the world’s first digital supermodel, was created by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson in 2017. Brands including Prada, Balmain, Fenty, and Chanel have all tapped into the thousands of new followers the ‘females’ garner daily to promote their own brands. Miquela recently took over Prada’s Instagram account during their autumn-winter catwalk show. Similarly, an Instagram post of Shudu wearing a lipstick by Rihanna’s makeup brand, Fenty, went viral. The luxury fashion brand Balmain has even created two virtual models, Margot and Shi, exclusively for their own-brand marketing campaigns. So, is this the future of influencer marketing or just a passing technology craze? There is a worry that consumers will be unable to make an emotional connection with virtual influencers in the same way they do with real people. Faux influencers are, however, proving capable of holding authentic and genuine connections with their audiences. Miquela advocates social movements such as Black Lives Matter and regularly posts on Instagram as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. In a recent post on Miquela’s Instagram, she teamed up with Tinder to urge her 1.5 million followers to vote in the US midterm election. Miquela utilises social movements and issues she cares about to connect with a real-life audience with whom her views resonate. This is something that many real-life influencers have struggled to do. Taylor Swift, for example, has long been criticised for her silence during the 2016 presidential election and her apprehension to voice her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Virtual influencers are competing successfully with real influencers who are wary of criticism from voicing their own opinions. Miquela proves that faux influencers do indeed have the capacity to make an emotional connection with their followers and arguably, on a certain level, more so than real-life influencers.   

Can you engage with zeros and ones?

Working with virtual influencers rather than real-life influencers does not mean that posts do not garner the same level of authentic engagement. As with real-life influencers, it is essential that the digital persona has strong engagement from their followers for a campaign to be successful. Virtual influencers do this by developing an honest rapport between themselves and their followers. By developing a personality, faux influencers, just like their real-life counterparts, appeal to like-minded individuals and followers. Lil Miquela, a musician as well as an influencer, donated $100,000 in music equipment to various organisations last year, a charitable act praised by Tracee Ellis Ross. The opportunity to work with a ‘controlled’ influencer who is guaranteed to remain deliberate and managed is incredibly appealing to brands, particularly after the controversy caused by influencer Logan Paul following his filming of Japan’s ‘suicide forest’.Shudu and Lil Miquela have palpable interactions with their followers. However, with bots rife across social media, there is a cry from marketers and consumers for better transparency. It’s important for there to be a level of clarity between the creators of a virtual influencer and the audience; there was controversy when Shudu’s creator did not introduce her as a CGI persona straight away. For brands working with faux influencers, it is paramount that they’re certain that the influencer’s audience isn’t comprised of an army of other computer generated followers, but real humans behind their screens. It is therefore crucial for creators to comply with the S.A.F.E components: secondary accounts, account activity, follower legitimacy, and engagement authenticity to create successful virtual influencer accounts.

Fad or fixture?

For now, the trend for virtual influencers doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Far from plateauing, the successes of Shudu and Lil Miquela make seem as though we will be seeing many more of these CGI-created influencers over the coming year. The genuine connections and interactions between virtual influencers and their audiences are anything but fake, and it’s these interactions that make it worth the while of a brand to find an influencer who aligns with their identity and vision, to harvest real engagement and generate greater results. Virtual influencers have proven themselves worthy of a seat at the table alongside their real-life counterparts, and even to possess the capabilities and characteristics of a game-changing phenomenon in the future of the influencer landscape.
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