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Can human influencers be replaced by virtual ones?

A new shift in digital capabilities has created a new phenomena: virtual avatars. These digital personas are being used by big brands wanting to give customers a personalised customer services experience, so they can chat and identify with an individual. These personas are increasingly lifelike, to the extent that customers are slowly becoming more at ease with them – and perhaps even forgetting that they’re not real. Now that they’re starting to be used for more than just customer services, these avatars’ artificiality can offer real benefits for brands that might be finding the human frailty of real-life social media influencers challenging.

A new shift in digital capabilities has created a new phenomena: virtual avatars. These digital personas are being used by big brands wanting to give customers a personalised customer services experience, so they can chat and identify with an individual. These personas are increasingly lifelike, to the extent that customers are slowly becoming more at ease with them – and perhaps even forgetting that they’re not real. Now that they’re starting to be used for more than just customer services, these avatars’ artificiality can offer real benefits for brands that might be finding the human frailty of real-life social media influencers challenging.

Influencer marketing is a form of digital advertising which relies on high profile individuals or influencers to convey particular messages through the influencer’s social media channels. The influencer is deemed high-profile purely because of their following or popularity via their social media channels. The underlying goal behind influencer marketing is to create brand awareness and impact the purchasing decisions of a brand’s target market, who are potential customers.

On this basis, brands may be concerned that their target market won’t be able to have a real connection with these virtual beings, like they do with humans. People look up to influencers because they’re aspirational. On the other hand, social media users are probably savvy enough to appreciate that influencer marketing isn’t entirely genuine, as behind the scenes a commercial transaction has taken place. So if a virtual influencer has a strong following made up of that brand’s target market, then why not?

From reviewing the captions on Miquela’s Instagram posts, her “voice” is witty, educated and offers opinions. Whoever is behind the posts is carefully curating content designed to capture the attention of her 1.5 million strong audience, and they’re certainly doing well. Brands that deal with Miquela have the added bonus that she has been created for the purpose of attracting sponsorship. With careful management, Miquela is unlikely to say anything that will attract controversy and tarnish the brand’s name – there would be no reason to do so. The same cannot be said for a number of real-life humans who have lost brand endorsements based on things they have said or done, including Kate Moss and Michael Phelps for use of drugs.

While the Miquela character is 19 years old, behind her is a team of business savvy minds who will ensure the AI sticks to the terms and conditions of any influencer agreement the business wielding it enters into. Brands often have trouble monitoring and controlling the actions of influencers, particularly in New Zealand where the influencer scene is largely immature. It is evident from business groups on Facebook that a number of local brand owners have trouble dealing with influencers who are sent product in exchange for endorsements but fail to deliver, as well as influencers who misrepresent their engagement stats and/or buy fake followers.

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Interestingly, social media platform Instagram has indicated its support for virtual influencers by verifying some accounts with the coveted blue tick. Surely then, Instagram sees virtual influencers as part of the future framework of social media influencing, rather than a threat to the influencer industry.

All in all, if businesses are already going to lengths to stage scenes and scripts for influencers to use, why use a real person? And if their consumers don’t care, then it doesn’t matter. It seems that virtual influencers are as real as they can be, and they’re not going anywhere.

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