While it might be a while before robots become part of public physical life – entities we’d run into while doing our groceries or on the subway – human to robot (H2R) interaction has progressively become a reality. Current radical developments in engineering and AI has evolved H2R at a rapid pace, especially on social media.
The rise in popularity of virtual influencers, which began a few years ago with the creation of 19-year-old Lil’ Miquela, is among those recent developments. Since her debut on Instagram, the half Brazilian, half Spanish teenage liberal advocate and fashionista has gained 2.1m followers on Instagram, and computer-generated models have become the buzzy trend in the viral marketing industry. Nowadays, Lil’Miquela enjoys an engagement rate nearing 2.7%, measuring up to the likes of Beyoncé and Selena Gomez, and some of the most popular virtual influencers - namely Knox Frost, Noonoouri, and KFC’s Colonel Sanders - have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers around the globe.
That virtual influencer’s lifestyles warrant such attention is in part a reflection of how followers view ‘human influencers’, and possibly influencer branding at large. Despite people’s awareness of the fact that these characters and their lives are pure programmed fantasy, they represent a more realistic alternative to fashion’s ‘accepted’ altered reality. Recent research conducted by UK’s Mindshare Futures revealed that over a third of users between the ages of 18 and 34 follow profiles on social media that they know aren’t real. What’s more, the research found that 54% of all UK consumers find virtual entities appealing on some level, rising to 70% for those who dwell in tech.
By opting to collaborate with these virtual faces, brands are reaching large, new, and diverse audiences, while benefiting from a unique range of advantages. From a business perspective, these virtual influencers represent an ideal and reliable investment. Beyond the dependability that a fully moulded, adaptable, and controlled ambassador can provide, not only can companies have the message the discipline of above-the-line advertising reinforced by the genuine engagement of influencer marketing, but they can do so without any of the risks involved in the human factor; namely unpredictability and error.
This probably explains why so many reputable brands have begun working with these fictitious characters, even those whose strategies are traditionally anchored in authenticities such as Coach, Puma, or luxury boutique Balmain, which was among the first labels to fully embrace the concept by casting Shudu - the “world’s first digital supermodel” - for various campaigns. Lil’Miquela, which as a marketing tool has featured numerous product endorsements for luxury brands such as Prada, appeared last year in a Calvin Klein ad campaign kissing supermodel Bella Hadid. Meanwhile, German graphic designer Jörg Zuber’s 19-year-old, Paris-based, much less-human like character Noonoouri has collaborated with the likes of Dior, Gucci and Miu Miu.
This growing virtual marketing trend quickly expanded across industries including education, automotive, beauty and healthy. Last summer, for example, Auckland-based Soul Machines introduced Yumi - the “first digital face” of prestige skincare brand SK-II – to the advertisement world during Cannes Lions, claiming to have created the world’s first autonomously animated digital influencer. A few months later, automotive brand Renault created its very own virtual ambassador, Liv. By way of a pioneering move, it introduced the character using traditional television ads.
In the era of social distancing, these virtual influencers have also emerged as an innovative and decisive new part of what will define the influencer landscape for the years to come. To those working in the influencer industry, if the advantages of these digital figures were already apparent, they are now glaring. With Covid-19 dominating public life, the influencer industry is dealing with unprecedented challenges, and although it’s unlikely to tumble, it’s bound to change.
The unforeseen advantage presented by virtual influencers are that while some of the critical issues stemming from the pandemic - from cancelled events and frozen brand deals to shrinking budgets and suspended campaigns – can unfavourably affect a human influencer, they can’t transform a programmed one. Furthermore, unlike their human counterparts, those creating computer-generated imagery can post content beyond the boundaries of their lockdown and so the critical ability to break up the monotony of influencer’s selfie-heavy feed that has resulted from confinement.
It is also probable that the current state of affairs resulting from social distancing will accelerate the growth of virtual marketing and that these computer-generated figures will land deals outside the fashion industry. Just earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) – advising safety and hoping to drive donations to the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund – partnered with virtual influencer Knox Frost to launch a campaign targeting a Gen-Z audience; a relationship that maybe just a few months ago might have been inconceivable.
With millions of people stuck at home, and with more consumers taking cues from social media about what and where to purchase, influencers are in some ways more influential than ever, whether or not they are real.