The Future of Influencers: Expect More Virtual
By Barbie Lam
With experiences changing drastically in the last year, keeping audiences engaged and enthralled is where brands need to be laser-focused. In this new ’The future of…’ series, we look at what’s next and what considerations you need to make when planning future-forward experiences.
2020 brought us many surprises. Virtual influencers weren’t one of them. These fictional, computer-generated humans continue to infiltrate the market with no signs of slowing down – working with high-end brands and signing on to agencies that monetize them and create new opportunities for their growth.
Wait, virtual influencers make money? Yes. They do. And we expect to see their prevalence grow in 2021.
By definition, a virtual influencer is a fictional AI-generated person with realistic characteristics, features and personalities of humans. They behave just like real-life influencers. They speak to the camera, share selfies, feelings and thoughts. The only difference is the content. And, well, the obvious – they’re computer-generated with pre-programmed speech. They also don’t age. They can stay forever 19 if you wish to program them that way.
So, who are the current movers and shakers sweeping the fashion and commerce industries?
Miquela Sousa, aka Lil Miquela, is the first AI social media influencer. She’s a multi-hyphenate 19-year-old, half-Brazilian, half-Spanish model, influencer and singer created by creative agency Brud in 2016. Since her debut, she has accumulated 2.9 million followers on Instagram, and in 2018 she was named Time’s ’Most Influential People on the Internet’. Miquela has partnered with brands like Prada, Nike, Calvin Klein, Samsung and Mini. Recently, she signed with Creative Artists Agency as its first virtual client and is projected to earn more than $10m this year.
And like most 19-year-olds, Miquela has friends (robots, of course). Also built by Brud, Blawko is a ”self-proclaimed low-life who identifies as a robot man”, and Bermuda is an LA ”It girl” who wants to inspire young entrepreneurs to pursue businesses at the intersection of tech and beauty.
Around the same time Miquela appeared, Riot Games (creator of League of Legends), created a virtual pop group, K/DA – because the virtual world needs musical performances, too. K/DA performed at the opening ceremony for the world championship final in Paris and in 2019 at the League of Legends LPL Regional Finals in Shanghai.
And in the fashion world, Balmain introduced its own ’virtual army’ to model its exquisite collection and represent the brand in the virtual world.
Is this form of brand storytelling effective?
Virtual influencers are essentially an extension of a brand and its story. But how authentic is this tactic? Some people have their reservations, questioning this format of storytelling and use of virtual celebrities.
The initial criticism is that virtual influencers are unreal. But in many ways, they are only marginally less real than a living and breathing ’human’ influencer. Now, more than ever, social media is prone to distorting one’s look and story to fit a brand’s needs. With built-in phone cameras that allow for advanced slimming, photo editing apps and filters, influencers can easily blur our perception of reality and create false expectations about the world (and of the brand they’re endorsing).
On the flip side with regard to Miquela, some may argue, is that she’s more real than many ’real’ influencers. For starters, she acknowledges that she is a robot. And she speaks the truth. She was brought to life around the same time the world realized how detrimental social media could be. She makes us question what is real and our parameters of reality. Unlike those real-life influencers who are quietly contributing to our reality with their ’picture-perfect’ posts.
How can brands benefit?
What does the success of virtual influencers mean for brands and how can we use them in future experiences?
Virtual influencers like Miquela are built on a deep understanding of what is trending globally – for example, what millennials and gen Zers are talking about, responding to and sharing. The stories of these virtual influencers are meticulously curated to resemble a version of the global ideal. From being a cool fashion icon collaborating with brands, to an empathetic ’human’ that advocates for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and recent racial injustice and Black Lives Matter movements. Miquela is a product of technology herself, so she can relate to technology brands on a deeper level – more than most people. This makes her the perfect #teamGalaxy ambassador for the Samsung Galaxy phone, alongside Millie Bobby Brown, Steve Aoki and Ninja.
Why should brands look at integrating virtual influencers into their experiences versus real-life brand ambassadors? Here are five reasons:
- Integrate products more seamlessly. The life cycle of a product can more easily be inserted into each part of a virtual influencer’s story – and in a compelling way. This is sometimes more challenging to do with a real-life influencer.
- Automate communication. Virtual influencers can have hundreds of conversations at the same time. What real-life person can do that?
- Create, invent and imagine. In the virtual world, the creative possibilities are endless. There are fewer restrictions with working with a robot v a human.
- Manage risk. Brands are in control of the content. Brands don’t have to worry about virtual influencer getting caught intoxicated in party with the wrong crow, doing stupid inappropriate things in public or making embarrassing TikTok videos.
- Here to stay. Virtual influencers are a trend with little to no signs of leaving. We only see growth in their future with its flexibility to be programmed to speak multiple languages, physical features to cater to different regions.
Brand experiences are changing. Content, data and technology are redefining expectations and transforming people’s relationships with brands.
Growth and relevance are the critical focus of business. Without innovation, even the businesses whose successful experiences, products and services have prospered in the past will start to decline.
Brands are embracing new, immersive technologies in ways that can enhance their storytelling. Virtual influencers are just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, other forms of artificial intelligence (think synthetic humans) are emerging.
Because the lines between what is real and what is unreal are already blurred and if the consumer is ready to accept it, brands should too.