Saturday 23 January 2021 6:00 am

A virtual what? Humans prefer their influencers to have real pulses

Alexander Frolov is CEO and co-founder of HypeAuditor

At last week’s annual tech expo CES, consumer electronics giant LG decided not to use a company executive or celebrity to present its latest products during its live-streamed keynote speech. Instead, it opted for a social media influencer called Reah Keem. 

The notable thing about Keem is not her follower count — she only has around 7,000 Instagram followers at the time of writing — it is that she is not a real person. In fact, she is a fictional character created using computer-generated imagery. 

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Rhea Keem is a virtual influencer, an artificial social media personality which can be hired — or even created — by brands to promote their goods. Virtual influencers have emerged in the last few years as, arguably, the next big thing in influencer marketing. Characters like Lil Miquela (2.9m Instagram followers) and Knox Frost (848,000 followers) have worked with all sorts of brands and entities, from Calvin Klein and Dior to the World Health Organization.  

Virtual influencers have quickly gained traction within the industry. Technology is enabling studios and advertisers to create virtual influencers that seem almost real, giving them personalities and lives that they share with consumers, to try and form a connection with people. And brands have found that they offer certain advantages over real influencers.

First, they are cost-effective, and content can be produced relatively quickly — it is very simple for a graphics designer to give a virtual influencer a new clothes wardrobe and place them in any location on Earth, compared to having to transport a real influencer to a destination for a photoshoot.   

Second, they seem to be relatively effective. Influencer marketing is already one of the most effective methods to bridge the gap between a brand and its audience by leveraging a social media influencer’s authenticity and engagement with their fanbase. Our research finds that virtual influencers have almost three times the engagement rate of real influencers, indicating that their followers seem to be more likely to like and comment on their content compared to the content produced by their human counterparts.    

Third, and perhaps most important, is that they pose a potentially lower risk to a brand’s reputation. Given that virtual influencers are scripted and controlled by their creators, there’s much less chance that they will embarrass their client by posting something offensive or controversial online.  

LG’s use of a virtual influencer shows just how far this innovation has come. However, brands would be wise not to get too caught up in the hype, as there are some issues around virtual influencers. 

For example, while virtual influencers have a higher engagement rate than human influencers, our research found that 48 per cent of virtual influencers had negative follower growth in 2020, meaning that they are losing followers. This may be because the accounts were losing bots, or that their audience simply did not like the content and were unfollowing them.  

Another concern is around regulation. Many have questioned if virtual influencers conflict with the rules set by advertising watchdogs. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission in the US has stated that the most important principle of an endorsement is that it must “represent the accurate experience and opinion of the endorser.” Obviously, virtual influencers have not and can never try the products they promote. Consumers may start to take issue with this, potentially leading to accusations that virtual influencers are being deceptive or misleading.  

The fact that some virtual influencers look so life-like could also potentially mislead the public. One survey of Instagram users in 2019 consultancy firm Fullscreen found that 42 per cent of millennials and Generation Z have followed an influencer on the platform without realising that they are computer-generated. 

Because of this, we predict that the rising popularity of virtual influencers will also lead to calls for them to be regulated, so that they don’t deceive the public or mislead their followers. 

And while virtual influencers are less likely to go off-message, brands do need to carefully consider what kind of biases a virtual influencer or their creators might have, as this could still cause damage to their brand’s reputation. Diversity and inclusivity are also highly important to consumers today, so brands must be careful when hiring virtual influencers instead of representative human ones.

This was the case for French fashion house Balmain who received criticism in 2018 for using three “diverse” virtual influencers in a campaign, rather than hiring actual diverse human beings. 

Influencer marketing has huge potential in the advertising industry, as it enables brands to form much more human connections between themselves and their audiences. While there is certainly a place in ad campaigns for virtual influencers to create engaging content, brands would be wise not to forget about their human counterparts. 

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