Social media influencers have gone virtual: the latest development in digital marketing is computer-generated (CGI) personalities. Chances are you’ve come across one of these renderings already, hiding in plain sight on your social feed. These avatars simulate that of a real-life influencer: sharing lifestyle photos, attending and appearing at publicized events, championing causes, and most notably, endorsing brands.
These virtual influencers have quickly garnered substantial followings online as well as lucrative partnerships with brands. Trailblazer Miquela Sousa has over 1 million Instagram followers and her bio describes her as a 19-year-old “robot” based in Los Angeles, with links to the multiple social movements and non-profits she champions, including Black Lives Matter and Black Girls Code.
The fascination around Miquela and her online persona has attracted numerous brands interested in collaborating with her and reaching her audience, including Chanel, Outdoor Voices, Diesel, and Prada during Milan Fashion Week. She even appeared as a guest at BeautyCon LA.
In addition to Miquela, there’s Shudu Gram, hailed as the ‘world’s first digital supermodel’, who rose to Instagram prominence after singer Rihanna’s cosmetic line Fenty Beauty re-posted an image of her modeling some of the makeup products. Since that re-tweet, numerous other brands have come knocking of Shudu’s virtual door.
Controlling the Message
Brands find virtual influencers to be an ideal medium for promotion and exposure because there’s greater control of the message. Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, shared in an interview with CNN, “Assuming the design team can design quickly enough, they will always be able to post the right thing at the right time with the right angle that the brand wants.”
“It’s also a way for companies to show they’re creative and on the cutting edge of technology,” added Detert.
Beyond social media posts, some digital marketers see these avatars being utilized by companies, brands and individuals in much more prominent ways. Adam Rivietz, co-founder and CSO of the influencer marketing company #paid predicted to Wired, “In the near future…many companies may begin building their own digital influencers, simply because it’s a more efficient way of controlling the message that reaches their target audiences. Human influencers, too, might begin embracing CGI alter egos to protect their relationships with their existing sponsors.”
“There are already a number of startups working on commercial applications for what they call ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’ humans,” continued Rivietz. “Some, like the New Zealand-based Soul Machines, are focusing on using these virtual humans for customer service applications…Others, like 8i and Quantum Capture, are working on creating digital humans for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality applications.” (Wired).
Some argue that partnering with avatars takes away from a brand’s authenticity, as opposed to collaborating with real-life influencers who have the ability to actually sample and endorse products and services. Ultimately, whether avatars are the right choice for a company comes down to the audience and their needs. Will the audience connect with the aspirational nature of avatars? Will they connect with early adopters of technology? Will they enhance the online customer service experience? The list of possibilities is only beginning to surface and materialize.
The key ingredient behind integrating any CGI technology is maintaining transparency. In the digital landscape, distinguishing between reality and artificiality is becoming more challenging to discern, as was made clear when Miquela confessed in an Instagram post earlier this year, “I am not a human being, I’m a robot.” One thing is certain: consumers don’t want to be deceived by the brands and companies they trust and value most.
More of these avatars are certain to surface online and in the office. How can avatars play a role in your company? Do you see virtual humans being utilized in your business model? Share in the comments.
Partnering with a digital influencer brings up a number of business and legal issues to consider. Read more here.