The growth of influencer marketing is undeniable, and the industry is no longer limited to humans; from cats, dogs, and even rabbits, it seems like anyone can become an influencer in this multi-billion dollar industry. Even more surprising, however, is the rise of an entirely new kind of influencer: computer-generated, or “virtual,” influencers.
Take Miquela Sousa (@lilmiquela) for example. By all accounts, the 19-year-old Brazilian American model and singer looks like a standard Instagram influencer. Every month, about 260,000 people play her music on Spotify. On Instagram, Sousa has over 1.6 million followers, and has shared sponsored posts with a number of major brands, including Calvin Klein. Indeed, there is one significant factor in which Sousa is different from Bella Hadid, the model she poses with in her recent Calvin Klein post: the young Brazilian isn’t a real person. She is a computer-generated character, crafted by Los Angeles firm Brud in 2016.
She might not like being described this way, but Sousa is hardly one-of-a-kind. From Chinese television news presenters to a tongue-in-cheek Colonel Sanders, virtual influencers are on the rise. Moreover, thanks to the value they offer potential partners, virtual influencers don’t seem to be going away any time soon. There are some obvious benefits to companies that choose to create or hire a virtual influencer. In the case of China’s Xinhua News, the creation of a virtual news anchor means the outlet will have access to a staffer able to cover breaking news at all hours of the night, seven days a week. At the same time, Xinhua now has access to a news anchor who won’t be taking any sick days, or requesting pesky holiday leave at inopportune times.
Additionally, a virtual influencer is much less of a public relations liability than a human influencer is. Celebrities and other human influencers are all prone to making mistakes that could reflect badly on a partner brand. With a virtual influencer, companies have close to zero risk of being associated with negative press in a later scandal.
Finally, a virtual influencer is still a fairly novel concept, and will draw immediate attention to partner companies. For brands trying to reach a younger audience, or prove their innovativeness, a virtual influencer can offer huge appeal compared to human influencers.
On the other hand, there is still significant power in genuinely engaging with audiences via authentic influencers. Virtual influencers like Miquela Sousa can talk the talk, but this can still backfire if audiences don’t trust the authenticity of her words.
Truly, influencer marketing is still at its most successful when it is seen as real and genuine. Brands that seek out real people to promote their products and services to real people might be taking on a little extra risk, but it is exactly this risk which draws in audiences to trust and connect with influencers in the first place.
The technology behind virtual influencers will no doubt continue to evolve beyond recognition, but the truth behind successful online marketing remains: brands that connect with their audiences will always find a more sustainable path for growth.