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Virtual influencers: Fad or future?

If you own a smartphone and have an account on any social media website, you’ll be familiar with the weird world of influencer marketing. But now, it’s being taken a step further with artificial intelligence (AI). 

The concept of robots taking on human-like traits and becoming sentient has always been feared by technology sceptics. Although robots taking over the world isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, we’re definitely moving a step closer as virtual influencers take to social media posing as real human beings. It has been reported that virtual influencers are three times more engaging than human influencers. But is this new wave of AI influencer marketing a trend that’s here to stay, or is it just a strange (and slightly creepy) fad? 

computer screen with AI humans

First things first, what is a virtual influencer? 

Virtual influencers are essentially computer generated “people” with real characteristics and personality traits of humans. 

Also called CGI or AI influencers, virtual influencers are emerging as a common futuristic trend on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. 

Behind every CGI influencer is a creator pulling the strings. These creators are the ones responsible for controlling the influencer’s appearance, actions and words. 

How are brands using virtual influencer marketing?

Brands looking to stay ahead of the curve and keep up with a younger Gen Z audience are turning to virtual influencer marketing. 

One of the main appeals of virtual influencers for brands is that they’re hugely customisable. Virtual influencers essentially do what they’re told all the time, so there’s no risk to brands if an influencer goes against the grain while acting as an ambassador. 

girls filming TikTok dance

The problem with virtual influencers

Despite their increasing presence on social media, the first virtual influencer was actually “born” in 2016. Lil Miquela quickly became an internet sensation and currently has more than three million followers. 

Lil Miquela, and other famous virtual influencers like controversial former Trump supporter Bermuda and Japan’s virtual “It Girl” Imma, have been a source of contention for years. 

Those against the concept of virtual influencers criticise their controllable nature and resulting lack of authenticity, as well as their often idealistic and uncomfortably attractive appearances contributing to the creation of unattainable beauty standards. 

Image credit: iStock/oatawa

However, those who are “pro” virtual influencers champion their customisable nature and the fact that they can help brands communicate positive initiatives to promote change (like Lil Miquela supporting the Black Lives Matter movement). 

We know there’s a company somewhere out there controlling every virtual influencer – which raises the question: is virtual influencer marketing a form of manipulation? As reality and technology converge, artificial intelligence and automation will continue to blur the line between these two realms. What matters is how brands navigate themselves in this space. 

Meta (formerly Facebook) is developing a framework to enhance digital transparency when it comes to virtual influencers and synthesised humans. This reflects the backlash against this type of influencer marketing as people become more concerned with the ethical issues relating to deceptive marketing and transparency.

How to use influencer marketing ethically

When partnering with influencers on social media, virtual or not, it’s important to consider the ethical connotations for your brand. 

Some of the most salient issues that arise include the expansion of virtual humans with AI, sponsored content transparency and value alignment. 

You might not have the budget or desire to consider an AI influencer for your brand, which is why working with influencers in your local community or those that align with your product or service niche can be a more accessible and logical solution.

When choosing to be ethical with your influencer marketing strategy, consider the following:

  • Ensure the influencers you work with disclose that their content is sponsored. In general, people don’t like feeling hoodwinked by social media posts that deceives viewers into perceiving it as organic. 
  • The influencers you partner with should post a combination of paid for and organic content to build trust with their audience.
  • The content they post should be valuable, whether it’s entertaining, educational, or inspiring. 
  • Be cautious about the reputational damage that influencers can cause to a brand. If an influencer behaves poorly, manipulates their images, or goes against the values your brand represents it can cause damage to your reputation and the way your audience views you.

Not quite ready to go fully virtual?

AI influencers are one facet of social media marketing that you might not be quite ready for. Fortunately, there are plenty of other avenues to explore! Axonn can help with all your social media marketing needs. 

Whether you need campaign services to help manage your social media content and advertising, or you want to delve into video production for social media – we’ve got the skills and expertise to help your business grow its social following.