The risks of using faux influencers

They're cheaper than real celebrities, but are virtual influencers right for your brand?

Rhea Woods, VP of influencers at Praytell
Rhea Woods, VP of influencers at Praytell

Virtual influencers are digital characters posting, in most cases, on social media as if they are real people. While brands should carefully consider if working with a virtual influencer is right for them, the influence these accounts can have is significant and meaningful.

The rise of virtual influencers, digital entities who engage in interactive relationships with audiences on social media, is one of the more closely watched trends in the creator realm. These characters are part of a growing movement in which marketers create their own personas to match the growing brand demand for aspirational accounts and the public’s appetite for interesting accounts to follow.

Most notably, the virtual account Lil Miquela made mainstream news by appearing with Bella Hadid in a highly controversial ad for Calvin Klein. While the ad wasn’t well-received, a virtual influencer appearing in a placement of that magnitude was significant. It demonstrates a widespread interest in influential people that aren’t actually people.

The culture’s obsession with iconic brands like Supreme and creators like Cameron Dallas and Jackie Aina, indicate that the market is ripe for aspirational accounts. The desire for constant inspiration, paired with high adoption of cult games such as The Sims (and a healthy dose of voyeurism) set the stage for the virtual influencer movement.

For brands looking to switch up the traditional spokesperson model, creating a virtual influencer is now incredibly viable, less expensive than hiring celebrities, and is an opportunity to create the ideal characters to speak to target audiences. An added bonus? It allows brands to optimize that persona along the way, based on feedback.

But are virtual influencers actually influential? We can ask that of any influencer and we find the answers in the same way; by looking at profile metrics, sales conversion data and comment sentiment (particularly when intent to purchase a product is present). We can also look at the increase in affinities between brand and influencer accounts before, during and after campaigns.

Lil Miquela, for example, has a wealth of real followers. Our tech platform Tagger reports that she has 90% authentic followers, which is, ironically, an incredibly low bot following compared to other influencer accounts. Her Instagram social following grew anywhere from 6 to 9.5% over the last 90 days alone, which is powerful to see. Her virality is not losing steam.

KFC’s new virtual Colonel is another example. The character pokes fun at the virtual influencer trend while playfully engaging audiences and signaling that the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously. And audiences are into it. Handle growth was up 4.64% over the last 90 days, which is in the top 40% of similar brand handles.

It’s important to look at the content opportunity when deciding if virtual influencers are a good fit for a brand or specific campaign.

Fashion, lifestyle and beauty programs lend themselves well to virtual influencers. But for products and services that people need to see to believe — think tattoo removal or travel — a campaign without an actual human creating the content might be challenging.

While the public sentiment surrounding virtual influencers ranges from confusion and revulsion to certifiable Stan behavior, brands can be sure they’ll stir up both intrigue and controversy by working with these creators.

This Lil Miquela quote makes it clear: "My identity was a choice Brud [her creators] made in order to sell me to brands [and] to appear woke." Brands working with a virtual accounts could find themselves navigating some very uncharted, and perhaps unwelcome currents of public opinion.

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