Virtual influencers blur the line between fantasy and reality

AI-powered influencers are cashing in big bucks for brands, and it’s time we pay serious attention to them.

Maya was created to market Puma's Future Rider shoes
Maya was created to market Puma's Future Rider shoes

"There is a misconception that influencer marketing is all about 'authenticity'," says Dudley Nevill-Spencer, head of virtual human development at Virtual Influencer Agency. "The reality is very different."

Virtual influencers (VIs) are defined as fictional computer-generated influencers who have the characteristics and personalities of human influencers. This 'trend' has been making its way through Asia, particularly in China and Japan where a number of these virtual beings compete with human influencers for brand attention.

Influencers by default provide curated snapshots of their lives, and Nevill-Spencer argues that virtual influecers are no different.

"Some influencers provide you with 'aspiration', some with 'validation', some 'trust' and some provide an emotional relationship," Nevill-Spencer says. "I always make the point that no one trusts a thing that Kim Kardashian says. My 12-year-old niece knows everything she says is scripted or paid for, but that doesn't stop her aspiring to look like her.

"So different influencers provide different things. What we are focussing on is creating an emotional relationship between the brand and the consumer."

Didi Pirinyuang, ECD at Ensemble Worldwide, who was part of the team that created virtual influencer Maya for sportswear client Puma, says that the rise of virtual influencers is not an indication that they are human replacements, but rather, a form of escapism and fantasy that provides audiences with a canvas to project their voices, interests and personalities.

"Because audiences are aware that virtual influencers are not real per se, they are more open to the messages and stories of the visual narrative," she says. "Virtual Influencers do not experience products and brands in the same way we do of course, but we should treat them as a tool that can tell a story. Because they bridge into the real world, they're very capable of pointing towards real experiences as well."

So how are brands reacting? Quite positively, according to Pirinyuang. "Even as Maya is on a 'virtual holiday' for the time being, there has been active interest from several brands to collaborate with her, or to create their own. As the world adjusts to the new normal, the virtual space is ripe for innovative connection and partnership," she says.

Maya was created to launch the Puma Future Rider shoes across several Southeast Asian markets, after research showed that shortlisting a single influencer with equal relevance across the multicultural, multi-ethnic region was impossible. So the agency created a virtual influencer aggregated from millions of Southeast Asian faces, and the brand was able to have a 'face' representing and reflecting the lifestyle aspirations and values of the audience.

"Over the course of the six-month campaign, we saw high engagement with people around the region building emotional bonds with the character and her stories," says Pirinyuang. "The creation of Maya also enabled the brand to collaborate with like-minded brands, and while the initial launch campaign has ended, Maya's story has not, leaving the door open for long-term brand engagement."

Nevill-Spencer says that engagement rates for virtual influencer campaigns may vary as it heavily depends on content and personality, just as it does with a human influencer.

"There is some very skewed data that suggests virtual influencers have better engagement rates," he says. "They can, but this is often because of general fascination boosted by the 'newness' and PR around the campaign. The reality is that engagement rates will ultimately be determined by how good the story line and community management of the influencer is."

One campaign he quotes as a success is Weiden+Kennedy's virtual version of KFC's colonel. The campaign managed to produce a fresh, completely fictional character while also mocking 'influencer culture' including the use of vague and pensive quotes to accompany a glamorous portrait.

"We have done over 100 presentations to brands," says Nevill-Spencer. "Four years ago it was 'You're bonkers'. Three years ago it was, 'Interesting but I'm uncomfortable'. Two years ago it was, 'Tell me when my competitor does it'. Now we are flooded with requests and are receiving briefs with budgets."

Weighing the pros and cons

But can virtual influencers do exactly the same things as human influencers? Yes, and perhaps more. One major advantage, according to Nevill-Spencer, is that virtual influencers are less unpredictable, and therefore, less risky for brands. Every single narrative is controlled by the brand and agency, and so "your virtual influencer won't storm the Capitol".

Plus, virtual influencers are able to integrate a product with compelling storylines across a lengthy period, or what is called 'product cycle' and 'character lifecycle' alignment. "This is something that's very hard to do with real world influencers," says Nevill-Spencer.

Pirinyuang adds that virtual influencers are a platform of their own that can be crafted and created according to specific audiences, and this enables audiences to connect with the brand on a much deeper, more emotional level.

"In the case of Maya, people were building their own emotional connections with her, with many wondering if she was in fact, real, even going as far as expressing romantic interest in her," she says.

"Being able to blur the lines between the real and virtual world is intuitive to audiences that have grown up with heroes that have come to life through 3D renders, be it in gaming or films. This makes the idea and techniques behind virtual influencers very familiar to them. Add this to the power of social media storytelling and we can create very relatable stories that (nearly) makes fantasy a reality."

And with Covid having bound human influencers to their homes, their virtual counterparts are a practical solution in this climate. "From PSAs to talking about difficult, edgy or less mainstream topics, as well as being conceived and living in the virtual world, virtual influencers transcend lockdowns and can be best leveraged in an almost 100 percent digitised landscape," says Pirinyuang.

One factor that attracts brands is the use of AI to auto-generate multiple conversations with thousands of people at once in multiple languages. In the case of Maya, her conception and arrival into the influencer scene was very much a part of her story, and audiences were engaged from the start.

Pirinyuang says that 'automated communications' was a part of the transparency of her existence and audiences resonated with and accepted that. Interests can be adopted and adapted via social listening, and AI curation of the content can be generated via interactions with the audiences.

Where working with virtual influencers get exciting, says Nevill-Spencer, is studying the consumer through audience intelligence tools such as 'data kinetics' and understanding the values, storylines, images and fables that most resonate with audiences. Subsequently, the agency creates a character and story that it knows will generate a great response based on that data.

But the fact that it's 100 percent digitised is that the behind-the-scenes upkeep of a virtual influencer can be more strenuous. Especially during Covid where demand for lifestyle-centric consumer goods is at an all-time low, the reality is that the upkeep and management of virtual influencers requires significant investment.

Pirinyuang adds that effectiveness and success also take time and investment. "While many of the processes in creating content for virtual influencers have become streamlined, it is still at its infancy stage and there are many techniques that still require refinement," she says.

"Virtual influencers require their very own following for them to become effective, which means they are limited by the ability of storytellers to create captivating stories to toy with within the real and virtual worlds and still make it applicable to brands."

With this, she adds, comes the realities of any creative execution. "We are limited by the resources we have. Thus, it boils down to the resourcefulness of any team to have a balance of slow and fast thinking. Slow thinking represents the long tail effect of the influencer as a representation of the brand; fast thinking refers to topical relevancy that the virtual influencer can and should respond to," she says.

"But the beauty of virtual influencers is that they can be tailored to any audience or brand values and there is a tacit understanding between the brand and audience that virtual influencers are, at the end of the day, interactive visuals—entities of content meant to be enjoyed and consumed."

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Yet to receive the results you'd like from your influencer marketing efforts? Learn how to choose the right influencers, create and maintain long-lasting relationships and discover best practice for measuring campaign success at PRWeek and Campaign's online Influencer360 event this June.

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