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Too abstract or an ingenious marketing tool?

Virtual influencers – the world of avatars

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Influencers have been a feature of our lives for almost as long as there has been social media. With their form of Recommendation Marketing 2.0, they have become indispensable for many brands and companies. But now the field of influencers is being expanded with a digital element. Growing numbers of virtual influencers are appearing on social media. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these fictional avatars? Find out in our article.

Portraits of the virtual influencer Lil Miquela

Emotions, travel, hobbies: Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela give insights into their lives. It sometimes isn’t immediately obvious that they aren’t real. (Photos: Lil Miquela, Instagram)

What are virtual influencers?

As the name suggests, the new generation of influencers is formed of digital avatars. They exist only on social media, with the screens of their numerous followers serving as their stage. Just like their human counterparts, they enthral an ever-growing audience, set trends and are shaping an entire generation – and in many respects, they are often no less “human”: Virtual influencers have individual and characteristic facial features and fully formed personalities with their own values and hobbies. They have feelings and take their followers with them to walk the dog or go to a restaurant via Instagram.

Virtual influencers essentially come under four categories:

Virtual brand ambassadors are avatars that fit the brand and its values completely. Toy manufacturer Mattel has employed this principle by bringing its Barbie doll to life as a virtual avatar. She now advertises herself on social media and has large numbers of fans enthralled.

Virtual models can be booked by brands for photo shoots, just like real models. One successful example is Shudu Gram, who has already been photographed for the Australian and Arabic versions of Vogue.

Corporate influencers are designed to resemble a company employee and provide their followers with insights into life behind the scenes at the company. Virtual influencer Kenna regularly takes her fans with her on her internship.

Independent influencers are the closest to conventional influencers. Not created by a particular brand, they generally have a larger following and enter into cooperations with various brands – like the virtual influencer Lil Miquela, who collaborates with diverse well-known brands and celebrities.

Portraits of two AI models

Have a guess: Which person in this picture is real and which one isn’t? The answer: neither of them. They are both purely virtual models. (Photo: Shudu Gram, Instagram)

What are virtual influencers better at?

We’ve already discussed the many opportunities that influencer marketing opens up in detail in our interview with expert Katrin Krautgasser . But what potential do virtual influencers offer? Even if they look and act like their human counterparts, they are a few steps ahead of them. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain their continued success. The flexibility and versatility with which virtual influencers can be used benefits many companies. As everything is digital, both their appearance and other factors such as location or time can be adapted in any way imaginable.

The ability to control computer-generated influencers is also significant. As virtual influencers are not confronted with the same problems and obstacles as their human equivalents, they are largely scandal- and controversy-free. In the fictional world of virtual influencers, everybody always acts within social norms and does not make any mistakes. Rash actions and statements are generally rare. This reduces the risk of companies appearing in negative headlines.

Brand-owned influencers have an additional advantage. The company can tailor them exactly to the intended target group without any wasted effort. That a human influencer would partner with a single brand exclusively is pretty unlikely – and it would be extremely expensive if it did happen.

The risks of virtual influencers

Despite their undeniable advantages, as with all new phenomena and trends, there are some risks and grounds for concern associated with virtual influencers. Although the first studies in Asia and the US indicate that the digital avatars are seen as highly credible by their followers, there have been no published research findings to date on how well the wider public will accept the fictional social media figures in the long term. So much for the “risks” for businesses.

Much more significant is the risk to our society. Recent new social media trends such as BeReal show that authenticity is crucial to users. But the fictitious nature of virtual influencers threatens to restrict the space for reality and authenticity – especially in the context of branding. Far too often the avatars conform to the exaggerated ideal of beauty held by the small number of people who have come up with the figures. Added to which, the further the technologies behind virtual influencers advance, the more the boundaries between virtual fiction and reality become blurred. Will we find ourselves in the future not only following the beauty ideals set by human influencers on social media – standards that are often unrealistic in any case – but also measuring ourselves against fictional and unachievable ideals? This remains to be seen, but grounds for concern already exist.

Is this the future or a short-lived trend?

The benefits of virtual influencers are so profound that the avatars have already demonstrated their potential to be more than just a passing fad. With millions of followers, almost guaranteed freedom from scandals and the utmost flexibility, the digital figures are advancing into the ranks of super influencers. If they can continue to demonstrate that their followers have unwavering trust in them and the authenticity of the fictional stories does not suffer, nothing much stands in the way of the CGI influencer. Only the critical voices denouncing the repercussions for our society can be expected to get louder as the digital avatars become more widespread. And they make some arguments worth listening to.

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