With more and more brands exploring a presence in the metaverse (however you define it), new opportunities for creators and influencers are arising.
One main area of opportunity is characterised by the virtual influencer – a digital persona who acts just as any other influencer would, but who is entirely computer-generated. The concept has been around for a while, but a combination of the metaverse and the burgeoning creator economy has led to an expansion of the market, with brands increasingly partnering with creators who want to promote a virtual persona rather than their real selves. According to reports, there are more than 200 virtual influencers in existence, with this number only set to grow in future.
But with ‘authenticity’ being the key to influencer success – or so we have previously been told – will consumers buy into virtual influencers in the same way as humans? I recently spoke with Eric Dahan, CEO of global influencer marketing company, Open Influence, to discuss the benefits, challenges, and potential opportunities for brands in this space.
Designing influencers from the ground up gives brands greater control
The battle for creative control has been an issue within brand-influencer partnerships for a number of years – a 2019 Takumi study found that 45% of marketers feel they should have complete control over the written captions and visual elements of an influencer’s post, in order to ensure that the influencer does not veer away from the agreed tone or content of a campaign. Dahan says that virtual influencers can take away this debate.
“For brands, it gives them the ability to have more control in one or two ways. Either they are partnering with a virtual influencer, and they can take a little bit more control than with a human influencer. Or – and I think this is what’s really exciting – brands can create their own virtual influencers and really design them from the ground up.”
Dahan suggests that, in this context, a virtual influencer can become a brand mascot or spokesperson of sorts. “Ideally that’s your CEO or founder, but most companies don’t have that, or they have been around for so long that their CEO is more of an operator than the face of the business,” he says. “And so, there’s really an opportunity there for brands to create their own mascots.”
Can virtual influencers be authentic?
The question is, will virtual influencers lack authenticity if they are entirely manufactured? Or rather, if consumers are willing to buy in, is authenticity less important than marketers tend to think?
Dahan suggests that real authenticity doesn’t necessarily come from the ‘face’ of the influencer, but the voice. “I’m sure there are meme accounts that you follow [on social media] – there are a bunch that I certainly follow, where I’ve never seen the actual creator who is putting out the content and writing the captions. But I don’t need to, right?” he proposes. “There’s an authenticity, a voice, and the messaging and the values are reflected by what’s being shared. So, there’s that level of authenticity to it even though there’s not a face attached to it.”
There are additional challenges here of course, which Dahan says it is vital for brands to consider before they jump into virtual influencers. “It can’t just be something that feels corporate and empty – it needs to feel like there is a true reflection or values and personality,” he states. “Ultimately, there’s going to be a team behind it who is running it, aiming to focus the values of the organisation and personifying it into a single individual to make it more relatable.”
Are virtual influencers ethical?
Ethical considerations are important, too, particularly when it comes to the audience that a virtual influencer might be targeting. Fashion retailer PacSun was recently criticised after it named Lil Miquela – an AI influencer first created in 2016 – as its latest ambassador and the face of its 2022 holiday campaigns. Despite Lil Miquela aligning with PacSun’s positive brand values, such as her stance on social activism, some have suggested the CGI influencer also promotes a largely unattainable image that is potentially harmful to a young female audience. Not to mention that the clothes Lil Miquela ‘wears’ are perhaps unlikely to look the same in real life.
Dahan concedes that social media can perpetuate harmful standards, but that it’s also the case irrespective of whether the influencer is virtual or human.
“With influencers in general, if they alienate their audience, they aren’t going to maintain that audience – they will start losing followers,” he says. “Of course, there’s the question of what sort of things are you influencing, but that’s not specific to the virtual side.”
Perhaps more concerning, suggests Dahan, is if brands begin to rely on AI. You’ve only got to look at BlenderBot – the prototype of Meta’s conversational AI, which recently generated media coverage for its propensity for making offensive and untrue statements.
“Ethically, there are more questions [with AI]. There’s the same danger of nefarious things happening with virtual influencers, and you don’t have the same accountability that you do with an individual, so there is a heightened risk for misinformation and swaying opinion,” he acknowledges.
In terms of the additional challenges that come with virtual influencers (compared to human influencers), Dahan suggests that brands need to be aware of the ongoing commitment and workload. “As people we all have experiences and life stories and we’re used to expressing every little thing we do, but we’re not conscious of it,” he explains. “With a virtual influencer, somebody has to consciously write that down. It’s like a movie script – ten people sat in a room for hours and deliberately decided to include that piece of dialogue… it is much more finite and isolated, but with a virtual influencer it is continuous, and it is a lot of content.”
The impact of the metaverse (and the ‘avatarisation’ of real people)
Despite lingering concerns over AI technology, Dahan says that the potential will eventually outweigh the risks. “We are seeing it with chatbots getting smarter and smarter every year, so who is to say a few years from now virtual influencers can’t be managed in the metaverse by AI, [with this technology] controlling most of the interactions and creating personalised experiences for users?” he asks.
Dahan suggests that another factor that is likely to propel the popularity of virtual influencers is the impact of the metaverse and Web3 culture, and the ‘avatarisation’ of real people.
“If you look at the crypto world, people are buying NFTs and making them their profile picture, right? And with the metaverse, you need an avatar – you can’t just go in live action,” he says. “I think that will make it easier for virtual influencers to exist, because how do you know whether or not that avatar is a real flesh and blood person or a team of people carefully crafting their messaging?”
“The other thing that’s interesting is that you can have the same virtual influencer in more than one virtual location, and you can customise experiences. All this feels very ‘pie in the sky’ but the advances in AI are moving really quickly.”
New methods of monetisation for creators
Finally, Dahan touches on the industry shifts that could result in the emergence of more digital creators (and virtual influencers) than ever before. Most notably, he says, is Apple’s privacy updates and the impact it has had on ROAS and ad performance.
“This has created a push towards social commerce,” he says. “But there has also been a bigger shift in the past couple of years in how platforms look at creators. Where Facebook used to look at influencers as a nuisance – taking money away from its ad platform – now they realise ‘ok well, we actually need to reward the creators, so they stay on and create and keep the audience.’”
“So, whether it be video or affiliate revenue through social commerce, the bigger shift that is happening for creators is platforms finding new ways to monetise aside from just selling impressions and clicks.”