At this year’s BAFTAs, those in the influencer marketing industry might have noticed a familiar, if not real, face. Shudu, the CGI influencer, signed a deal with EE to become, what they claim, was the “world’s first artificial (AI) stylist” as the mobile company tripped out a great PR story to show off its 5G strength. Using CGI and bots, it appeared as if Shudu is at the BAFTAs, which EE has sponsored for years, putting this odd strand of the influencer family back into the limelight.
The trend first hit the headlines about a year ago when two influencers, Lil Miquela and Bermuda, got into some trouble. After some intrigue, this trouble turned out to have been fully instigated by Burd, the LA-based company that created both influencers.
What a very clever move it was. For a few months, CGI influencers were the new superstars of influencer marketing with follower numbers, column inches and sponsorship dollars skyrocketing. They were the talk of the town, with everyone from Elle to The Metro covering them.
I was even interviewed for The New Statesman on the subject. However, the piece never actually ran. The title decided to pull the piece because, by the time it got round to covering it, the hype had vanished. The story was a story no more.
Are they a fad?
Even a cursory Google search shows that nothing much substantial has been written about Lil Miquela or Blawko for a while, despite their accounts still being active. Another quick check of Instagram and you can see that their follower numbers have been pretty much static for a year and there aren’t many uses of #ad any more.
All of this adds up to CGI influencers being a fad. While there are only a few of them around, they have a little bit of intrigue and notoriety but if there were thousands of them, no one would follow them. They’d become very boring very quickly.
Whether real or not, influencers are in the game to make money and in this part of the game CGI influencers are no threat to real-life ones.
As we all know, to be a financially successful influencer you need to deliver content and a persona that people can connect with on an emotional level – if there’s no authenticity, consumers aren’t going to connect or buy a company’s product. It is very difficult to create a human connection with someone they know isn’t real. Once a consumer knows they’re a construct, that human connection is lost.
People also trust influencers’ opinions – that’s why they follow them. They are beauty consultants, fashion doyens, lifestyle gurus and companions. Again, who is going to fully trust the opinion of an AI construct when the fourth wall has been broken?
CGI influencers are also very limited in what they can actually promote. For example, they really struggle to sell products with any efficacy. How can a non-human person without real skin or real pimples show the benefits of skincare products or realistically tell you how great their holiday was or how good the Wholefoods hummus or KFC Mega Bucket tastes?
Measuring true ROI
You also need to take into account the production costs on posts. Props to Lil Miquela who still has 1.5 million followers (and was also listed among Times’ Most Influential People on the Internet 2018). We estimate she’d make her team roughly £15,000 per post. The key word here though, being “team”. There are obviously a number of developers and production staff going into keeping her “alive” and in the public view, so we would question the actual return on investment (ROI) on that number.
Similarly, if you look at Shudu, with just 157,000 followers, her team can expect to generate roughly £2,000 per post. The ROI question becomes even more prevalent.
It doesn’t mean CGI influencers can’t be used to grab headlines – and the EE deal is a great example of this. However, a look at Shudu’s engagement levels makes me believe that this move will only add to the faddiness of the CGI influencer without delivering any real business value.
They can also be morphed to trends; interesting stories can be created around them, and they can be interesting content creators. There is space for them in that they can be used in interesting and creative ways to spread awareness but won’t necessarily bring all the benefits of traditional influencers. It’s more like an art project or an anthropological question than a real business tool.
Their impact on the industry
There is also a larger question to be asked, though, about how good are they for the industry in general. While we are consistently trying to prove our worth as a marketing channel, we are constantly rocked by negative stories – do we really need to add to this by taking too seriously something that isn’t real?
While they were a bit of fun at the time and they are a good example of what can be done with CGI and AI, ultimately, they have very little longevity and can make very little positive impact on the business. Their limited endorsement opportunities mean they are a sideshow, not the main event.
As part of this piece, I was asked to talk about how much CGI influencers will impact the channel in 2019. My answer is, not much.
Do you agree or disagree? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below or reaching out on social media.