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Opinion

Are Virtual Influencers a Threat to the Influencer Community?

With influencer marketing, authenticity is derived from people being their genuine selves – what happens when brands favour virtual influencers instead of humans?

As the world becomes increasingly digitised, more brands and advertisers are incorporating graphic design and online media into their marketing strategies. For the influencer industry, this presents in the form of virtual influencers. Although virtual influencers are not a new trend, their appearances are becoming more frequent and normalised in digital and even physical advertisements.

With an entire world of actual people and massive networks of influencers to choose from, what happens when brands and advertisers start to favor manufactured personalities instead of human ones? 

What are virtual influencers? 

Influencers are people with a certain amount of authority, respect and influence in specific niches, topics or areas of interest, that are trusted by wide groups of people. Virtual influencers are the same – with one key difference. Much as the name suggests, virtual influencers exist in an entirely digital presence. While influencers are human beings with unique thought patterns and personalities, virtual influencers are the images of people given the same characteristics through the dedicated work of copywriters, designers, and programmers. Although the idea of virtual influencers seems very dystopian, more brands and advertisers are adopting virtual tastemakers in their digital media campaigns – and receiving more engagement and conversation from it. 

Virtual influencers pose an interesting paradox for influencer marketing – they can be powerful but what dangers do they pose for brands?. 

The danger of virtual influencers 

The presence of virtual influencers creates a range of new issues for the rest of the industry to address. Influencer marketing done right is focused on authenticity and transparency but virtual influencers are entirely fabricated beings. Can a virtual influencer be authentic? If a brand’s audience sees they are working with virtual influencers, how will they react? Will they trust recommendations or just view it like any other gimmicky advertisement?

Virtual influencers are perfectly crafted versions of what their creators assume their audience is interested in. Instead of searching for a human influencer that embodies similar aesthetics and values, brands can design a virtual influencer that fits their exact parameters. This could result in a loss of authenticity for the brand, no matter how transparent they are about their use of virtual influencers. Furthermore, the unrealistic standards imposed by virtual influencers can enhance unhealthy stigmas surrounding beauty and attractiveness. When you’re programmed to an unattainable level of style, virtual influencers are no longer relatable – they are avatars bending to the whim of a talented group of copywriters and designers. However, there are two sides to every story. 

The power of virtual influencers 

On the other hand, virtual influencers are an expression of art. They are digitally designed avatars whose appearance and personality appeal to a certain target audience. In a way, virtual influencers are the ideal form of influencer because they are reliable and predictable – they will always align with your brand values, post on time, and will never go off-message. In terms of authenticity and transparency, perhaps a virtual influencer can be perceived as authentic by their audience if their team of copywriters writes good material. People do follow and engage with virtual influencers for a reason, right?

Although the use of virtual influencers can be seen as a blow to a brand’s transparency, virtual influencers like Lil Miquela are self-aware in their digitised sentience – in turn, making the relationship a transparent one. Brands engaging with virtual influencers can even be perceived as hip by engaging in an experimental medium. For fashion and e-commerce brands, virtual influencers can also embody the full artistic vision of the product or service in a way that perfectly fits the wants and needs of the brand – something that might be otherwise unattainable with a human influencer.

That being said, the interests of each brand and their consumers are vastly different and whereas virtual influencers might work with some audiences, they might be seen as alien and rendered ineffective in others. 

What does this mean for advertisers?  

Advertising is evolving. The way that consumers treat brands, influencers and digital campaigns are also changing. The two coincide in the values of consumers – and the vocal advocacy for transparency, authenticity, and accountability in brand messages. Virtual influencers create a new type of contradiction, where the reasons they are beneficial are also the reasons that they are vilifying. Either way, virtual influencers are likely here to stay. 

Moving forward into the new age of influencer marketing, brands will have to focus on finding the right influencer for their campaign that embodies the same values and goals as the brand itself. Whether or not that influencer is real or virtual is up to the brand as well. Whereas some audiences prefer the honest, genuine connections from humans, other niches might prefer the digitised appearances of virtual influencers.

The bottom line is: as the influencer industry becomes more diversified, the ways that brands advertise to their audiences will also specialise. As more brands hone their craft and discover the faces or voices of their products, influencers must identify where their true values lie and advocate for those brands. Virtual influencers are guaranteed to do the same. 

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