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Opinion

How COVID-19 Could Impact Virtual Influencers

Kayla Matthews outlines the impact COVID-19 could have on virtual influencers as brands look for new opportunities.

Virtual influencers are fully fabricated online personalities. The most popular ones have teams of people behind them, ranging from voice actors to artists who specialise in computer-generated animation. Many marketers wonder what kind of impact — if any — COVID-19 could have on virtual influencers.

Virtual influencers could reduce Coronavirus misinformation

One of the well-established benefits associated with virtual influencers is that the brands using them can have complete control over the messaging. The COVID-19 pandemic emerged at a time when people eagerly share content on social media — often without fact-checking it, meaning false information can spread rapidly, putting the public in danger.

Research from the University of Oxford and Reuters Institute recently conducted a study to learn how people get COVID-19 news, and how much they trust it. The results showed 38% of people in the UK and 33% in the US had seen “a lot” or “a great deal” of false information about the coronavirus on social media channels in the past week. 

Perhaps that’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) partnered with Knox Frost to distribute accurate information about COVID-19, plus help raise money to help with the fight. Frost is a digital rendition of a 20-year-old male from Atlanta. His recent social media posts urged people to FaceTime their friends, only check the news once a day and stay inside to combat some of the most severe effects of COVID-19. He also repurposed a paintball mask to wear when going on a run. 

Frost has 1 million Instagram followers. However, unlike the profiles of other virtual influencers, the content makes no effort to clarify he’s not human. People who sign up for Frost’s mailing list even see a prompt that reads, “Get to know the real me.” 

Some of Frost’s pictures feature him in the image with an actual person. In those cases, some commenters point out it’s easy to tell the realness from the constructed person. People still want authenticity. Even though virtual influencers could gain ground by giving people the right information about how to stay safe and healthy, they are not likely to completely overtake real people who work as influencers. 

Virtual influencers could stimulate purchases during economic recoveries

Brands often work with influencers because they know consumers are more likely to purchase things or consider them when people they know recommend the items. Influencers also work hard to create emotional connections with their audiences. 

Dudley Nevill-Spencer of The Virtual Influencer Agency says that can happen with computerised characters, too. He explained, “When we anthropomorphize something, that is, see it as having human characteristics, we start to think of it as worthy of moral care and consideration. It is impossible for a human not to have an emotional connection with something that looks human.”

Virtual influencers are often tools to boost sales in China. Some of them look like anime characters while others more closely resemble real people. Noonoouri is one of the most dominant virtual influencers in the Chinese market. She first emerged on Instagram during the 2018 New York Fashion Week. Now, a team of seven people works on crafting the virtual influencer, whether choosing her hair, makeup, or poses. Noonoouri was even featured on a Vogue magazine cover. 

COVID-19 is having a tremendous impact on economies around the world, with some analysts saying recoveries could take years. Many brands have already pivoted their business models to reflect the new commercial landscape created by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, brands that formerly only offered in-person service now deliver goods to people’s doors to support social distancing. 

We could also see marketing teams adding virtual influencers into their marketing mixes. Brands must start exploring how to help sales bounce back after life returns to relative normalcy. Many may investigate whether virtual influencers offer tickets to success, especially since these brand ambassadors can work all the time and be available whenever a company needs them.

Virtual influencers’ ultra-perfection

A primary reason why conventional influencer marketing has taken off is that it retains some realism. Even as people see celebrity influencers showing off their dream-come-true lives, most can still identify some elements that make those famous people like everyday individuals. 

For example, an influencer who advertises a luggage brand might confess she woke up late and almost missed her flight, but say at least she’d packed the night before. Then, people get the feeling that even the most well-known internet stars are just like them to some extent. Marketers should keep that in mind if they use or are thinking about depending on virtual influencers. 

The way a company can shape every part of the character is undoubtedly a perk for brand-building. Harry Hugo, co-founder of The Goat Agency, said, “[Virtual influencers] can be available 24/7 and have a personality molded to be exactly what you want. They can literally be whatever you want them to be. These things are massive plus points for brands because they can literally make the perfect ambassador.”

Brands must take care to strike a balance, though, and not make people feel discouraged that the virtual influencer represents a level of perfection they can never reach. If they are already working with traditional influencers, they might take note of which aspects of those people seem to resonate most with the audience, then use that data to build a virtual influencer.

Something else to be aware of is that the number of Instagram posts from human influencers still outweigh those from virtual characters across profiles of all follower counts. That was the conclusion made by a HypeAuditor report published in 2019 that examined the growing popularity and reliance on virtual influencers. 

Consider using virtual influencers thoughtfully

This overview shows why more brands may decide that virtual influencers could help meet their needs throughout and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Brands don’t need to worry that a fabricated version of an influencer might get into an embarrassing situation or say something that damages a brand. However, they must take care to maintain as much realism as possible in the characters to make them maximally relatable.

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