For several years now influencers have been the focus of many digital marketing strategies. However, thanks to radical developments in digital technologies, the influencer landscape is changing in a way that could cause actual human influencers to become outdated. Millions of people around the world are engrossed in Instagram to follow and take part in a new wave of online personalities: virtual influencers. Though virtual influencers do not actually “exist” in the literal sense, consumers can become fans of the virtual influencer, just as they would with a real-life celebrity.
Emergence of Virtual Influencer
By definition, virtual influencers, also known as computer-generated imagery (CGI) influencers, are fictional computer-generated “people” created for marketing purpose. They possess the realistic characteristics, specific features, and personalities of humans: age, origin, MBTI®, and political inclination. Behind each of them are smart creators- brands and individuals with a keen eye for technology, who use animated images from digital artists to precisely re-create the delicate features of human beings. Some companies are even building their influencers from the ground up, as their main brand ambassadors.
The trend of virtual influencers began in 2016 when an American-Brazilian influencer from South California named Lil Miquela appeared and posted her first pictures on Instagram. In three years, the teenage fashionista had only made an online presence but managed to attract the attention of luxury brands and fashion magazines, along with 1.6 million Instagram followers. Not only is she dressed by the biggest brands, but she is also involved in social and political issues as she urges her subscribers to vote through her posts. Because of her influence, distinctive virtual influencers have multiplied at lightning speeds all over the world.
Similar to Lil Miquela, Rozy, unveiled by the content creative group Sidus Studio X, is the first virtual influencer in Korea. After first showing her presence on Instagram, Rozy has gathered more than 10,000 followers in about 3 months. She has been steadily communicating through social media, exchanging comments, and sharing her daily life. Kim Jin-su, the Campaign Director of Sidus Studio X, said, “As a company that makes creative content, I was thinking about ways to become more original. While finding a solution in the field we are good at, Sidus Studio X’s planning ability and Locus’ 3D technology have combined to create Rozy, a new type of virtual influencer.” He added, “managing Rozy’s worldview to fashion and communication is completed through the cooperation of a team with specialized know-how.”
Samsung Electronics’ future technology industrialization venture organization “Star Labs” is also making progress with their artificial human project “NEON”. NEON was first released at the world’s largest household appliance exhibition “CES2020” in Las Vegas. Although it is a virtual being, it can respond to users with the same movements and facial expressions as a real human being and even create memories. Pranav Mistry, CEO of Star Labs, said “NEON can exist throughout society in various roles. They can be new anchors, K-pop stars, or actors. From distance learning to personalized customer care to contactless retail and remote healthcare, we hope NEONs will generate limitless possibilities.”
The Pros and Cons of Virtual Influencers
There are certainly several advantages for advertisers and customers when it comes to virtual influencers. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, face-to-face contact has become dangerous and burdensome. In such circumstances, it is an attractive idea that virtual influencers can operate regardless of time and place without fear of contagion. Moreover, they will give brands more control over their collaborations. Unlike real influencers, virtual influencers are less likely to be embroiled in controversies, which could potentially damage the reputation of the brand. Above all, marketing strategies using virtual influencers are an effective way to target millennials and Generation Z (those born in the 1980s and early 2000s) also known as the MZ generation, as they feel rather familiar with the online world. “The MZ generation knows how to enjoy unfamiliar content without avoiding it, so they accept virtual influencers as a new culture,” said Director Kim.
Despite creating a fresh sensation, marketing with virtual influencers can cause an inevitable problem. They are not immune from the controversy over illegal use. In particular, illegal video such as pornography that reproduces them is not subject to punishment. According to a report released by DeepTrace in 2019, a Dutch cybersecurity research company, 96 percent of 14,698 videos produced by “deep fake” technology- artificial intelligence technology to produce images by synthesizing faces or specific parts of characters- are consumed as pornography.
There is also the problem that consumers regard its advertising as factual. Considering that a virtual influencer is a profit-seeking enterprise activity, consumers have no choice but to suffer if manipulative advertising is made through them. “Since a virtual influencer is usually used as one of the port-folio plans of related companies or agencies, it is likely to be a much more market profit-seeking model compared to a human influencer by dexterously utilizing a deceptive advertisement such as back advertisement.” said Lee Kwang-suk, Associate Professor from the Department of Digital & Cultural Policy at Graduate School of Seoul National University of Science & Technology.
Prospects of Virtual Influencers
There are various perspectives concerning how virtual influencers will affect humans in the future. Regarding this matter, Professor Lee mentioned, “because of the limitations of virtual humans or AI (artificial intelligence), they are likely to co-exist with real humans in complementary relationships.” He added, “Character and automation using artificial intelligence technology may replace certain human occupations, but it will create new jobs related to it as well by and large. That is, new human jobs must be derived to manage and develop virtual influencers.”
Usually, influencer marketing affects a person’s recognition and reliability. However, there is difficulty in establishing a reliable relationship with virtual influencers beyond product promotion because they lack humanity. Regarding this issue, Mr. Mistry emphasized the importance of “Core R3: Reality, Realtime, and Responsive”. He explained, “There is a limit to what we see today in virtual influencers because they are static images, pre-created videos, and visually unrealistic. The key to unlocking new opportunities with virtual humans lies in delivering a lifelike human look that responds in real-time. Only then can we have truly human experiences and deliver authentic, unique engagements with people. NEON was created understanding the need to solve this problem at its core.”
Virtual Influencers from Now on
Though virtual influencer marketing is still in its infancy, it is expected to grow rapidly and gain in popularity. According to Mr. Mistry, virtual influencers will offer access, availability and personal responsiveness that real human influencers will never achieve- 24/7 access, global reach, and the ability to speak directly and personally to any follower. Director Kim concurred with the tantalizing prospect of them as well. He remarked, “There are still many barriers to cope with before it will be ready for public use, but I think they can quickly be overcome if the will to challenge and advanced technology are combined.”
Overall, with virtual reality and computer graphics becoming more sophisticated and easier to produce, their share of the market will likely increase over in the next few years. Influencers like Rozy and NEON are an excellent blueprint for marketers wishing to tap into this phenomenon. In today’s digital age, consumers need a sensible attitude of acceptance instead of needless worries. It is hoped that after their trials and errors period that this trend will develop into something that benefit the people who are in charge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.