Code-based Couture

Can Virtual Influencers Work For Your Brand?

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Hello fellow Ladderers!

This week Ive been looking into the weird and whacky world of virtual influencers. And its quite the scene, let me tell you.

Plus Ive got the usual tightly curated feast of top-notch links, news and tools from around the marketing, strategy and product web.

If you missed last weeks edition all about how to make UGC work for your brand, you can catch-up here

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Todays feature

Code-based Couture:

 Are Virtual Influencers Good For Your Brand?

梧 ~ 6 minutes 17 seconds to read

Im scrolling through Instagram, idly passing time like any self-respecting procrastinator, when a post catches my eye. It's a snazzy new puffa jacket, the kind that screams "I'm too cool to be cold" while looking suspiciously like a high-fashion marshmallow.

Intrigued, I tap on the post to get a closer look and quickly send it to my friend. Just yesterday, he was lamenting his lack of stylish winter wear, and this jacket seems like the perfect solution to his seasonal woes.

Moments later, my phone buzzes with a reply. "Mate, you know that's not a real person, right?"

My friend has a knack for pointing out the painfully obvious, but this one leaves me a bit baffled.

I take another look at the profile. Sure he has a neatly chiselled jawline, but I see freckles, I see wrinkles. I see Virtual Model In The Real World in his bio - Dammit!

I've just been duped by a virtual influencer.

Welcome to the bizarre world of social media, where reality is as elusive as the delivery of a politician's promise.

Here, influencersreal or pixelatedparade products with an air of effortless judginess.

I dont know about you but Im starting to wonder, what kind of world have we created where fake people can sell real jackets?

Sure, Tony The Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop have been around for a while. But this is something entirely different.

And the irony is thick.

Social media was supposed to connect us, to bring people closer.

Instead, its a heady combination of a spreading dumpster-fire and funhouse mirror, distorting reality until we can't tell the difference between a human and a bunch of cleverly arranged pixels.

Instagram Selfie GIF

Too real

Virtual influencers are the latest twist in this surreal social media experiment. These AI-generated personalities are crafted to perfection, devoid of human flaws (or deliberately included), and designed to shill products with laser-like precision.

Like a T1000 terminator spokesperson they don't get tired, they don't age, and they certainly don't post unflattering photos.

And they command millions of followers and drive consumer behaviour just like their human counterparts. In fact in many instances much more engagement.

It's a brave new world out there, where the line between reality and virtual insanity is blurrier than ever.

I have a feeling he still bought the puffa jacket too 坏

SHES A WHAT NOW?!?!

So, what exactly is a virtual influencer?

Imagine Pinocchio, but instead of wanting to be a real boy, he decided he only wanted to be insta-famous. And Geppetto? Hes actually a 17-year-old kid from Bulgaria or an ad agency intern whos pretty handy with Midjourney.

Virtual influencers are computer-generated characters designed to engage, entertain, and yes, influence their followers just like their human counterparts.

Theyre seemingly a marketers dreamalways on-brand, always available, and never demanding a raise.

The concept is way older than ChatGPT though.

The first virtual influencer to gain significant attention was Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela. Created in 2016 by the company Brud, Lil Miquela quickly amassed a huge following by blending hyper-realistic visuals with engaging storytelling.

Shes a singer, a model, and yes, shes even been involved in controversiesjust like any real influencer worth their salt. They were probably fabricated too!

For a while there, in the early days of virtual influencers, there was some backlash that they were putting real models and celebs out of work.

But then everyone realised they dont really care about models and celebrities (at least when it comes to a career) and we all just accepted them and moved on with our lives.

Fast forward to today, and the crown for the most popular virtual influencer arguably belongs to Lu do Magalu. Created by the Brazilian retail company Magazine Luiza, Lu has over 5 million followers on Instagram.

I genuinely cannot explain this  

Theres a fascinating spectrum in the virtual influencer universe.

On one end, you have hyper-realistic figures like Lil Miquela, who could easily pass for a real person in a lineup. And as you can imagine, more than a couple of these hyper-realistic ladies have their own OnlyFans accounts too 井

On the other end, youve got synthetic or fantasy-style influencers like FN Meka, a frankly pretty-lame fictional rapper that dudes seem to love, or the apisian influencer known as Bee_nfluencer, whos exactly what it sounds likea digital bee, spreading awareness about environmental issues. At least theres a non-commercial point to his existence .

Whether you find it creepy or cutting-edge, the line between reality and digital fantasy is becoming increasingly blurred, and were all just in the backseat hoping the seatbelts work.

This wont get weird at all with AR/VR headsets 咧.

SHINY HAPPY BEEPLE

Alright, lets dive into the shiny, polished-perfect world of virtual influencers and explore the pros of teaming up with one.

First up, engagement. Bizarrely, virtual influencers have engagement rates beyond those of their silly old flesh-and-blood counterparts. According to HypeAuditor, they can drive double the engagement of a Byron Bay housewife.

And heres a stat to chew on: 35% of virtual influencer followers report they've actually bought something promoted by a virtual influencer in the past. Yes, these piles of pixels are genuinely moving stock. Welcome to 2024.

Then theres the convenience factor. Virtual influencers dont sleep, dont throw diva tantrums, and dont suddenly announce theyre taking a break from social media for mental health.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Film GIF by Tech Noir

This new hand cream from Svelt has seriously changed my life you guys

Theyre always on, always perfect, and always available to hero your product with an uncanny blend of charm (thats the comments and captions) and sleeve-tattooed designer precision.

Brands love them because theyre immune to scandals.

No late-night tweets to apologise for, no surprise political opinions, no unexpected lawsuits. Theyre built to be the epitome of brand-safe.

And lets not forget cost-efficiency. Sure, creating a top-tier virtual influencer might have a hefty upfront cost, but once youve got them, they dont need a private jet or a luxury hotel suite.

Similarly, to engage one, their posts come at a significant discount to the human versions. Because a post is simply a few hours on the laptop. No cameras, sets, lighting, or annoying real-people in the background.

Whats not to love? Right?

NOT ALL THAT GLITCHES IS GOLD

Alright, lets talk about the darker side of the virtual influencer phenomenon.

First, lets tackle the trust issue. Sure, virtual influencers are immune to human slip-ups, but they also lack a crucial elementauthenticity.

The core advantage of using a real influencer for a campaign is that the consumer puts some stock or faith in the fact that said influencer may or at least could use the product IRL.

Thats why you dont see insta gym bros selling press-on nail kit subscriptions. Generally

But if an influencer cant actually use the product theyre promoting, because theyre made of pixels, theres an unavoidable subconscious moment of having to push past our BS-detector.

You know that Lil Miquela isnt actually strutting in Prada, and the Virtual Colonels physique doesn't quite match his diet of pure fried chicken.

Authenticity goes beyond just using the product. Lets be realKylie Jenner probably doesnt guzzle Pepsi.

Another problem for virtual influencers is the creep-out effect, known as Masahiro Moris uncanny valley. Sometimes theyre just too perfect, and that perfection feels just weird 尹 

So theyre not everyones cup of tea.

According to InfluencerMarketingHub, brand collaborations with real-deal influencers are evaluated more positively and more trust-worthy than with their virtual counterparts.

Turns out, people do still prefer endorsements from someone with an actual pulse.

Then theres the demographic dilemma. Virtual influencers skew younglike TikTok-obsessed, still-living-with-their-parents young.

HypeAuditor found that these followers are predominantly Gen Z and Millennials. So, if youre targeting anyone over the age of 30, good luck. Your grandma might just squint at the screen and ask why the cartoon lady is trying to sell her skincare.

Another con? Engagement might be high, but conversion isnt always a sure bet. While 35% of followers have made a purchase based on a virtual influencers recommendation, this still leaves a significant chunk of followers who are just there for the eye-candy, not the shopping tips.

Finally, is it OK?

Its now common knowledge that unrealistic body standards on social media wreak havoc on people, especially young peoples self-esteem.

Virtual influencers, with their perfect bodies and flawless faces, never show tiredness or real adversity, and always say the right thing.

So lets just take all the sh*t on IG that makes you hate yourself, and 10x it!  

Should your brand be associated with such artificial and potentially harmful content? Editing out blemishes is one thing; creating an entirely flawless character of an unattainable standard is a whole different ball game.

So, while virtual influencers might seem like the future, its fair to say they come with their own set of glitches.

ARE YOU READY TO MAKE IT OFFICIAL?

Now I know weve been on quite the rant about how virtual influencers are the canary in the coal mine of our civilisations imminent collapse but that doesnt mean theyre necessarily a bad idea for your brand!

Season 3 Laughing GIF by The Simpsons

So, when should a brand shake hands with a virtual influencer and get some of that sweet sweet (read cheap) social engagement?

Here's a checklist to help you decide if these digital dolls are the right fit for your marketing strategy:

1. Assess Brand Risk: Are you willing to gamble with authenticity? Virtual influencers can bring the uncanny valley or ethical heat, which might not sit well with all audiences. Make sure your brand can handle potential backlash.

2. Know Your Audience: If your target demographic includes Gen Z and Millennials, who are already glued to TikTok and Instagram, virtual influencers might be a perfect match. They love novelty, and understand the score with these profiles.

3. Purpose of Engagement: Be crystal clear about why you're using a virtual influencer. Are you trying to boost brand awareness, drive immediate sales, or just jump on a trend? Define your goals before diving in.

4. Content Alignment: Ensure the virtual influencers content style and values align with your brand. A mismatch here can lead to awkward campaigns that feel forced and ironically (in an uncool way) inauthentic.

5. Cost-Benefit Analysis: Weigh the advertising costs against the potential intended benefits. They might be cheaper but are you getting what you really want out of the deal?

6. Scalability and Consistency: Virtual influencers offer the advantage of being consistently on-brand and scalable across multiple campaigns without the human hiccups. So think about how you might go long-term with an arrangement.

Thinking through the above will give you a really good idea of whether this is a meh or a f*ck yeah! approach for your brand.

The authenticity debate really is the central controversy of virtual influencers, revealing the ethical and perception challenges they pose for brands.

While some brands might even use these avatars for satirical commentary, the lack of genuine trust means they might not blend seamlessly into your social/ influencer promotional mix longer term.

Will virtual influencers be a fleeting gimmick or a lasting trend that reshapes branded content?

I think theyre here to stay - but theyll only last as long as people engage with them AND brands are willing to pay them.

For now, Ill be keeping an eye out for that puffa jacket and reminding my mate how much he looks like a robo-marshmallow whenever I see him wearing it 不

If you enjoyed this edition, please forward it to a friend whos looking to level-up their marketing and advertising game - theyll love you for it (and I will too) 哨

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Troy Muir | The Ladder

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