Should your influencers be human - or virtual?
Virtual influencers make your brand stand out and make your products seem more innovative.
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Influencers are effective. But they’re people. They could suddenly lose it, and that backfires on you.
Just think of how Kanye West damaged Adidas’s brand. Something like that can happen with brands and influencers of any size.
But influencers don’t have to be flawed humans anymore. Take Lil Miquela. Millions of Instagram followers, and she’s not even real. Or Shudu, “The World’s First Digital Supermodel”.
Convenient, yes. But are they effective?
Here’s when you should use them, according to the latest scientific research.
P.S.: You might even want to create your own AI-powered digital influencer.
For example, with the right prompts, you could use a combination of Open AI’s ChatGPT and Dall-E to help you efficiently create and run a non-human influencer account. Just make sure it doesn’t start things that it shouldn’t.
Previous insight: Make your products shine (150+ more insights here)
Use a virtual influencer to stand out and make your brand feel cutting-edge
Channels: Influencer marketing | Social media | Ads
For: B2C. Can be tested for B2B
Research date: January 2023
If your product is tech-related or innovative, work with digitally-created virtual influencers. Your brand will receive a boost and people will be more interested in buying.
If your product has to do with the human body (e.g. cosmetics, hygiene), stick to human influencers.
Make sure that the virtual influencer clearly says they are not human. If people can’t tell, the confusion outweighs the benefits.
One of the most famous virtual influencers is Lil Miquela, who claims to be half-Brazilian and half-Spanish, from L.A.
Pro tip: related research found that virtual influencers are great at grabbing attention for your brand, but not so good at direct conversions to sales, because people struggle to relate with them.
Virtual influencers are characters that resemble humans but only exist in digital form. They often have personalities and can show emotions. They can be run by humans, AI, or a combination.
People tend to prefer humans over virtual influencers. But because of their novelty, virtual influencers can make a brand feel more innovative and make it stand out.
As part of 2 experiments, different groups of German women were shown:
A Lancôme cosmetics ad, endorsed either by virtual influencer Lil Miquela or human influencer Emily Bador. They rated the ad with the:
Human influencer as 22% more likable
Virtual influencer as 11.2% more innovative
Ads for a Samsung speaker or a Calvin Klein cream, paired with either a virtual or human influencer. They said they were:
More likely to buy the speaker when it was paired with the virtual influencer
More likely to buy the cream when it was paired with the human influencer
🧠 Why it works
We tend to be more tolerant and accepting of other humans compared to technology due to our algorithm aversion. Especially when they make mistakes.
For example, we rate customer service better when we interact with a human rather than a bot - even when the experience is the same.
On the other hand, virtual influencers stand out as something new and innovative - which is a perfect fit if that’s how the brand wants to be perceived.
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The experiments only had female participants. It’s possible that males like virtual influencers more - or less.
The study only tested one technical product (Samsung speaker) and two cosmetic brands (Lancôme; Calvin Klein cream). It’s unclear how the effect works with other products. For example, technical products for which innovation is not as important (e.g. a dishwasher) might not benefit from this effect.
Are virtual influencers more effective if they look more or less realistic and human-like? Does a “personality” or backstory make them more or less effective? This remains unclear.
Cultural exposure to robots and virtual characters may influence this effect. For example, a Japanese audience - where virtual characters are common - may react differently. This study only tested participants in Germany.
🏢 Companies using this
Virtual characters are increasingly common - Hatsune Mike has almost a million Facebook fans and “performed” as the opening act for Lady Gaga’s 2014 World Tour.
Brands from KFC to Calvin Klein to Chanel have all partnered with virtual influencers. Shudu endorses Fenty Beauty. Cartoon-like Noonoouri is vegan and works with various luxury brands. Hyper-realistic Imma from Japan has pink hair and has worked with IKEA and Dior.
Some companies have even started creating their own virtual influencers. For example, LG launched its own virtual influencer Reah Keem.
Lenovo’s Yoga campaign with Japanese influencer Imma.
⚡ Steps to implement
Decide whether to work with virtual influencers depending on your product and brand positioning. They might be well suited for gaming products. Less so if you are selling food products.
Use an influencer marketing platform such as Hypetrain or Upfluence to look for virtual influencers that fit your audience. Try using keywords such as ‘virtual’, ‘robot’, or ‘digital’ to search for them.
Make sure the virtual influencer communicates that they are not human. The more human-like they are, the more important this is. In some countries (e.g. India), it’s a legal requirement to disclose it.
🔍 Study type
Consumers’ Responses to Virtual Influencers as Advertising Endorsers: Novel and Effective or Uncanny and Deceiving?. Journal of Advertising (Jan 2023).
Claudia Franke. Saarland University
Andrea Groeppel-Klein. Saarland University
Katrin Müller. Saarland University
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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