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Should your influencers be human - or virtual?

Virtual influencers make your brand stand out and make your products seem more innovative.

Topics: Social media | Ads | Brand & Strategy
For: B2C
Research date: January 2023
Universities: Saarland University

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📝 Intro

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.

📈 Recommendation

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.

Lil Miquela Instagram post

🎓 Findings

  • 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

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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.

Imma influencer for Lenovo Yoga laptop campaign

⚡ 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

Online experiments.

📖 Research

🏫 Researchers

  • 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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