Lil Miquela has 1.3 million Instagram followers. It figures. She is a beautiful model with a unique sense of style. But, she is fake. Literally unreal — a CGI “being.” This sounds a lot like the HBO series Westworld, in which guests interact with artificial people, scripted to act convincingly human. In the series, the lines between reality and fantasy are so blurred it becomes hard to tell the difference.
Lil Miquela (@lilmiquela) joined Instagram in April 2016. She accumulated fans quickly and piqued the interest of fashion brands and the media. So far this year, she has graced the cover of the fashion magazine Highsnobiety, King Kong Magazine, and contemporary culture magazine 032c. Miquela even has a Spotify page. Her songs have been streamed millions of times.
In a recent funding round earlier this year, the company behind Miquela, Brud, raised millions of dollars from big-name investors. Brud has made other virtual influencers, too — Blawko22 and BermudaisBae. Neither are as famous as Miquela, but they are both gaining steam quickly, with 66.1K and 82.8K followers, respectively.
There is also Shudu, the “World’s First Digital Supermodel,” created by artist Cameron James-Wilson. “She” is already up to 128k followers, yet she has only posted 26 times. Her popularity is thanks, in part, to Rihanna’s makeup company, Fenty Beauty. It posted an image of Shudu wearing a shade of its lipstick that went viral.
In the end of Westworld season one, the robots revolt. Virtual influencers may not pose a threat of physical harm, but they have the potential to be dangerous for brands. Part of influencer marketing’s appeal is that it gives advertisers a chance to leverage someone’s genuine connection with an audience. Virtual influencers are thought-provoking and fun to look at, but they are certainly not genuine.
On the other hand, virtual influencers solve some of the problems brands face with influencer marketing. Human influencers put their own spin on a brand’s message. That can feel perilous. Sometimes, they even deviate from the creative brief, resulting in back and forth edits that can delay a campaign launch and frustrate both parties. Virtual influencers communicate a brand’s agenda through a seemingly distinct voice. There is no risk of a human being sharing opinions or personal experiences that detract from the marketer’s goal.
Many brands that leverage influencer marketing are hyper focused on making sure all of the talking points in their creative brief are sufficiently covered, because that brief is a result of significant strategy work. Many brands aren’t actually interested in leveraging an influencer for an unbiased opinion. The influencer is a distribution channel, but the brand is the one defining the message. In cases like this, when marketers deem control to be paramount, it might make sense for them to cut out the middleman — the influencer — and produce and distribute the content themselves through their own virtual influencer. Assuming brands can successfully build a character that engages their target audience, marketers can still find and connect with customers and prospects in a unique and memorable way.
Virtual influencers are like a piece of art. As such, they make more sense for fashion and lifestyle brands than, say, cooking products, where quality and performance are key selling points. Prada and Giphy have already partnered with Lil Miquela, but a virtual influencer can’t take the place of a real live food blogger touting the benefits of the newest baking tools. They can get people talking, though, and help to establish a brand as innovative, edgy, and aesthetically pleasing.
When to avoid the ‘androids’
The whole notion of influencer marketing is that influencers are uniquely qualified to create content that resonates with their audience. They know their followers best. Brands benefit by allowing influencers to create authentic content that engages their audience. But authenticity requires letting go of the reigns and allowing influencers to get creative. Honesty matters. CGI personas may be able to share interesting content and drive “likes” and comments, but they are missing one of the fundamentals of influencer marketing — the audience’s trust.
When brands create virtual influencers, the lines between influencer-generated content and brand-generated content are blurred. Virtual influencers are basically just another type of creative built by a piece of software. How are people to trust the opinions of a brand-generated virtual being? How can they form a relationship? Brand-owned virtual influencers are no more trustworthy than a commercial, whereas true influencer marketing works because brands get to tap an influencer’s credibility. Virtual influencers can get people talking and help to drive awareness, but I don’t think they will ever be an effective vehicle for generating sales for direct response type initiatives. Brands also need to proceed with caution when using virtual influencers to build relationships with customers and prospects.
In Westworld, some androids are so expertly engineered, it is near impossible to distinguish them from people. That is part of the fun for the guests — and the viewers. But for consumers, deception never flies. Well-done virtual influencers can pass as real, but if brands aren’t upfront about it, they will anger audiences. Bottom line: If and when marketers consider using virtual influencers, they need to be upfront about it.
Ted Dhanik is CEO of engage:BDR.