Computer-generated influencers – the latest breed of Instagram stars who resemble human beings but are not – are slowly rising in popularity, drawing attention from fashion and beauty brands alike.
These lifelike digital recreations are positioning themselves as assets to brands by featuring their products in their posts – popular CGI influencer @lilmiquela, for example, has posted several pieces of content featuring brands like Prada and Outdoor Voices.
Miquela was even named one of Pat McGrath’s “muses”.
Fenty Beauty, meanwhile, has reposted Instagram photos of the computer-generated Instagram model Shudu “wearing” a specific Fenty lipstick shade.
With every post, audiences become more perplexed, yet more invested in content from these mysterious influencers, but there are a couple key considerations marketers need to keep in mind if and when they’re thinking about building a deeper marketing strategy with the next wave of “artificial influencers”.
Trust & Authenticity Could Suffer
The brands “worn” by these influencers are certainly benefitting from the eyeballs attracted to the pure novelty of them – and certainly, any understanding of who exactly Miquela and Shudu are relies on a deeper knowledge of social media and internet culture. As such, any company associated with these digital creations could benefit from a “hip” or “cutting edge” brand perspective, but when it comes to actual product recommendations or endorsements, virtual influencers cannot hold the same weight as human influencers.
Shudu may look beautiful in Fenty Beauty lipstick shades, but at the end of the day, she, herself, is an artwork and not a human being. She can’t share with her followers how the makeup’s formula enacts with her specific skin type, or how long-lasting the lipsticks shades are. In the same vein, Miquela may be able to model Outdoor Voices’ new exercise dress but she’ll never be able to report back to a consumer audience about whether the fabric held up against sweat or the comfort it provided throughout a workout.
The most powerful asset that ‘real’ influencers bring to marketers is their ability to not only showcase a brand or product, but to actually build trust with consumers, and subsequently affect their behavior, inspiring them to try new products or brands.
A recommendation from an influencer can be likened to that of a close friend – with CGI influencers, it’ll be very hard to tap into that same kind of relatability. We know that a virtual personality is not a real person, and therefore doesn’t have an actual opinion.
Imagine if someone without taste buds tried to convince you to try a new kind of low-sugar protein bar.
Take Additional Care with FTC Guidelines
One of the most puzzling aspects of virtual influencers is that there’s no clear indication as to who’s in charge of their accounts, which makes it difficult to determine what their motivations might be, particularly in terms of brand relationships.
This anonymity leads to a lot of grey area when it comes to abiding by Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Last year, the FTC updated their guidelines to require influencers to identity any paid post clearly with the hashtags #ad or #sponsored, but if a virtual influencer doesn’t properly disclose a sponsored post, there isn’t a clear point of contact to remedy it.
To this point, the posts thus far from both Miquela and Shudu have very clearly been tied to brands, but have not featured any FTC-mandated language in order to mark that a post has been sponsored. It’s not clear whether money has changed hands.
There is also the risk that brands might see virtual influencers as a workaround to FTC guidelines in relation to disclosure on paid posts. If someone’s getting paid – even if it’s an anonymous artist behind the virtual personality – the consumer still needs to know that there’s a transaction taking place to protect the integrity of the influencer ecosystem.
Using CGI Influencers as an Extension of Your Brand Values
Brands don’t necessarily need to tap virtual influencers created and managed by an anonymous third-party. Rather, marketers could create their own computer-generated influencer, which could act as a brand ambassador, effectively existing as an additional owned social media asset.
Much like a chatbot, a virtual influencer could share updates or new products from a company, and answer any questions from shoppers within the comments on a post. If the influencer completely encompasses a brand’s story, there’s potential for the virtual personality, almost like a mascot, to drive customer engagement or conversion on behalf of a brand.
But it is worth noting that brands could lose the third-party perspective, and as such, any authenticity associated with traditional human influencers
In all, the emergence of CGI influencers has been fascinating, and works to further support the idea that digital personalities – real or computer-generated – are becoming the true media companies of the future. But when it comes to CGI influencers’ uncharted territory, marketers need to look past the current trendiness and consider whether it makes sense for their end goals.
Certainly, there’s benefit from a virtual influencer in terms of brand awareness, but when it comes to actually influencing audience opinions, or providing reviews and experience with a product or service, nothing can replace the human element in order to guarantee authenticity, trustworthiness and transparency.