Magalu's Lu

Death of the Salesman: Are Virtual Influencers nonsense or an evolution of our ever-connected world?

As the power of artificial intelligence grows, the potential for brands to work with increasingly personalised avatars could be an ever more alluring proposition for marketers.

By James Robertson

As I write this, I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. I’m entranced by the Instagram account of one of the world’s hottest influencers – Lil Miquela.

She does everything you’d expect of an influencer with well over 2.5 million followers. She’s at Coachella, hanging out with 50 Cent at the NBA All-Star game and posting partnership content from the likes of BMW, Chanel and Prada. And, like most successful lifestyle influencers, followers’ comments reflect an overwhelming sense of adoration and loyalty.

But here’s the thing, Lil Miquela isn’t real. She’s a ‘robot’ living in LA.

Lil Miquela is just one of an avalanche of prominent virtual influencers to have hit our social feeds.

The most popular of which is Brazilian influencer Lu do Magalu with a combined following of more than 15 million across Instagram, X and TikTok. In fact, there are more than 250 million virtual influencers on Instagram alone (as of 2023). And, with AI tools rapidly becoming more powerful and easy to use, this trend isn’t slowing down any time soon.

For many, this might feel all a bit…well…weird. But it’s likely to get weirder. The concept of AI influence is straying beyond our social feeds with social networks like Butterflies connecting AI characters with humans within the same communities. Then there’s Replika that allows users to create and train AI avatars to act as their perfect best friend and partner.

Wherever there are new voices and channels to explore, marketeers will surely follow. We’re already seeing household brand names such as Prada, Versace, Red Bull and Tinder activating AI influencer campaigns. According to the Influencer Marketing Hub's 2024 Benchmark Report, 62 per cent of marketers are already using or planning to use AI influencers and Gartner predicts that 30 per cent of influencer marketing budgets will redirect to virtual influencers by 2026.

This all contributes to a strong argument for brands to hitch their wagon to ‘synthesized’ influence.

AI influencers, unlike their human counterparts, can be designed to align perfectly with a brand’s image and values, ensuring consistency and reliability (no matter how niche). They also bypass questionable personal opinions and controversies that humans carry, making them attractive to brands seeking safe and scandal-free alternatives.

Because of this, virtual representation might appeal to B2B brands as they can deliver consistent content that aligns with their corporate values and messaging.

The promise of virtual influence is clear, but we must proceed with caution.

Even though TikTok and Instagram are aiming to flag AI-created content, bad actors can jump on the technology. There is a huge question around the perception of AI-generated influencers being harnessed as brand champions.

Overcoming these issues and maintaining trust with audiences requires a delicate balance between creativity and authenticity with consistent authenticity and clear guidelines.

Regardless of how this all evolves, it’s clear we all need to rethink the very nature of influence, connection and engagement. Lil Miquela’s followers don’t care that she’s a robot. Maybe neither should you.

James Robertson is the head of Digital communications and AI, Weber Shandwick UK


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