Are virtual influencers the next big thing for brand marketing?

Influencer marketing has truly boomed in recent years, from celebrities to brand advocates. But there's a new type of influencer in town... the virtual kind.
21 June 2018

Computer-generated models are becoming the next big influencer. Source: Instagram @lilmiquela, 4/10/2018

Since the rising popularity of social media platforms, influencer marketing has become one of the biggest, most successful customer-acquisition and retention strategies for brands around the world.

For brands, there is a wide variety of influencers to choose from. From celebrity influencers with a large-scale global reach to micro-influencers with a following between 10,000 and 500,000 followers on social media, and customer advocates who simply influence others through leaving product reviews.

Each influencer type comes with its own benefits for each brand depending on the type of industry, product, target audience, and business goals.

While influencer marketing represents a fantastic opportunity for brands, many have questioned the impact of influencers on social media users.

With such a large proportion of the world becoming consumed in the world of social media and the lives of influencers, many critics fear that the apparent “perfect lives” of these social-media stars can have damaging effects on us Insta-junkies.

A 2016 study involving 1,700 people found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used the most social media platforms.

Among the reasons respondents gave was “the feeling of having a distorted view of other people’s lives.”

While the lives of influencers who are paid to promote brands and products may be critiqued as creating a false representation, there may be a new type of influencer that may be more of a cause for concern…

The rise of the virtual influencer

A growing online trend in the world of social media is the introduction of computer-generated influencers.

Though this may sound a little strange, these influencers are proving to have some serious money-making potential and a new platform for which brands to promote their products and services.

A recent phenomenon in the influencer marketing space is Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela- an avatar designed by artists and built by computers.


A post shared by *~ MIQUELA ~* (@lilmiquela) on

The influencer has been linked to Brud, an LA-based startup that specializes in robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses.

Now, Lil Miquela has over one million Instagram followers and has partnered with big-named brands such as Giphy and Prada.

But her influence doesn’t stop at fashion. The Spanish-Brazilian American CGI star has even released her own music.

The computer-generated model/musician/influencer has built an army of fans, with whom she often interacts with via comments on her posts and DMs.

Joining Lil Miquela in the virtual influencer world is Shudu, a CGI “supermodel” created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson.

Shudu’s account went viral after Fenty Beauty reposted a photo of the virtual influencer “wearing” a shade of the brand’s lipstick.

Wilson claims that since this, Shadu has received many offers from both fashion and tech brands wanting to work with the model.

The future of a brand – virtual influencer relationship

It’s not hard to envision a future where brands really start to capitalize on this trend. The more traditional influencer can be a tricky one for brands to work with, often known to be hard to negotiate with on things such as price and brand message.

The virtual influencer, on the other hand, maybe one that is easier to manage. Perhaps we will even see a future where brands create their own digital influencers, as a way to reach new audiences with their brand message.

Should the same advertising rules apply to non-human influencers?

The rise of virtual models promoting brand products and services raises the question of compliance with advertising policies.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission brought in updates that require influencers to disclose their marketing relationships and to identify paid posts using hashtags like #ad or #sponsored.

But, it’s unclear as to how these same rules would apply to non-human, virtual influencers like Lil Miquela and Shadu.

The rise of virtual services

While virtual influencers may have a dystopian tinge to it,  many businesses are already harnessing the power of virtual.

For example, many companies such as Sephora, Marriot, and Coco-Cola have developed their own chatbots to help with customer queries, bookings, and the delivery of personalized content.

According to an Oracle survey, 80 percent of businesses want chatbots by 2020, so we can expect to see this “virtual assistant” trend grow significantly.

Many brands are beginning to realize the power of virtual assistants. Source: Shutterstock

In addition to chatbots, some companies are even tinkering with 3D-scanning and motion-capture technologies for real-world applications.

Quantum Capture is piloting a use case in the luxury hotel industry, where they are focused on developing a “virtual” hotel concierge which greets guests via a touch screen or kiosk.

From this, guests can check themselves in, and can even leverage the human concierge from their rooms, with the ability to help adjust the lighting or open the curtains.

So, while the rise of virtual influencers may make you feel slightly uncomfortable, it’s not hard to see how this could play a big part in the future of brand marketing.

However, this new breed of influencer will inevitably raise concerns over the blurring of reality, the creation of an unrealistic body image, and the amount of impact these non-human influencers can have on society.