The evolution of the virtual influencer: no longer just a trend


As CGI technologies cheapen and influencer marketing budgets increase, Madeleine Mak, a client development executive for APAC at GroupM’s Inca, says the industry can expect the available categories and sizes of virtual influencers to diversify.

It-girl Lil Miquela, or Miquela Sousa, has changed the game. Entering the scene in 2016, Miquela has since amassed over 2.5 million Instagram followers and released 15 Spotify singles. The face of Prada and Samsung campaigns, Miquela has also starred alongside supermodel Bella Hadid for Calvin Klein.

You may be wondering, what makes Miquela so special? Multi-talented, edgy, and outspoken, more intriguingly, Miquela is not real. In fact, she is just one of many virtual influencers that continue to make waves on social media. Defined as AI-generated digital personas, virtual influencers have been shown to be three times more engaging than human influencers. A product of innovative AI companies and bold independent artists, much discussion around virtual influencers question what makes them so fascinating to us digital audiences. Whether they serve as forms of cultural commentary or uniquely challenge our perceptions of fantasy and reality, it is clear that brands are catching on, and they are catching on fast.

Fashion brands were the first to embrace this virtual influencer trend. For its fall 2018 collection, French luxury fashion house Balmain featured three virtual models as part of its ’Balmain Army’. Earlier this year, Puma partnered with virtual influencer Maya as its South East Asia brand ambassador. Brands across a broader range of verticals are now following suit. In 2019 for example, popular fast-food chain KFC created a virtual Colonel Sanders who engaged with other famous virtual influencers across its social channels. The World Health Organization (WHO) also partnered with health and wellness virtual influencer Knox Frost to promote social distancing practices amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Apart from the novelty, what else allures brands to the virtual influencer? Unlike real influencers, every aspect of a virtual influencer’s creative and copy is controlled and intentionally produced by its creators. This guarantees a heightened level of brand safety in an industry at-risk of influencer PR scandals and unprofessionalism. Similarly, using virtual influencers may be cost-effective. This is especially pertinent to brands in tourism and hospitality who usually incur additional costs to execute influencer campaigns.

As CGI technologies cheapen and influencer marketing budgets increase, we expect the available categories and sizes of virtual influencers to diversify. Compared to the industry average engagement rate benchmark of 0.7%, Lil Miquela has an impressive 2.7%. The potential for niche virtual nano- and micro-influencers is exciting.

We can also expect movement towards more dynamic, real-time virtual influencers. Currently, a majority are CGI, restricting audience engagement to static social posts or video. As AI technology such as robotics develop, virtual influencers will be able to break the third wall and engage in live Q&As and events. This will elevate and refreshen the possibilities for brands to engage with target audiences.

At the forefront of these innovations is Inca, GroupM’s brand-safe influencer marketing solution, who announced its partnership with Sophia, the world’s most advanced human-like robot on 26 August 2020. Created by Hanson Robotics, an AI and robotics company dedicated to creating socially intelligent machines and enriching lives, Sophia is a celebrity and disruptor capable of generating facial expressions, mirroring people’s postures, and discerning emotions from tone of voice. While she has worked with multinational brands in the past, Sophia’s first-ever ambassadorship with an agency is groundbreaking for marketers, brands, and the AI industry alike.

Inca’s partnership with Sophia showcases how the use of technology can bridge human connections with brands. With Inca’s AI solution for data-powered influencer selection and content creation, the partnership will intuitively match Sophia with brands to create unique and engaging bite-sized content to connect with brand audiences across various social media platforms.

“While we see changes in how consumers are influenced by multiple sources, we are confident that this is the right time to introduce a new influencer into our network that exemplifies humanity as well as the technological achievements of our time. As we collaborate with Sophia, we are in awe of how technology can showcase the marvels of artificial intelligence (AI) in a humanoid form,” Atique Kazi, Inca APAC Lead said.

Virtual influencers are an evolving and greatly untapped opportunity for both brands and marketers to innovatively engage and stir up conversation within digital audiences. Clearly, virtual influencers are not just a trend.

This article first appeared in

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