Feature

Even better than the real thing? Meet the virtual influencers taking over your feeds

Influence is big business, but marketers the world over want more message control and less risk. So, they’re taking humans out of the equation. Meet the virtual influencers.

Miquela de Sousa is a 19-year-old musician. She’s cool, by most measures, her social media accounts showing her visiting exhibitions by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, eating burgers at In-N-Out or in shaky behind-the-scenes footage from her music videos.

Thing is, Miquela’s not real. “Musician, change-seeker and robot,” reads her Instagram bio.

One of several characters created by Los Angeles startup Brud, Lil Miquela, as she’s more commonly known, is a virtual influencer, the most high-profile and successful one to date. She exists across a constellation of social media profiles, her images generated by CG artists, her voice donated by an actor and the thoughts she chooses to share written by scriptwriters. Brud did not respond to our request for an interview, but the millions of dollars invested in the firm by Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital and SV Angel provide a clue to the value of this burgeoning business.

Globally, the influencer market is a billion-dollar industry with some very ambitious predictions suggesting it could rise to $15bn in the next couple of years. And with the International Data Corporation predicting that worldwide spending on artificial intelligence could rise to more than £35bn, it’s not hard to imagine how companies blending the two disciplines could make a decent living.

To those working in the influencer industry, the advantages of a digital influencer are apparent. Brands can have the message discipline of above-the-line advertising coupled with the genuine engagement of influencer marketing, without any of the risk. Your virtual influencer will never go on safari in the Aokigahara forest (like Logan Paul), make anti-Semitic jokes, (like Pewdiepie) or post a tone-deaf snap of themselves surrounded by foil balloons and mouthwash (like Scarlett London). They can be anywhere at any time, photographed in any way. Their personalities can be tailored to match the values of the brand they’re representing, while reflecting the perfect audience persona back at their followers.

Harry Hugo, co-founder of The Goat Agency, says virtual influencers will be unavoidable in the next 12 months. “They can be available 24/7 and have a personality molded to be exactly what you want. They can literally be whatever you want them to be. These things are massive plus points for brands because they can literally make the perfect ambassador.”

Goat, Hugo says, has already worked with virtual influencers in a campaign for Yoox, the online luxury retailer. Fashion-forward digital avatar Daisy was originally designed for the store’s virtual styling app, but in 2019 she commandeered the brand’s Instagram account and began interacting with its customers and followers.

The fashion brand’s marketing director Giuseppe Tamola claims Daisy’s friendly and direct tone of voice led to an upsurge in its number of followers and in engagement rates.

‘Authenticity’ has been the watchword of the influencer world this past decade, but the fact that Lil Miquela is little more than a collection of pixels and pithy copy has not prevented her from gaining an engaged fanbase. Hugo says the engagement rate is about “three times higher on a virtual influencer than on a human influencer - which is nuts”.

He suggests that while virtual influencers may not be particularly relatable, they provide ideal canvases for aspirational content. “They can show anything off and make anything look perfect, because that’s exactly how it needs to look,” he says. And when human influencers are already employing every digital tool and camera trick under the sun to perfect their posts, a fully digital character doesn’t seem so implausible. As Lucy Robertson, senior account manager at influencer marketing agency Seen Connects, puts it: “What’s the difference between a fake robot and someone who’s perfectly edited?”

A variety of simulated human characters have already been created and released by regular humans eager to cash in on their capabilities. A year after Lil Miquela’s debut, photographer Cameron-James Wilson unveiled Shudu, the first of a digital trio of mute models created for fashion house Balmain. In Japan, virtual influencer Imma has worked with SK-II and Porsche. Pink-bobbed, lips parted (though never moving), images of Imma are created by mapping her ‘face’ on to that of a real model. Another Japanese company, 1Sec, is responsible for Liam Nikuro – a jet-setting J-pop star said by his creator, Hirokuni Genie Miyaji, to be a digital heartthrob with “a face like Justin Bieber’s, but more Asian.”

While Lil Miquela – who now has her own clothing line, was featured on the cover of streetwear bible Highsnobiety and appeared in brand campaigns alongside Bella Hadid, Millie Bobby Brown and Steve Aoki – is the first virtual influencer to attain mainstream attention, she may be soon outshone by more intelligent, even autonomous characters.

Liam Nikuro, for instance, is intended to be more than a scriptwriter’s sock puppet. With a composite personality based on market research and modelled on several real people in Japan and the US, 1Sec is currently sourcing a vocal for Liam to use in his first single. And while the first sample will be from a human singer, Miyaji confirms there is a big possibility 1Sec will use AI for Liam’s voice in the near future.

The company already has a business plan marked out for the character, which will include marketing partnerships as well as more conventional income from Liam’s music career. Miyaji explains: “If there is a perfect brand that matches Liam then he will definitely think about collaborating. However, we are not thinking of monetizing mainly from brand sponsorships.”

Dudley Neville-Spencer is the founder of the Virtual Influencer Agency. Based in London, his team uses AI tools, applied psychology, and old-fashioned narrative design techniques to create virtual characters for brands. An advocate for this emerging field, he argues that virtual influencers have the potential to go beyond acting as mere brand ambassadors. “It’s the first time that brands have had the opportunity to develop a deep emotional relationship with their audience through something that they own. That’s where we’re going, creating compelling characters with compelling backgrounds that represent a brand’s values.”

The team uses social listening techniques, employing machine-learning analysis to conduct intensive research into the tastes and attitudes of its target market and then tools like IBM Watson’s Tone Analyzer to fashion a character to meet them, determining age, gender, tone of voice and aesthetics to suit whatever audience they are pursuing. “It’s about how agreeable or disagreeable or neurotic or aggressive it’s going to be,” says Neville-Spencer. “We try to fit the audience as much as possible with its tone and the way it communicates.”

The ‘personality’ behind the influencer is built upon this data-derived foundation by scriptwriters who dream up entire backstories and fictional upbringings to provide motivation for the character’s actions. Then Neville-Spencer’s team uses natural language processing tools – software that can simulate written human language – to generate the virtual influencer’s responses to followers or the captions they leave on their Instagram posts. Meanwhile, each image is painstakingly rendered and inserted into existing photographs, so that the character in question can appear where they’re needed.

Each character is given a ‘life cycle’, a series of story arcs that the team can use to develop them and make them more engaging to followers. “It’s a journey that we want to take the character over about five years; we break that down into smaller blocks and then into content calendars of about three months each. You’ve got to know the general direction the character is going in,” Neville-Spencer explains, pointing out that the agency aims to tie the smaller moments in a character’s life cycle to the duration of a brand campaign.

Not all virtual characters are built to be social media influencers – some have been created for use as customer assistants by banks or, in the case of Yoox’s Daisy, by retailers. While more utilitarian than Lil Miquela and Liam Nikuro, digital assistants could provide a middleweight option for skeptical clients. Last year at Cannes Lions, an Auckland company called Soul Machines introduced the advertising world to Yumi, the “first digital face” of prestige skincare brand SK-II. Company co-founder and chief business officer Greg Cross tells The Drum that since demonstrating Yumi at Cannes he’s seen a huge amount of interest, not only in health and beauty, but across industries including automotive, finance and education.

Soul Machines claims to have created the world’s first ‘autonomously animated’ digital influencers – that is, a character animated in real-time. While Yumi was built as a customer assistant and skincare model for SK-II, Soul Machines has also produced similar characters (Cross refers to them as “digital heroes”) for Royal Bank of Scotland and Bahrain’s Bank ABC, employed to field basic customer enquiries. Cross says these are companies that “want to be the first in their industries to innovate and that are willing to take a chance, be different and stand out”.

Cross also claims that Soul Machines’ digital assistant characters have received more positive feedback than their human counterparts. “Brands now have the opportunity to give customers and fans a way to speak to a brand ambassador face-to-face about the release of a new product or campaign from anywhere in the world at any time. 90% of the people who interacted with our digital heroes got the answer they wanted and provided a much higher positive customer satisfaction rating.”

Fable Studios is a VR production company that recently shifted from making movies to making ‘virtual beings’ – digital characters intended for entertainment purposes. Their first major project is Wolves In The Walls, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman story in which viewers can interact with virtual protagonist Lucy across multiple formats and platforms. According to Jessica Shamash, Fable’s Emmy-winning head of creative production, “Lucy has been infused with systems that make her feel alive and connected. She can adapt to audience proximity, make eye contact, knows whether or not you’re paying attention to her, stop mid sentence if you interrupt and then pick a thought back up. The more we can infuse virtual beings with AI, the more we can further that real-time reaction and connectivity in a story.”

The company, which was co-founded by Edward Saatchi, recently hosted the second Virtual Beings Summit in Hollywood – a conference promoting the use of virtual influencers. “A ‘virtual being’ meant something different to every individual that attended,” says Shamash, “which I think is the beauty of this industry.

“This concept takes many forms, from the film/VFX world to social media influencers to health advocates, virtual assistants, historical figures, people solving for immortality, fashion icons and more. Representatives from all of these industries attended.”

While Fable is currently focusing on creating virtual characters for entertainment properties, the studio has already discussed building similar projects for brands. “There is an eagerness for brands to infuse their technology with an emotionally connected interface,” says Shamash.

The resources involved in building and deploying a virtual influencer – the tech needed to render high-quality images and animation, the NLP software and the skills needed to wield it – are considerable. Soul Machines boasts “a deep research and engineering talent pool with four professors and 18 PhDs,” according to Cross. Brud, the agency behind Lil Miquela, closed a fresh round of venture capital funding in January 2019 drawing in a cool $30m.

Goat’s Hugo suggests that, for now, the high cost of creating an effective virtual influencer may be prohibitive. “You’ve got to render everything rather than just taking a photo. You’ve got to create someone’s whole brain and all of their memories and thoughts and opinions and all of their expectations. It’s a crazy amount of work.” Even Neville-Spencer, who spends much of his time persuading potential clients that virtual influencers are a practical marketing channel, says the high barrier to entry will persist “in the medium term.” He says: “I’m not going to lie about it ... the reality is I’m well ahead of the curve here and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

According to Neville-Spencer, a few different ways of monetizing virtual influencers have already emerged. While those with lower budgets might pass on a “fully owned” influencer, rental options have been developed. “That’s what people do with Lil Miquela, rent her to build awareness of a brand – something that I think will happen more and more.”

He suggests that influencer rental agreements could help cautious brands explore the virtual influencer space. They might not hold back for long though. Seen Connect’s Lucy Robertson suggests that potential gains may soon prove persuasive. “We’ve seen a big shift in the last couple of years,” she says. “From influencers not being taken seriously or considered something that could move the needle, marketers now see them in a different light and a lot of brands are now comfortable pushing boundaries.”

Greater control over an influencer’s behavior means responsibility for its impact. Jenny Quigley-Jones, the founder of YouTube influencer agency Digital Voices, points out that the damage done by influencers promoting unrealistic beauty standards could be amplified by virtual influencers. “These virtual influencers have been most successful on Instagram: an aesthetic and aspirational platform. They aren’t necessarily a positive development for mental health as they can have idealized body shapes and conform to unrealistic beauty standards.

“Although many creators of virtual influencers, like Cameron-James Wilson, are deeply considerate of diversity and representation when creating characters, they will face financial pressure to pander, to produce virtual influencers who adhere to unrealistic standards of beauty, if that’s what viewers prefer.”

Furthermore, Quigley-Jones notes that just as the use of AI by businesses and institutions hasn’t eradicated bias from decision-making, virtual characters won’t be a silver bullet for brand safety concerns. “Brands could have more control over every detail of a virtual influencer campaign. However, only some concerns about brand safety and future behavior will be alleviated, as the team behind virtual influencers are still human – often a small team of designers looking to make headlines. You cannot be sure that a VI will continue to be brand safe.”

Neville-Spencer is also concerned about the ethical use of virtual influencers. “The risks are potentially huge. Take every issue we’ve had with social media – trolling, fake news, false information, issues affecting our psychology and our democracy – and times it by a hundred. Imagine engaging with characters controlled by governments or nefarious individuals, telling you things that are completely untrue.”

He’s been working to promote a code of conduct that marketers can sign up to, which would ensure that practitioners watermark any virtual influencer images to make clear to followers that they’re not engaging with a real person. “You’d immediately identify the content and understand its motivations. If we can do that it would get rid of so many of those issues.”

1Sec doesn’t seem to share Neville-Spencer’s concerns. Miyaji says that the company plans to release more virtual characters into the wild. He explains: “Among those virtual humans, there will be some where we will not tell the public that they are a virtual. I am very excited to see whether fans will communicate with these virtual humans as if it is a real person!”

Brud, the secretive company behind Lil Miquela, has already grappled with some of these issues, giving its star a storyline in which she was ‘hacked’ by a Trump-supporting white nationalist, later revealed to be another of the company’s characters. Lil Miquela herself flirts with the layers of her constructed self, punctuating her Instagram stories with Windows XP-style error messages even as she apes the visual hallmarks of YouTubers.

An FAQ found on Brud’s website hints at a guiding philosophy behind the playfulness. Asked whether Lil Miquela is real, it replies:

“As real as Rihanna.”

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