Diversity and inclusion in the metaverse: What effect will virtual influencers have?
Virtual influencers are taking the metaverse by storm – but is there a tradeoff between creativity and authenticity? Aaron King (senior account director, ITB Worldwide) questions virtual influencers’ role in culture and asks can there ever really be truly diverse and inclusive representation in the metaverse?
Influencers better watch out. There’s a new wave of online personalities coming on the scene: virtual influencers. And they have already taken the world of social media by storm. But if we take a moment to step back from the hype and look at the bigger picture, there’s a moral conundrum at play – what is their place in culture? If it’s not a real person, can a virtual influencer truly be authentic and diverse?
With influencer marketing spend expected to reach as much as $15bn in 2022, it’s likely we’ll see a growing slice of those budgets going to virtual influencers, as the metaverse hype shows no signs of slowing down. More than 50 virtual influencers debuted on social media between January 2019 and June 2020. Today there are over 200, according to Virtualhumans.org. Research suggests these computer-generated characters garner engagement rates up to three times higher than human influencers – presenting an exciting proposition for brands wanting to find new ways to connect with audiences.
Just as the biggest stars on TikTok and Instagram rose to prominence by sharing authentic, raw content, virtual influencers are quickly gaining steam for providing the creative, community-led experiences that users expect in the metaverse. But is there a tradeoff between creativity and authenticity?
A moral diversity conundrum
As brands charge forward into the metaverse utilizing virtual influencers, the question is how much diversity will be shown? What does diversity look like in the metaverse? How is it going to play out? These are all big questions that the most forward-thinking brands are already tapping into.
We can't sugarcoat the fact that influencer marketing has a diversity problem. A 2020 study by MSL highlighted that while the BIPOC market today represents over $4.8trn in buying power, there is a 35% racial pay gap between black and white creators specifically – which outweighs the gap in any other industry.
As brands and agencies, we must value social justice and diversify the creators we work with to be able to level the playing field and truly engage these communities. But with the metaverse still in its early stages of development, there’s a big chance that any positive strides being taken in the real world could face a setback if we choose only to engage virtual influencers in the metaverse.
The diversity message can be uncomfortable – but it’s one that we, as an industry, need to be talking about more. If marketers start taking funds that could be spent on a creator that comes from a minority group and instead spending it on a virtual influencer that ‘identifies’ as the minority group – without knowing what their identity really is – how are we ever going to level the playing field? If you’re going down the route of virtual influencers as a strategy to show representation, then it’s worth considering whether you have a good enough foundation for diversity in place to begin with.
Creativity versus authenticity
As a brand marketer, you have to ask: why do you want to work with virtual influencers? And are you choosing to work with them for the right reasons?
From a creative standpoint, the world of virtual influencers in the metaverse is exciting. The whole process is interesting and a smart way of bringing a product to the forefront in new and innovative ways. It’s marketing in its purest and simplest form and that’s where their credibility comes in. All you have to do is take a look at Dior’s collaboration with Noonoouri to see that if done well, it can be incredibly intriguing and creative.
How do you create a world full of diversity? Could you describe virtual influencers as being cultural appropriation? There are still a lot of open questions that society has yet to answer. If a brand turned around tomorrow and created a virtual influencer to celebrate Pride – which can cost up to £100K – why not donate that to a Pride charity? Or use it to partner with an actual creator who is a part of the LGBT+ community?
In the exciting world of web 3.0, the possibilities for brands are practically limitless. It’s clear that this alternate, virtual reality is the next frontier for building engaging experiences. With decreasing attention spans and more technological distractions, if marketers want to win with Gen Z, they must focus on creating immersive experiences in the metaverse that encapsulate the possibilities with virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), virtual influencers and more. But they must do it for the right reasons.
Blurring the lines between the digital and real-world, the lure and power of virtual influencers will only increase. There’s no denying that influencers are the ultimate marketing tool for telling powerful stories – but don’t get caught up in the new, shiny allure of virtual influencers without considering the real purpose of your influencer marketing strategy. Is it to be creative, is it to be authentic or are you jumping on a bandwagon which could derail any possible diversity or inclusion commitments from brands?