Welcome to the age of the virtual influencer

19 October 2021. Published by Ela Broderick-Basar, Associate

Miquela de Sousa, aka Lil Miquela, is a 19-year old musician and model (having worked with the likes of Prada and Calvin Klein) and currently boasts an impressive 3 million Instagram followers. In 2018, The Times listed Lil Miquela as one of the 'Most Influential People on the Internet.' On the face of it, her profile reads like a dream for any brand looking to engage an influencer for marketing purposes. However, Lil Miquela is not actually real. Lil Miquela was one of the first of new online personalities that are completely controllable virtual influencers (complete with realistic characteristics features and personalities).

How could a brand benefit from using virtual influencers?

Globally, the influencer market is a billion-dollar industry with influencer marketing expected to grow to as much as $15 billion annually by 2022, according to Business Insider Intelligence.  But there are risks attached to using influencers – i.e. they may go off-message and offend the audience, or they may make a mistake that can be difficult, public, timely and costly to resolve.  For example, social media stars such as Jodie Marsh and Anna Vakili have been publicly listed by the UK advertising watchdog for repeatedly flouting social media advertising rules.

Virtual influencers can be anywhere at any time and their personalities can be tailored to match the values of any brand they are representing. They are potentially the perfect media canvas.  They also give brands more control over their collaborations and any mistake can be erased and simply amended within a matter of minutes.  A virtual influencer is also a lot less likely to be embroiled in controversy ensuring that brand values remain intact.

Currently, the virtual influencer market is dominated by the US.  British retailers or brands looking to stay ahead of the pack could look to create a virtual influencer.  Building a virtual influencer is not for the faint-hearted with many aspects to navigate (such as, high upfront costs of building a realistic 3D model, the skills needed to keep all the moving 'parts' active, etc.), so it's likely that most brands would look to partner with agencies that specialise in creating and managing virtual characters rather than developing an in house solution.


Things to think about

Brands that are considering creating or using virtual influencers need to be aware that their use comes with potential legal exposure, for example:

  1. Transparency.  Transparency of advertising and consumer protection is a key focus of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).  The ASA have issued guidelines for 'traditional' influencers and remains focused on ensuring influencers are clear and upfront when advertising.  It is likely that virtual influencers will be required to follow these (or similar) guidelines, and profiles, posts and adverts will require a high level of transparency and clearly disclosure who owns and controls the virtual influencers. 
  2. Safeguarding.  Through AI and natural language processing, a virtual influencer could be having thousands of conversations with their followers – some of which may be children – and this has the potential to create personal bonds and attachments (which should not be taken lightly).  Clearly, there is real value for a brand in this ability to engage with consumers, but the risk of harm must be acknowledged and the brand will need to be proactive in monitoring.

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