Influencer marketing isn’t “new” anymore. In fact, it’s an increasingly important part of social media budgets. Millions of real (human) influencers across the world are leveraging this growth and collaborating with brands on an increasing basis. But do influencers have to be people? Do they even have to real?

IKEA’s latest digital marketing campaign has been capturing a lot of mindshare. The reason? It featured an AI-based CGI-animated influencer, Imma, at IKEA’s Harajuku location in Japan.

Imma’s part of the new wave of virtual influencers. These constructs, leveraging AI, natural language processing, and 3D rendering, are helping brands tell the exact stories that matter to them.

The IKEA campaign was conceptualized by Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo for the launch of IKEAs new location. Imma “lived” in an IKEA-designed space for 3 days, where passersby could peer inside and get a peek of Imma’s life as she spent that time cooking, cleaning, Instagramming, and chilling with her dog, Einstein. People could also watch her via livestream on IKEA Japan’s YouTube Channel.

imma vacuuming her IKEA space

But while Imma is making waves in the influencer space, she isn’t the first virtual influencer. Based on where the market’s heading, we expect to see a lot more of Imma – and her friends – in the months to come.

So what exactly are virtual influencers? And how do they help brands evolve their approach to influencer marketing?

 

What Exactly Is A Virtual Influencer?

Virtual influencers are computer-generated personalities that brands can use to promote their products or services on the same channels that “real” influencers operate on: that means Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and – in Imma’s case – a full-size exhibit in a shopping center.

By leveraging photo-realistic 3D graphics, brands can create virtual influencers that look and act exactly like real people in their social feeds: they can post videos of their clothing hauls, take selfies by the beach, or just relax with their pets. By using AI and NLP (Natural Langauge Processing), brands like IKEA have taken things a step further: virtual influencers that can reply to user comments realistically and record live video content.

lil' miquela drinking a slurpee with friend

Apart from Imma, creators like Lil Miquela, Bermuda, Shudu, and Blawko are a few of the other virtual influencers out there right now, and they all have large, active followings.

 

Imma & The IKEA Campaign

So why did IKEA decide to collaborate with Imma? Well, demographics was a key reason.

IKEA hadn’t really focused before on Japan’s young, urban population, and they wanted to try something this untapped audience could relate to. Japanese millennials are no strangers to virtual avatars: Hatsune Miku is a virtual AV idol who performs in hologram format to sold-out concerts across the country.

For IKEA, Imma spent 3 days indoors in a small, cozy space – not unlike any number of millennial apartments in Tokyo, a city where living space comes at a steep premium.

Onlookers could catch a glimpse of her life through screens that were set up on the store’s facade, or they could visit the location and see up close through an LED screen setup that seamlessly blended the physical and digital space.

The Imma campaign didn’t just let people peek into her life; there was a robust multichannel strategy running in the background, as well.

Imma’s social media followers could read regular posts, as she’d frequently update her Instagram with doodles and pictures with her dog, Einstein. The music she listened to in her free time was made available through exclusive Spotify playlists. The campaign was all about capturing the life of a virtual, (but very relatable) Japanese millennial as it unfurled in an IKEA space.

 

What’s Attractive About Virtual Influencers?

Virtual influencers are relatively new to the influencer space, which means that right now, there is still a bit of a novelty factor associated with the concept. But what if we looked beyond the fad? What makes virtual influencers attractive to brands? Do they present advantages that differ from real-life influencers?

Additional Options

Virtual influencers are far more flexible than real-life influencers in terms of the things they can do and the places they can be at a given point of time. This gives brands a wider set of options in terms of narratives: a virtual influencer could hop from Paris to Maui in a couple of seconds without even paying for the flight!

Increased Control

This is another key advantage: because they’re virtual, brands have complete control over A.I. influencer campaigns, the content being created, timelines, and setups. Brands can easily create any kind of backdrop through 3D graphics and then superimpose the virtual model. This increased control provides additional flexibility to the creative elements of your campaign.

Reduced Costs

Anyone who is familiar with the space knows that real influencers can be expensive to work with. When working with a human influencer, costs can add up quickly, especially when you’re working with power middle or macro-influencers who have large audiences.

Because they don’t need to get paid in the traditional sense, AI influencers can be substantially cheaper than their real-life counterparts. This doesn’t mean there are no costs involved, however: brands looking will still need to invest in 3D design and modeling, creating the NLP framework, and possibly even on voice overs. These initial costs can be substantial but should be viewed as a long-term investment.

virtual influencers bermuda, lil miquela, and imma

 

It’s Not All Rosy, Though

While there are plenty of advantages to working with virtual influencers, there are challenges businesses need to be ready for.

Legal accountability is one primary issue that brands must tackle head-on. When it comes to real-life influencers, the chain of accountability is fairly straightforward. Brands and influencers themselves can be held accountable. But what about the things a virtual influencer says or does?

A South Korean AI chatbot named Lee Luda was recently pulled off Facebook. The reason? Luda had a hate speech problem. What if a virtual influencer generated racist or homophobic content on its own? What if it abetted someone to self-harm? Would the brand itself be responsible? Would the AI programmers be held accountable?

Another concern with virtual influencers lies in terms of representation. Diversity and body positivity are increasingly important parts of the social conversation here in 2021. How will brands continue to address these issues through their virtual influencers? Will they promote representation and diverse viewpoints?

At a time when authenticity and respect for POC experiences are important, who gets to program the NLP routines for virtual POC influencers? How will their speech patterns and behavior reflect the real, lived experiences of POCs? These are just some of the questions brands will need to look at before going forward with their virtual influencer plans.

 

Moving Forward

As a relatively new phenomenon, the virtual influencer space is very dynamic. However, there are some pointers that help us understand where things are headed. Major brands like Renault and KFC are already testing out virtual influencer campaigns. KFC recently created a virtual avatar for Colonel Sanders. They then used this avatar in marketing assets and social campaigns, generating a significant amount of attention. Over the next few years, we expect brands to continue innovating within this space, giving their personas and mascots virtual lives that fans can connect with and relate to.

It’s also likely that we’ll see virtual influencers used to create awareness about critical social issues, like healthcare and climate change. Virtual Greta Thunberg might not be making it to the UN General Assembly any time soon, but international agencies and NGOs will likely continue to leverage virtual influencers to push valuable messages.

Virtual influencers will likely get smarter, too, over the coming years. NLP is still in its early stages right now and it’s heavily dependent on programming and human training. As AI technology advances, we’ll likely see more autonomous virtual influencers who could, for instance, have a say on where they want to spend their next vacation.

In any case, virtual influencers are here to stay. We’re still not sure about their role in the future of digital marketing, but success stories like IKEA’s Imma campaign make us optimistic about the immediate future.

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