Virtual Influencers Can’t Replace Actual Human Connection

Lil Miquela is a bona fide Instagram celebrity. A model, activist and recording artist, she has more than a million followers, and partners with brands like Prada and Chanel. Vogue called her “Instagram’s latest It Girl.” The only thing is: she’s not a real person.

Miquela is a virtual influencer, a CGI avatar that occupies a strange gray area between fact and fiction. She wears stylish clothes and shares her Spotify playlists; she posts political commentary and dramatic missives. Until last month, Miquela’s creators were anonymous. We now know that Brud, a Los Angeles-based startup, is behind Miquela and other virtual influencers Blawko22 and BermudaisBae – and it has raised millions of dollars in venture capital funding.

Lil Miquela’s success brings up complex questions about the future of influencer marketing. Is this just a passing trend? Are digital creations a legitimate alternative to real-life influencers? What are the ethical or legal implications of brands using virtual influencers to make money?

Here’s our take: influencer marketing is based on authenticity, and virtual influencers will never be able to connect with audiences in a genuine and credible way.

Their very existence is inauthentic. They may build a following of people who enjoy their content’s aesthetic appeal. They may even sell some products for brands they represent. But they won’t be able to build the deeper connections that come from a long-term influencer collaboration. And those are the measures of success brands should care about.

Real-life influencers offer a lot that virtual influencers can’t replicate:

  • Honest opinions and recommendations

Real influencers spend a great deal of time and effort building their community, and they know how important it is to protect their followers’ trust. They only work with brands that make sense for them, and they won’t endorse products or services unless they have actually tried them, and feel good recommending them.

Virtual influencers can’t stay in a hotel room, try on a dress or sample a tea flavor. Their opinions don’t hold the same weight because they’re not based on real experiences.

  • Human quirks and flaws

Followers connect with real influencers because they feel like they know them. They relate to their likes and dislikes, and their idiosyncrasies and imperfections. CGI avatars lack this humanity – and audiences are savvy enough to be wary of attempts to fabricate it.   

  • Transparency

The Federal Trade Commission requires influencers to disclose their relationships to brands when promoting products on social media, so followers know when a post is a paid advertisement. But do virtual influencers follow these same rules?

Richard Wong wrote in Adweek:

“The fundamental issue with a company running an internet personality is that it has one primary incentive: profits. Accounts like @lilmiquela tag, endorse and integrate brands regularly into their Instagram feeds. Whether the creators get compensation for that is unclear, but if they are, they aren’t abiding by Federal Trade Commission mandatory disclosure regulations.”

Virtual influencers are an interesting technological development – maybe even a new form of storytelling or performance art. But they will never be able to provide the value that real-life people do.

Learn more about MtoM’s influencer marketing expertise.

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