Virtual influencers remain a stunt tactic rather than a proven marketing tool, but brands may find value in auditing their own influencer marketing plans to identify gaps that could be plugged by a CGI avatar, a new WARC report says.

A WARC Trend Snapshot, Virtual influencers, notes that the attractions of influencer marketing as a vehicle for reaching younger digital audiences have been rather tarnished by the adverse publicity that has engulfed some high-profile figures and the practice of some influencers of artificially inflating their number of followers.

And while brands have devised processes to minimise such risks – including more careful vetting of individuals and implementing contracts that more clearly spell out expectations of influencer conduct – some advertisers are experimenting with virtual influencers that are comprised of pixels, rather than flesh and blood.

Avatar culture has been around for years, but it is only in recent times that such virtual personas have managed to gain “mass attention” on social media.

“Fake talent can be easier to work with – in as far as their creators are – and control output for,” says Mobbie Nazir, Chief Strategy Officer at We Are Social. “They can be more cost-effective than real-life celebrities, too,” she adds.

Rather than coaxing and coercing influencers into posing in a particular way, or uttering the desired words on camera, virtual influencers hold the promise of almost complete creative freedom for brands, the Snapshot points out.

Such content creation may raise questions about the idea of authenticity, but, as Nazir points out, many consumers are fed up with overly-contrived social media posts that purport to showcase “real” life, and may prefer unashamed artificiality.

“This gives brands the opportunity to be openly fake – indeed, owning it and coming across all the more real for it,” she suggests.

Virtual influencers are no magic bullet, however, as they come packaged with a different set to problems to their human counterparts.

Shudu, a black supermodel, was created by a white artist, leading to accusations of racism; and the fact there are, so far, very few male virtual influencers raises questions around gender politics.

Aside from such cultural issues, brands also need to consider who owns the IP of a virtual influencer and who controls its social media accounts.

And fake influencers may not work in all categories. Currently, they largely operate in fashion but this strategy may not translate well in categories where authenticity is a priority – the automotive and healthcare sectors, for example.

Sourced from WARC