AI-powered virtual influencers have the potential to accelerate marketing outcomes in the digitally forward and diverse APAC region but caution remains key, says NP Digital’s Dan Kalinski.
Artificial Intelligence has long been the marketer’s best friend. Companies like Amazon, for example, pioneered the use of AI algorithms in the late 1990s to analyse user behaviour and provide personalised product recommendations. And while personalisation has been the hallmark of AI applications in marketing, marketers have been using AI for everything from automating repetitive tasks to optimising the timing of their email marketing.
Today, innovations in the space are providing marketers with even more efficient, personalised and impactful opportunities to connect with audiences. Generative AI applications, for example, have brought significant democratisation to marketing, enabling companies with limited budgets to compete in the online marketplace by reducing the need to hire creatives and copywriters. They are also giving rise to new applications like virtual influencers, an AI-powered trend that is especially well-placed to boom in the technologically advanced and culturally diverse APAC region.
Understanding AI-powered virtual influencers
Generally speaking, virtual influencers are computer-generated characters or avatars that are designed to resemble real-life influencers. The concept has gained popularity in recent years, with high-profile virtual influencers like Lil Miquela – a computer-generated model – raising millions in funding and representing high profile brands like Prada and Calvin Klein.
Closer to home, Indonesia’s first ever virtual influencer Thalasya has built a formidable following on Instagram, resulting in several brand partnerships, her own music video and even her own clothing store. In China, virtual influencer Ayayi has over 817,000 fans on Weibo and 127,000 on Xiaohongshu, resulting in several luxury collaborations with brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior and Ferragamo.
But while most virtual influencers use the word AI as part of their narrative, they are not fully autonomous just yet. For example, Miquela describes herself as an AI robot but is actually a CGI image with a human team managing her fan engagement. Similarly, Thalasya was developed by Magnavem Studio and “creates music” with the help of a company named Ind Alliance.
The actual potential of AI-powered virtual influencers goes deeper, particularly when it comes to measurable marketing outcomes. Consider these applications:
AI-powered influencers could analyse user preferences, behaviours and demographics, and use this information to personalise content and recommendations, enabling brands to deliver more targeted messages to specific audiences.
AI-powered influencers could assist in their own content creation by generating or suggesting ideas, creating engaging visuals or even writing their own captions and blog posts. They can analyse trends, feedback and brand guidelines to generate content that aligns with a brand's objectives and resonates with audiences.
AI algorithms can be employed to monitor and ensure brand safety by analysing the content and context in which virtual influencers are appearing. This can help prevent potential issues related to brand misalignment or controversial content.
AI-powered influencers have the added advantage of being multilingual, for example, to interact with fans across cultures. Unlike their human counterparts, they can also interact with fans in real time for all 24 hours in a day.
Why APAC is best placed to lead AI-Influencer charge
With these game-changing advantages on the horizon, it's no surprise why AI is at the forefront of marketing technology innovations today. Experts predict that the market for AI in marketing will surpass US$35 billion globally next year and nearly triple in size within just four years.
The APAC region is at the forefront of this growth as the fastest growing AI market in the world. Asia’s virtual influencers are also ready to take over the Web3 metaverse, an industry estimated to reach US$42.6 billion by 2030 in China alone.
In tandem, APAC has been a hotbed for the general growth of influencer marketing and it's easy to understand why. Asia alone is home to a large majority of the world’s internet users, with the region accounting for over 50% of the world’s social media users. The accessibility of social media in the region has been key to the growth and influence of online content creators. In Southeast Asia alone, four in five influencers are micro-influencers, indicating a receptivity to AI-powered virtual influencers as an extension of this trend.
APAC countries are also leading the world in e-commerce. Industry giants like Alibaba and JD.com in China, Rakuten in Japan and Shopee in Southeast Asia dominate the online retail landscape. This combination of high digital engagement and e-commerce activity provides fertile ground for AI-powered virtual influencers to connect with consumers and drive marketing efforts through channels like social commerce livestreaming.
For example, Ranmai Technology, the company behind China’s Ayayi, created a male virtual influencer named Noah earlier this year. Everything from Noah’s personality to his looks were based on votes from Weibo users and to celebrate his launch, luxury brand Tommy Hilfiger hosted a dedicated livestream using Alibaba Group’s technology, where Noah not only interacted with customers but the humans that appeared alongside him in the broadcast. Since the launch, Noah has gained more than 54,000 followers on Weibo.
Underpinning these favourable trends is the region’s diverse and multilingual demographic that requires localisation for marketing effectiveness. AI-powered virtual influencers have the potential to cater to such cultural and linguistic nuances, allowing for wider, yet more personalised, reach.
Caution will remain key for brands in the region
While all signs point to APAC being a promising launch pad for AI-powered virtual influencers, caution will be key for brands willing to pioneer this new trend. Some important considerations include:
The use of AI-powered influencers can blur the line between reality and fiction, potentially misleading or deceiving consumers who may not be aware that they are interacting with a virtual entity. Transparency and disclosure will be crucial to build and maintain trust with audiences.
Data privacy and security
AI-powered influencers may gather user data during interactions, giving rise to concerns about data privacy and security. Particularly in today’s complex regulatory environment, companies must ensure they are compliant and equipped to safely and responsibly handle user data.
While the concept of AI-powered influencers is exciting, the technology needed to sustain them can be extensive and expensive. To ensure an actual return on investment (ROI), companies will need to carefully assess the potential benefits and costs associated with utilising virtual influencers against their marketing goals and objectives.
All things considered, APAC's tech-savviness and diversity are as favourable as conditions can get for leveraging the benefits of AI-powered virtual influencers.
With careful planning, monitoring and dialogue with consumers, brands in the region are well-positioned to usher in a new paradigm of AI-powered marketing outcomes.