Are virtual influencers giving real ones a run for their money?

The virtual influencer trend might still be new but it is certainly grabbing marketing dollars from brands all across Southeast Asia. Recently, AirAsia and PUMA both launched their virtual influencers Miss AVA and Maya respectively, joining companies such as SK-II and KFC in riding the trend. 

Influencer marketing, in general is growing, with 59% of marketers globally stating that their budget for influencers has increased, according to the 2019 Influencer Marketing Report by Rakuten Marketing. With the rising trend of virtual influencers, it is highly possible that virtual influencers will need to co-exist with human influencers in future.

But Malaysian influencers A+M spoke to welcome the move saying virtual influencers are in no way a threat, and the (human) influencer community needs to push to innovate.

Malaysian-based YouTuber and TV host Mark O’dea told A+M that virtual influencers are possibly a threat to current influencers whose claim to fame is based on looks alone, with posts fleeting between outfits of the day or selfies. This is because "their content is mainly about looking good all the time" and virtual influencers can be made to look however the brand wants at any time of the day.

"I don't see them as a threat to myself personally, as I feel that my content isn't generic and it's mainly videos and silly picture ideas," O'dea said. O'dea recently parodied Justin Bieber's "Yummy" and is also known for video content such as misheard lyrics of popular songs. Nonetheless, he said it would be interesting to see the impact of virtual influencers on Malaysia's marketing industry as trends and social media patterns change annually. He added:

To be honest, clients might prefer the virtual influencer as they will less likely get annoyed over redrafts for postings as they are not real humans.

Meanwhile, content creator Jin Lim, also known as JinnyBoy, said virtual influencers are another form of creativity and consumers are unable to touch or feel them. "They can only meet the creator behind the virtual influencer, who probably will be less or even more interesting compared to the one being created," he said.  Lim explained that virtual influencers are not a threat as the influencer space has gotten competitive with or without them. "There are so many people coming out every day who are suddenly getting about 100,000 followers or calling themselves a YouTuber or content creator. They come from all walks of life and on different platforms. As a result, brands now have different types of creators to choose from to market their products," he added.

At the end of the day, it is important for human influencers and content creators to protect what they do. "I built this platform myself and I don't want to lose my following or credibility because someone pays me to say something I don't believe in," he added.

Also weighing in on the topic was beauty and lifestyle influencer Jestinna Kuan, who said human influencers should be ready to innovate when the time comes, especially in this competitive influencer marketing space. While virtual influencers are an interesting new development for the industry, Kuan said they probably would not come to Malaysia anytime soon. As such, its impact on the local marketing industry for now is low.

Advantages of human influencers versus virtual influencers

Authenticity and relatability are crucial in today's day and age, and this is where human influencers have an edge over virtual influencers. According to Kuan, human influencers tell relatable stories. "No matter how advanced this technology becomes, I think humans would have an edge over virtual influencers because at the end of the day, people want to listen to other people's experiences rather than an optimised version to suit the audience," she said.

Meanwhile, O'dea said one of the most important advantages human influencers have is that they bring clients' products into their daily routine and engage with their audiences. That said, human influencers still face restrictions.

"The problem nowadays is that certain clients do not understand [that advantage] and turn their postings into hard sell. As such, the audience would not want to engage with the content as they will immediately know it is an ad," O'dea explained. 

However, he said that in general, having a virtual influencer as the face of a brand "is a pretty ridiculous idea" because the brand's values should correlate with the influencer's lifestyle. "If the brand ambassador is virtual, then it is not showing that at all," he added.

The process of creating and managing a virtual influencer can be time consuming. Model and aspiring YouTuber Miko Wong told A+M that each post by the virtual influencer requires ideation, design, processing and planning just to ensure the post reaches a certain objective. This can be time consuming for brands.

That said, she explained that since virtual influencers offer "an unimaginable level of creativity and concept" which makes it "impossible" for human influencers to replicate. However, rather than viewing them as a threat, Wong said this will propel the influencer marketing industry towards virtual integration.

"In this era, it is undeniable that the use of traditional media has changed to various social media platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube. The trend of virtual influencers in Malaysia is still significantly new and does not have much influence," she said.