Like it or not, virtual influencers are here to stay. For many, they represent the pinnacle of shameless advertising, where human voice and influence are manipulated into a digital entity for the sole purpose of selling.
For others, it’s a natural progression and no different from the thousands of other digital interactions they actively spark daily. This group is the first digital generation. In this article, we’ll explain what virtual influencers are, what digital first means, and how this new generation of marketing tools will impact billions of people born in the information age.
What is the first digital generation?
Speaking at Cloud Wars Expo 2022, Christopher Lochhead shared an anecdote about a visiting millennial who spent all her time glued to her iPhone while staying at a beachfront villa in Malibu. She seemed indifferent to the natural world, the ocean, sunsets and sunrises. She was only concerned with the comings and goings of the digital networks supported by her smartphone.
Christopher had a realization. Her smartphone contained her social media world, her interactions were mostly digital, and anything outside of it was a distraction, no matter how beautiful and poignant it might seem to others.
This is an extreme example, but it clearly defines analog-first and digital-first consumers. Ultimately, the digital natives, mostly aged 34 and under, who make up the first digital generation, were born in the digital age, when the internet was already established and computers, mobile phones and other devices were prevalent. Digital natives adapt quickly to technology and easily consume digital information compared to their analog counterparts.
While analog-first consumers, or digital immigrants, rely on education to understand and maximize technology, the digital-first generation is subconsciously adapting by design.
What is a virtual influencer?
Virtual influencers follow the same established rules as human influencers. They use social media to portray idealized images of themselves and their daily lives to build an online following of admirers.
The following translates into ad revenue. The difference with virtual influencers is that they are fully digital constructions controlled and developed by marketing professionals. A virtual influencer bot represents closing the circle, where a digital entity is used to encourage digital sales on digital platforms.
How important will virtual influencers be for early digital adopters?
Basically, digital-first users are more likely to accept and follow virtual influencers because they understand the mechanisms that control them. They know technology is used to sell, but they don’t care. Why? Because they see beyond the marketing use case and derive real value from entertainment, style tips, peer trends, and more.
While analog-first users may fear being coerced by underhanded marketing tactics, digital-first users are more likely to see any new technological leap in the industry as expected. So if digital natives are so accepting, what impact will virtual influencers have?
To date, virtual influencers are a next-gen marketing tool. So in the short term, they are likely to encourage a sensitive, digital-first consumer base to spend more on products and services. However, it’s already been proven, thanks to virtual Instagram influencer Lil Miquela, that digital natives don’t seem to care if a character is human or not.
The lines are so blurred that today virtual influencers can engage, entertain and influence followers. To date, Lil Miquela has over three million followers on Instagram. The point here is that virtual influencers can make emotional connections with audiences, which is both encouraging and disturbing, beyond the apparent use cases of sales and advertising.
Virtual influencers are often paired with real human beings for promotional shoots and on social media. This humanization allows them to offer fundamental ideas and feelings to their followers. Used correctly, the boffins behind the brand can ensure that these messages are positive and ultimately beneficial.
However, in the wrong hands, nefarious parties could use virtual influencers to spread false information, hate speech, etc. And then there is the potential psychological impact, which so far is unknown. However, there is no doubt that there will be one. First, since many virtual influencers are designed to meet standard beauty criteria, there is a real risk that users will be attracted to or even fall in love with digital personas.
Fictionophilia, the obsession with fictional characters, is studied, although it is not a recognized psychological condition. Adverse effects such as confusion, shame and loss of touch with reality have been recorded. Additionally, there is a real possibility that early digital adopters will begin to reject the notion of any difference between digital and human.
Why regulate virtual personalities?
Whether or not this turns out to be a negative thing remains to be seen, but perhaps the greater danger is that it leads to dehumanization and all the potential abuse that could follow. Again, as the metaverse continues to grow, it comes down to a question of governance and responsibilities. Advertisers and marketers know the consequences of hyper-humanizing, but they do it anyway because it’s what sells. The important thing is that the space is regulated.
Yet, as virtual personas develop and become more prevalent in emerging virtual environments, they may also help users overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness. Virtual influencers, like any other chatbot, could converse one-on-one with a user who, in turn, may feel they are receiving guidance and support from something more than a friend – from a idol.
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