From human to avatar: the future of influencer marketing or the end of authenticity?

From human to avatar: the future of influencer marketing or the end of authenticity?

We’ve all heard about how “AI is taking our jobs” but in the world of influencer marketing, it seems that really is the case.

Take the example of Spanish influencer Aitana Lopez, who has 321k followers on Instagram and is earning up to $10,000 in revenue every month. Yet she doesn’t exist, she is completely AI-generated.

Everything from her ‘interests’ to her look is designed and controlled by an AI influencer agency in Barcelona. And there are more pages like hers popping up every day.

It’s worth noting that this new breed of virtual influencer is, in fact, not that new – Lil Miquela is a great example of this, created back in 2016 and with 2.5m Instagram followers

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing. 

There are clear benefits of being able to create content and scale and shape the ‘personality’ of an avatar (plus they never have a bad skin day or need to take a day off work). But there’s clearly something missing from the entire concept, and I think that key component is authenticity.

Whereas influencer marketing was born from working with human beings who have built a community around their passion and talents, this new wave of AI-generated influencers has been designed with a commercial or political agenda in mind.

The question is can people really connect on the same level with people who simply aren’t real?

Can digital avatars recreate the human touch?

At present in the Western world, human influencers on average have more followers compared to their virtual counterparts which suggests at present people value humanisation over computer generation, particularly when it comes to authenticity and building connections.

But what if human influencers could licence their own image to create digital avatars of themselves which could then be used for content creation? Essentially, they would be able to monetise their own personal brand without actually doing any work. But would people want to know if it was the real person or the AI-generated version they were interacting with? 

Would machine-generated content be valued in the same way as genuine human-made material? 

To be honest, if it’s based on the human influencer’s individual characteristics, personality, tastes, and opinions, it may well be that over time they would come to see little difference.

The launch last month of new creative AI tool Symphony Digital Avatars proves that TikTok believes this is where the future of influencer marketing lies. Designed to scale and globalise branded content for creators and brands alike, real-life influencers will have the opportunity to create multi-lingual avatar versions of themselves to expand their global reach and maximise their brand appeal.

And for brands, ‘stock avatars’ can choose a pre-built avatar to add a human touch to their marketing content. Although this does raise the question of whether we will as a result see the same images being used for a variety of brands, some of which may be conflicting in what they represent and value. Imagine if ‘Michael’ the health and fitness enthusiast is also seen promoting the latest fast-food chain. So it is likely brands will need to buy their own avatar personas, tailored to their brand values and target audience.

The potential for AI-generated influencers

There is no reason why AI-generated influencers can’t be a success, but can AI influencers build a brand in the same way that human influencers can?

I’m a firm believer that value doesn’t come from the influencer alone, it comes from the campaign strategy and how this is integrated into the marketing mix. Therefore, why shouldn’t AI-generated influencers be as successful as their human counterparts if both are powered by the same human judgement?

If anything, there’s less risk for brands investing in AI-generated influencers if all its content is planned, scripted and controlled. No chance of them putting out a piece of content that is detrimental to the image of the brand they’re working for, or damaging to its own reputation through controversial behaviour or misconduct. It should, in theory, be possible to maintain a consistent brand image.

There’s still a question around AI diversity - highlighted by Levi’s much-criticised decision earlier this year to use AI models in a bid to improve inclusivity rather than just employing more diverse models. But then again, if a virtual influencer comes at a significantly reduced cost to that of a human one, perhaps AI will, in fact, promote greater diversity for brands? Although there are still ethical considerations.

It's the concept of human influencers licensing their own image to create digital avatars that I think offers the most scope for the creator economy. Whilst there’s an argument that AI influencers cannot replicate human influencers, blending the two offers an exciting opportunity for brands and influencer partners to maintain authenticity, engage human audiences and dramatically expand what’s possible within the influencer marketing space.

Credit: iStock/Design Cells

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