The rise of the AI influencer: Are they simply easier to work with?

Love ’em or hate ’em, influencers are here to stay. According to a 2018 report by US-based influencer marketing agency mediakix, total ad spend on influencer marketing will increase by up to US$10 billion in the next five years. Last year alone, according to the agency, influencer marketing spend on Instagram by advertisers was more than US$1.6 billion.

Interestingly, however, who (or what) made headlines last year were influencers such as Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, and digital supermodel Shudu Gram. With flawless skin and perfect angles they promoted brands such as Balmain, Calvin Klein, Prada and Balenciaga. Like other influencers, they also had distinct personalities of their own.

What made them different, however, was the fact they were not humans. They were CGI (computer generated imagery) or AI influencers. With AI infiltrating most aspects of our lives, it should have come as no surprise when virtual influencers made their debut in the market. However, these personalities made headlines across all major publications from The Wall Street Journal, South China Morning Post to CNBC, among others.

In a conversation with Marketing, Evangeline Leong, CEO and co-founder of Kobe Global Technologies, an AI-driven advertising platform that pairs advertisers with relevant everyday influencers, said the fact that marketers were gravitating towards these AI influencers could be due to the control that comes with them. Unlike a human key opinion leader (KOL), using a digital art persona allows brands to better craft the manner in which products are featured online. Brands also have the advantage of creative freedom over the mechanics of the campaign – which might not have been the most pleasant of conversations with an influencer who has their own distinct style.

Another reason for brands to look towards the use of AI, according to Leong, is the difficulty in finding an individual who can perfectly represent the brand. “With the help from AI, brands can create a perfect persona that brings out the brand’s personality,” she said. When asked if the trend will continue, she said marketers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to innovation and pushing boundaries. But given the pressures of ROI, a digital art persona will only take off for advertising if it also proves its effectiveness.

“Right now, only the bigger players are using AI influencers as their strategy,” she said, adding that closer to home, marketers are slightly more conservative. Echoing a similar sentiment is Nisarg Shah, CEO and co-founder at Affable, which automates influencer marketing using AI. He said global brands are now jumping on the opportunity of using CGI influencers, but in Asia, marketers have not yet broken fresh ground on this terrain.

Nonetheless, there are murmurs of brands looking to complement existing influencer programmes with CGI influencer ambassadors. He also agreed with Leong that control over content is a key benefit of a digital influencer as opposed to having human influencers sharing personal views. Moreover, when an opinionated influencer finds themselves in the midst of a social backlash, brands also have to rethink their partnerships. With an AI influencer, this relationship becomes easier to control.

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Time is of the essence

Another advantage that comes with AI influencers is the ability to jump on any social media trend. Working with human creatives takes time – from figuring mutual availability to creating, editing and releasing content. However, content creation is much faster when brands can control the messaging, and as such, they can better capitalise on any social trend with CGI or AI influencers. Shah also added that virtual influencers such as Miquela, and her friends Bermuda and Blawko, target younger audiences overall.

With brands trying to reach more Millennials through social media, these influencers can become a very lucrative avenue for marketers. The general Millennial audience is also amused by the almost-real lifestyle presented by these digital influencers.

“The novelty of the concept gains more positive than negative engagement with the target audience,” Shah said, explaining that digital influencers, compared with human ones, do not receive as many comments condemning a promotion of a brand which are usually aimed at human influencers for sponsoring a brand. “CGI influencers do not receive the typical ‘you are so salesy’ comments that other influencers receive sometimes – since well, they are not humans.”

Evolution of AI influencers 

Shah believes that given the current buzz around it, there will be more brands wanting to work with CGI influencers and more designers will create new concepts around these virtual personas. However, whether or not it will carry on in the long run, is up in the air. This is because, in his view, audiences, at the end of the day, will still want an honest opinion from creators they trust – creators who try and review products themselves. “The share of voice for influencer marketing will still rely heavily on human influencers,” he said.

(Read the full article in the August 2019 issue of Marketing magazine Singapore)