Anyone involved in the transformation of legacy organisations will tell you the toughest part is probably getting business leaders to understand the basics of digital technology. So is the idea of virtual influencers a bridge too far?

Legacy business leaders are frequently in a state of denial about the need for transformation and the last thing we should do is give them ammunition to justify their reticence. That’s why I get mad when I hear people promoting pointless digital gimmicks as relevant to the transformation process.  

Virtual influencers seed doubt

Business leaders facing the implications of the digital economy may, on occasion, be ill-informed, concerned, scared even, but rarely are they stupid. They can see when something is obviously counter-productive and when self-proclaimed experts promote such initiatives it not only damages the credibility of both the expert concerned and experts in general, but fuels the business leader’s scepticism and contributes to their prejudice against transformation per se.

An example of this was a recent video interview by The Drum with a developer who was advocating “virtual influencers”.

In case you haven’t encountered the virtual influencer concept yet, it’s pretty much what it sounds – an animated character, designed specifically to appeal to specific target audiences that is the “star” of video content, itself designed to influence consumers in favour of a brand or product.

What’s the big idea?

There is a glimmer of an idea here. For example I can see that by not being reliant upon a real person a business could, potentially simultaneously engage in millions of individual interactions – although there are caveats to this that I will explain in a moment. There is also the potential for tailoring the interactions to suit narrower audience segments, if not, ultimately the segment of one – again with the same caveat.

However, even beyond the fact that very few businesses indeed really have content marketing sorted, there are all kinds of flaws in this thinking. For one thing, influencers in general are … losing their influence. The data shows this quite clearly. Worse still, trust in them has taken the biggest dive among the younger consumer segments that made up their initial fan-base. 

When influencers defeat themselves

Frankly, I’m not surprised. It’s no secret that influencers get paid by the brands they promote and many of them have rather shot themselves in the foot by boasting of their personal wealth. They have done this of course because nothing impresses gullible youth more than apparently wealthy peers, … until it’s obvious that the cash the influencers are flashing is coming from their pockets, then the tall-poppy syndrome kicks in! Influencer marketing can be, after all, a bit of an Ouroboros.

Whilst we all know that younger audiences are comfortable with anonymous digital engagement, there are limits to how far this stretches even for them. All age-groups respond positively to friendly human interaction if it’s handled well, but there is a general and well-documented issue with the impersonal on-line environment. Consequently anything that makes this colder still is to be avoided.

No matter how much technology you apply it will be many years before animation is indistinguishable from the real thing. The examples shown in this interview were pretty poor, but even these are expensive to produce.  However, this is just the front end. To “perform” as the interviewee suggests requires complex and expensive AI.

The over-claims of Virtual influencers

I also have a particular objection to the claims made by the developer in this interview for the research that drives the creation of these virtual people. Insights drive every area of marketing and the research he suggests goes into their creations is nothing more than that which any competent strategist would undertake when identifying a celebrity endorser and is certainly the same as the research behind any decent brand model.

One of the big differences with the digital economy is the volume of data we can now collect and analyse. Digital research is nothing new and certainly isn’t exclusive to virtual influencers. It’s a major component of any digital business and is one of the main reasons legacy businesses can’t compete with digital counterparts. So, let’s not forget the insights and analysis mentioned as the basis of virtual influencer design are already being applied to every area of communications, including influencer marketing.

The need for authenticity

Influencer marketing is also wholly dependent on authenticity and engagement. Virtual influencers, because they are clearly not human will struggle with this. For this reason alone, for the foreseeable future, they can only represent a step backwards from what we are already doing.

The thing that I take issue with most, though, is that there’s no way a virtual influencer represents a cost-saving for businesses already using this channel. This being so, any business leader would be right to conclude that virtual influencers are a digital white elephant. In other words the antithesis of what digital transformation is all about. 

They will use this as evidence to support their rejection of all kinds of digital technology and therefore justify their reluctance to transform. Thus the process of transformation is slowed down and more businesses than necessary will fold.

When innovation starts at the wrong end

Anyone who works with start-ups will tell you that most start with an idea for something they can create then invent a purpose for it. It’s how businesses used to work way back. However, even before the birth of the digital economy we realised that this is not a sustainable approach. 

The right way to do this, of course, is to identify a need and then apply the most advanced technology available to deliver the solution. Virtual influencers seem to me to be an example of an idea that the creators are trying desperately to justify. Sure, like many other small businesses they’ll get a bit of buy-in initially because it’s a novel idea, but I think people are smart enough to recognise the idea for the white elephant it is.

Meanwhile there are plenty of hard-working people developing technological solutions that make sense and are really making a difference. I’d hate for their efforts to be dismissed by reluctant legacy leaders as just another example of unnecessary tech, because concepts like virtual influencers are represented by the media as valid examples of the digital paradigm. 

I applaud any effort by marketing services firms to differentiate themselves with unique products, services and process models. We certainly need a few to practice what they preach, but, as someone helping firms like this to transform, I urge you to take a long, hard look at what you are promoting and ask yourself the fundamental question. In the digital economy success goes to those who can do more with less. That’s the fundamental point of transformation. This shouldn’t be tech for tech’s sake.

So, does your idea meet that criteria? 

Phil Darby
February 3, 2020

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