Eight years ago, Toyota “hired” the popular Japanese avatar Hatsune Miku to promote the 2011 Corolla car in the U.S. Since then, CGI influencers such as Lil Miquela (pictured above), Bermuda, and Shudu have been teaming up with fashion and lifestyle brands, as well as advocating for nonprofits.
Fitness company SoulCycle did an Instagram promo with Bermuda that got nearly 6,000 likes. Lil Miquela, who has 1.3 million followers, dons outfits from Coach and Balenciaga, while also advocating donations for the nonprofit Black Girls Code.
But is there a difference between working with a human and a CGI influencer? Stephanie Stabulis, senior strategy director at HireInfluence, an agency that connects brands to influencers, says the potential for engagement is the same. “Some people don’t know the difference between whether [an account is human or CGI],” she notes. “[Engagement] is still based on whether or not people like the content you’re putting out.”
According to Stabulis, “influence” isn’t defined by the type of account, but rather by reach and engagement. “No matter what is behind an account, whether it’s a single human, a group, or a CGI, that shouldn’t bar people from considering partnership with it,” she says.
Mathew Micheli, cofounder and managing partner of social influencer talent and marketing agency Viral Nation, offers a different take. “There’s such a human element to putting campaigns together and working on creatives that it can’t be replicated by machines. That’s why creative agencies still exist. A [CGI influencer] can’t generate a powerful message with a lot of variables.”
Despite their large followings, Micheli says “a machine won’t have as much influential power as the Kardashians, an athlete, or a celebrity,” although he doesn’t discount things may change “a couple years from now.”
A certain edge
While Stabulis believes human and CGI influencers have a level playing field, there may be a certain edge to a nonhuman influencer. She gives the example of popular social media accounts that feature dogs. “They’re not humans, but people are drawn to them because they’re creative, cool, and different, and that maybe gives them an edge up on engagement because they’re connecting better.”
Micheli agrees, but adds there is a notable difference between a pet and a CGI influencer. “Even if it’s a dog, it’s still a being. People paid to see a dog in a park that has a big Instagram following. No one’s going to pay to meet a robot or a virtual machine.”
But what about follower count? To Micheli, it’s more than just a numbers game. “A lot of people have a lot followers, but how are you going to get to the point where you can really change people’s decisions and move people from X to Y?”
Not all earned media is equal, he notes. With human influencers, Micheli says, it’s much more powerful. “It’s the same thing as seeing a display ad versus watching a movie or video. It’s two different variables. Sure, it’s earned media, but the quality of it isn’t the same. If you got a million views from a human influencer and from a CGI influencer, the [former] would result in much more value.”
That value can be in the form of converting sales, if that is the brand’s ultimate goal.
There’s a lot of potential and great partnerships that can be forged between brands and CGI influencers, but certain influencers don’t make sense for every brand
Stephanie Stabulis, HireInfluence
If a brand does choose robot over human, there are a few things it should consider.
Be transparent. Stabulis doesn’t see an issue with authenticity, but “brands need to disclose they’re working with a CGI influencer versus trying to fool their audiences,” she says.
The CGI influencer must align with your brand. Notes Stabulis, “There’s a lot of potential and great partnerships that can be forged between brands and CGI influencers, but certain influencers don’t make sense for every brand.”
Be cognizant of your end goal. “Know what you want to achieve for your specific campaign,” says Micheli. “If your end goal is to share eyeballs, then this can be a play for you.”
Will CGI influencers be all the rage or just a fad? At this point, Stabulis thinks it’s hard to say. Micheli admits “there may be space for CGI and automated content in the marketing mix,” but he is confident the phenomenon won’t last.
“Anyone can get impressions,” he says. “A CGI influencer can get as many as a human one, but it’s ultimately about what traffic you can drive because what brands are looking for more now is, ‘How do I measure the money I’m spending?’”