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What’s Next: Influencer Marketing Goes Digital

And they’re not wrong, of course. These platforms are rife with so-called influencers who show only the most enviable, beautiful, camera-ready portions of their lives.

But even these detractors only know the half of it. These days virtual influencers are gaining in popularity and they’re threatening to dethrone the real girls currently commanding eyeballs—and triple-digit paydays.

Just as Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad and Amiee Song of Song of Style drive sales on behalf of their brand partners, these digital darlings could do the same.

What are virtual influencers?

Virtual influencers are the digital version of every social media It girl, and Lil Miquela is the latest breakout star. The computer-generated Instagram personality has released four songs on Spotify, “modeled” clothing for a number of coveted brands and has been dubbed the “world’s first virtual fashion influencer”—though “first” is a stretch.

Leave it to Millennials and Generation Z—who have grown up immersed in digital worlds like Super Mario Bros. and Avatar—to take virtual influencer Lil Miquela from obscurity to cult obsession to newsmaking oddity, said Amy Luca, president of influencer marketing agency The Amplify.

Lil Miquela comes prepackaged with a full workup: an ethnicity (Brazilian/Spanish), age (19) and location (Los Angeles). Her posts feature the things she likes (favorite artist: Frida Kahlo) and the causes she supports (Black Lives Matter, DACA, transgender rights). She reads as a ready-made Insta influencer: glossy-haired multi-hyphenate posting endless selfies and big upping herself and the brands she wants to take along for the ride while appealing to the socially conscious up-and-coming generation.

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What many find fascinating—and confusing, based on comments on her posts inquiring about her skincare routine—is the all-too-blurred boundary between the real and the not-so-much. Numerous posts show Lil Miquela in all of her CGI glory in an otherwise normal scene with actual humans. Whoever is behind the Instagram account is going to great lengths to keep the illusion alive. And there is someone behind the scenes, of course: she did a phone interview with YouTuber Shane Dawson as well as interviews with Office Magazine and others.

[Read more about how brands are using the current crop of influencers: Brands Keep Tapping Influencers to Elevate Apparel Offerings]

What’s the marketing impact?

Despite the ongoing debate over who (or what?) she is and what purpose she serves, it’s clear that Lil Miquela’s more than 500,000 followers find her compelling. And her flesh-and-blood “realness” seems to matter very little.

“Like any cult of celebrity or personality, people are following Lil Miquela because they identify with the personality,” Luca explained. She drew a comparison with the KalaniBot, a concept dreamed up by The Amplify client Cover Girl in 2016 that tapped into the appeal of “Dance Moms”-star-turned-influencer Kalani Hilliker. The agency leans on IBM Watson to scan the personality of the influencer in question in order to develop a chatbot that resembles that persona as closely as possible—close enough so that followers feel like they’re talking to the real thing.

“Customers prefer KalaniBot to the real thing and she has 14 times more conversations than the average [social media] post by the star,” Michelle Du-Prât, strategy director at Household, told Raconteur.

What’s next?

Retailers are starting to pay virtual reality more attention. Just last week, Walmart acquired VR firm Spatialand through its Store No. 8 incubator. The big-box retailer would only say the move will help it extend into “contextual commerce” that provides immersive experiences.

While it’s safe to assume Walmart is thinking more along the lines of allowing shoppers to try clothes on from home or envision that new sofa in their living room before they commit, Lil Miquela shows there could be other applications on the horizon.

The popularity of the virtual influencer demonstrates how a brand or retailer could create its own spokesperson—one that acts and looks exactly how they want it to with no danger of it aging out of the demo, signing with a competitor or landing in an embarrassing scandal.

According to Luca, virtual technologies are a natural evolution in human communication. “We’re becoming more comfortable with technology because it’s filling a need,” she said. In a world where even animals are influencers (here’s looking at you, Grumpy Cat), does it matter if the latest must-follow Insta It Girl was conjured up in someone’s imagination?