Photo: Courtesy of Reyme Huisani

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She’s Earning $12,000 Per Post. And She’s Not Even Real.

Enter the world of virtual influencers who can work 24/7 to charm millions of followers. Should humans be worried?

At the height of Singapore’s pandemic lockdown, 22-year-old Ava Lee-Graham posted an Instagram update with her best friend, both jarringly maskless, having a good time at East Coast Park. “Don’t you just love the great outdoors?,” read her caption. 

 

Yet not one of her 800 followers raised an eyebrow. Not a single enraged netizen, nor a word from her brand sponsor, retail giant BHG. She had a “Get out of Jail Free” card - one that thousands of cancelled celebrities would love to get their hands on. 

 

But they can’t, because unlike them, Ava’s not real. 

 

Despite her straight bangs, love for streetwear and quirky Instagram captions, Ava (@avagram.ai) is a digital entity, or what her creator, Reyme Husaini, 28, calls a “virtual girl”. Her name stands for “Artificial Virtual Android”. 

 

The digital marketing executive explained that he wanted to create a social media influencer that was not bound by time, race, age or gender. Hence, Ava was born out of self-learnt 3D technology and a keen eye for social media marketing. 

 

Ava’s debut was met with interest from local departmental store BHG, who quickly engaged her to model digital versions of garments from their in-house clothing line. By September 2020, Ava had scored multiple features on the store’s Instagram page and website, as well as a three-week-long Instagram Stories takeover.

 

This brand partnership was Ava’s first foray into influencer marketing, joining a growing number of virtual, non-existent people tapping on a billion-dollar influencer market. Recent estimates from Business Insider suggest that brands are set to spend $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022 - enough to run a Facebook ad continuously for eight whole centuries.  

 

“Influencer marketing in general, has been around for a long time,” says Lim Wee Khee, Chief of Digital Innovation & Design at National University Singapore’s Insitute of Systems Science. “Those who are able to garner a following with fans and followers are able to then influence them subtly.” 

 

Human influencers are a dime a dozen, but recent developments in 3D technology have given life to virtual influencers. “What we are doing now, it was impossible maybe three years ago unless you are a billionaire,” says Yan Ling Ng, founder of fashion technology company Lily & Lou, the first to use virtual models in Singapore. “Now you have AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) and Nvidia (a graphics processing unit company) coming with very powerful hardware, but at a really affordable price.”

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Business Insider

Recent estimates suggest that brands are set to spend $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022 - enough to run a Facebook ad continuously for eight whole centuries.  

As creators like Husaini and Ng have just started learning the ropes, it’s still unclear how much of the projected $15 billion influencer market will go to virtual influencers. But if Ava’s American inspiration Lil Miquela is anything to go by, their ability to amass a following will not go unnoticed. 

The “teenager”, created in Los Angeles, charges about S$12,000 per Instagram post which puts her in the top tier of the industry’s highest earners. She has garnered over three million followers and partnered with brands such as Samsung, Prada, Supreme and Universal Studios. 

 

She may be a virtual girl, but the comments under her Instagram posts are littered with fire emojis, compliments and declarations of love that reveal a hyper-engaged fanbase, akin to those of real celebrities. According to social media analytics firm HypeAuditor, her Instagram engagement rate stands at 1.82%, beating the global average of 1.22% and outperforming top American fashion influencers like Danielle Bernstein (@weworewhat) and Caroline Daur (@carodaur). 

Instagram post of Ava and her digital friend at East Coast Park. Singapore was under pandemic lockdown with 623 COVID-19 cases that day.

Photo: Courtesy of Reyme Huisani

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In Singapore, a high social media penetration rate and at least 2.1 million active Instagram users make it fertile ground for budding virtual influencers like Ava and Rae (@here.is.rae). 

 

A 25-year-old with a skater-girl persona, Rae is a relatively new player in the local influencer market with about 2,000 followers to date. In comparison, established human influencers like Yoyo Cao and Andrea Chong each have over 300,000 followers. 

 

However, Rae has received a warm welcome as far as paid gigs go. Her Instagram account was only created in October 2020, and already she’s made the cover of fashion magazine JSTYLE精美 with China’s top female rapper VaVa and posed with sneaker artist Mark Ong (known as Mr Sabotage to streetwear fans). In addition, as the owner of streetwear label SBTG, Ong also released a four-piece SBTGxRae capsule collection on December 5.  

 

So why do virtual influencers like Rae get a shot with brands despite their smaller reach?

Virtual influencer Rae graces the cover of JSTYLE精美 with China’s top female rapper, VaVa, only 10 weeks into her public debut.

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Photo: Instagram (@here_is_rae)

For starters, the numbers don’t lie. While the number of people virtual influencers reach often pales in comparison to human influencers, virtual influencers garner notably higher audience involvement - almost three times more engagement, according to a 2019 HypeAuditor report.

 

That’s music to a marketer’s ears as high engagement means better brand presence on social media and potentially better sales. “As brand marketers, you will always want to warm up your to-be customers,” says Lim. “Before making the first sale, there is always a process whereby customers want to get familiar with the brand.” 

 

For Thong Pei Qin, 34, theatre director, it comes as no surprise that virtual characters are able to gain such a following despite being fictional. “Maybe people want to escape from life and be immersed in a different world,” she says. “If there’s something about a character people can identify with, it speaks to them, and there's a sense of connection.”

 

Remember the SBTGxRae collaboration? Despite Rae’s small reach in terms of numbers, the Rae-branded collection - consisting of a Champion Tee, Aloha shirt, a pair of socks and a skateboard - sold out in three days. 

 

Other than sales, brands may want to go for engagement for other purposes, Lim adds. “It also could be loyalty for existing customers, or lead generation for new customers to be.” 

 

Virtual beings are not just good for engagement though. Even if engagement is not the main goal of the brand, other unique benefits draw industry professionals like fashion photographer Shavonne Wong, 30, to them.  

For one, there’s a lot less to worry about when working with these non-human entities, she says, drawing from her own experience as a photographer who has shot for Lancôme, Sephora, and Asia’s Next Top Model. Her latest venture is Gen V, a modelling agency that exclusively works with virtual models. Learning the technology on her own during the circuit breaker last year, she created Gen V’s three main models, Kade, Lilium and Lunah, each their own skin tone, hair colour and facial features. 

 

While devoid of personality and voice, they are moving, virtual mannequins, breathing movement and life into digital garments for brands to showcase their pieces, sans real-life models. Spotted in Prada for FEMALE magazine and modelling in local fashion label Lily and Lou, these models can be hard to differentiate from a real-life one. 

 

Not only can her virtual models hold still for hours on end without complaint, Wong says, but they can also do much that humans cannot, like pose in outer space, fit in clothes perfectly, and walk multiple runways at the same time. “She can also work campaigns overseas,” Wong explains, “without having to worry about accommodation, travel, food, human needs.” 

 

These perks are even more appreciated in a pandemic. No need for vaccines or masks for these virtual influencers who can shoot “on location” even in the middle of lockdowns. Cases in point: Southeast Asian Maya (@mayaaa.gram) was out and about in Kuala Lumpur for a PUMA apparel shoot, American influencer Bermuda (@bermudaisbae) was spotted in Venice, and in Japan, Liam Nikuro (@liam_nikuro) posed candidly in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. 

Even human models are attempting to get a slice of the pie. Vogue’s 2020 issue featured Digi-Bella, a virtual version of supermodel Bella Hadid, doing things that Hadid herself could never do, like transforming into a Pegasus-centaur hybrid leaping off the Palais Garnier in Mugler’s spring 2021 collection reveal. 

 

The stark difference between a fully virtual influencer and a human digital double, however, still remains in that the humans will always come with the trappings of autonomy, while virtual influencers - their poses, hairstyles, opinions, captions, environments and messaging - are 100% up to the makers both in and out of working hours. 

 

In Wong’s words:  “I don’t need to worry about attitude problems from my models.”

 

The same goes for virtual influencers like Audy Bleu (@audy.bleu), a PR creation for cognac house Martell. The brand controls not just her Instagram posts, giveaways and captions, but even her name that alludes to the Cordon Bleu cognac. To top it off, she also sports a short bob in the brand’s iconic blue. 

A WARY WELCOME

With sci-fi movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner and Terminator, Hollywood often imagines a tumultuous relationship between man and machine. For over 40% of Americans working in marketing and advertising, according to a 2019 CNBC survey, there is also significant fear of losing their jobs to robots. 

 

But not so much for Singapore’s influencers. 

 

“There is always going to be a demand for the authentic, real-life influencer,” says Vanessa Ho (@vaneszs.h), echoing what consultancy powerhouse Deloitte concluded in its 2020 Global Marketing Trends report. “Just as people expect brands to treat them like humans and not merely as transactions,” the report reads, “they also expect brands to act more human.” 

 

Acting human is as easy as appearing in flesh and blood, but that is out of reach for virtual influencers. Whether it’s participating in an event, showing up live to a club or taking selfies with fans on the street, “Influencers need an offline presence and offline touch to connect with people on a deeper level,” Ho says. 

 

Even in the digital space, being human is more than having quirky captions and replying to direct messages. “There needs to be some backstory, some psychological depth and truth to the character,” Thong says. And this may not be simple to achieve. 

“Even if it’s well planned out with a team behind the virtual influencer,” Ho adds, “it’s going to be at the back of people’s minds that they cannot meet them in real life.” 

 

This also poses a problem for brands. “Influencers are supposed to have experienced a brand before they sell it,” Lim says. “But if you have virtual influences, they can’t taste the food or play on the mobile device. So then how do they give their opinion and perspective?” 

 

Moreover, Rae and Ava have steered clear of more interactive functions on social media like live streams. Motion graphics technology may one day allow these virtual influencers to appear live, but for now, live streams belong in the realm of human influencers. 

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Vanessa Ho (@vanezs.h), Influencer

“Even if it’s well planned out with a team behind the virtual influencer, it’s going to be at the back of people’s minds that they cannot meet them in real life.”

That said, without tapping on their authenticity, human influencers may lose their edge. “In the case of some influencers, it can be all about monetising at a distance through the content they create,” says Ho. “The feeds can get very unreal, like being too luxurious, and there’s some sort of disconnection.” 

 

In August 2020, Singaporean fashion influencer Naomi Neo (@naomineo_) uploaded a YouTube video of her new $600,000 bright purple “Dream Lamborghini Huracan” - drawing flak from netizens. Facebook comments called her “vacuous”, “superficial” and a “bimbo”. Social Blade statistics show that in that month, the views gained by the YouTube channel fell by 400,000 below its usual. 

 

Speaking to Forbes, Forbes Agency Council member Emilie Tabor says that influencers without relatability can cause fans to be fatigued or sceptical. Users turn to influencers for connection, not to see another ad, she explains. 

 

It’s worse when influencers fail to disclose brand affiliations and pass off paid reviews as real ones. “If there's a commercial arrangement, you want to be transparent about that,” Lim says. 

 

Both human and virtual influencers are in the business of building connections and gaining trust, but as much as quirky, freckled Ava can sweep brand deals and even outperform human influencers, she can never really become one. For now, it’s safe to say that humans have the advantage - and it is up to them to keep radiating authenticity to stay ahead of the game.