These days, influence is big business. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitch have enabled social media stars across the planet to grow vast fanbases and wield valuable commercial sway.
The power of influencers has even been recognised as a factor that would make or break the fortunes of publicly traded companies such as trendy mattress company Casper, which listed its influencer marketing spend as a 'risk' factor in its IPO filing. While some influencers have helped spark conversations on contentious social topics, others have made costly gaffes in public, such as Logan Paul's lamented visit to Japan in 2018.
In an effort to gain a greater degree of control over their influencer output, some marketers are trying to remove humans from the equation entirely. This has led to the creation of so-called virtual influencers, social media personalities whose followers are real but whose images (and, in some cases, words) are computer-generated.
To explore how virtual influencers are created and operated, we went behind the scenes with the Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA) - a sister agency of London's Live & Breathe – to create a virtual influencer of our very own. The character created by the agency is featured on the front cover of our February issue.
I'm Flo I'm half Brazilian, half Portuguese now based in the UK I'm a 25 year old girlbot made by my creators to show people exactly what us #robots can do — fashion, facts, sustainability, you name it! I want to get to know as many of you as possible so please hit me up for chats - but be nice, I don’t do not nice ♀. Although I love sustainable fashion, my passion is the environment and this amazing world humans and bots live in. It’s insane, but as we know, there’s a lot of issues going on with the environment. That’s why I’ve decided to go on a trip around this beautiful island and document what I’ve seen and there is some mad bad stuff going on. Can you believe that the 10 hottest years on record have been since 1997, and we in the UK kind of distance ourselves a bit from the consequences of whats going on in the world I get it, seeing the fires in Australia or the floods in East Asia isn't the same as when it is in your local park. But just because we don't notice it doesn't mean it isn't happening here too. Sea levels around the UK have risen by 10cm since 1990 with no prospect of retreating. This is why I am here on instagram, to raise these subjects up - in a sassy girl bot way — helping bots and humans make a positive change together #robot #girlbot #environment #environmentallyfriendly #sustainablefashion #sustainableliving #sustainability #virtualhuman #virtualreality #virtualinfluencer #digitalhuman #influencermarketing #virtualreality #render #daz3d #unityengine #unreal #nreal
A post shared by Floresta Nas Virtual Human (@floresta.nas) on Jan 17, 2020 at 1:02pm PST
In keeping with The Drum's mission to champion the power of marketing to do good, the character created by VIA was designed to appeal to a specific audience: social users interested in environmentalism.
Following a period of intense research aided by machine-learning analysis of over 500,000 conversations across various social media platforms, VIA's team created a backstory, a personality and an aesthetic – from her clothes to the colour of her eyes to her haircut – to appeal to that audience.
Her name is Floresta and she's a 25-year-old woman who's decided to dedicate her social media presence to raising awareness of environmental issues in the UK. She's been on a tour of the country, photographing beauty spots that are under threat from climate change and ecological collapse. Floresta, or Flo for short, can be seen striking a pose at the Birling Gap or wandering artfully through Britain's disappearing bluebell-carpeted woodlands.
She posts images rendered by the agency's design team, shares poetry penned by a neural network that can produce original verse and, crucially, she holds conversations with her followers, her replies produced using natural language processing software that can effectively mimic a chosen tone.
The February issue of The Drum explores the marketing case for virtual influencers, as well as the ethical considerations already being discussed in this emerging discipline. You can grab your copy of the issue here.