This has been a strange decade. When you really think about the past ten years, there are certain things that will define it: a streaming service revolution, politicisation of social media, and digital disruption across countless industries. Naturally this has affected how we interact with narratives, stories, and brands.

But I think one of the biggest changes is the crystallisation of the influencer economy. Over the past ten years, we’ve seen YouTubers, Vine stars, Vloggers, and Instagrammers take the world by storm.

In fact, some of the decade’s most impactful events were created and destroyed with social media alone. Many will point to politics for this, like Trump’s 2016 victory and the Brexit referendum, but I think a better case study is the infamous Fyre Festival: an event that generated viral interest through social media word-of-mouth and Instagram models, before it became an online laughingstock with that same social media fervour.

With 2020 fast approaching, I wanted to give my take on the next stage of influencer media, and the rise of the Virtual Avatar. I suppose you can consider this a spiritual sequel to my previous post on Gorillaz and their creation of a virtual band, and later brand ambassadors.

So, to begin …

WHAT IS AN INFLUENCER?

In marketing terms, an Influencer is simply a person or group with the ability to influence potential buyers by promoting or recommending an item on social media.

Micro-influencers (roughly 50,000 followers or less) can make a few thousand dollars per post, whereas major influencers (a following over 1,000,000) can make as much as $100,000 or $200,000 – especially if they’re connected to the gaming industry or live streaming. This is all according to the co-founder of Viral Nation, and I recommend checking out the full article here.

Often these influencers are young people – and it’s no surprise. Millennials and Gen Z crave authenticity. We’re drawn to YouTubers and Vloggers because they come across as “authentic” and you can directly interact with them – even if they’re just playing a video game or doing an unboxing video.

Sponsoring them makes sense for a brand; what better way to subtly advertise a product than capitalising off of that personal connection? Let’s say you get Pewdiepie (the world’s most prolific YouTuber) do a Let’s Play of your game; there’s a guaranteed interest to be garnered from that. On paper it works. But as of 2019 there’s a growing scepticism amongst investors and sponsors.

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?

For the most part, influencers do their job very well and they’re a worthwhile investment for sponsors and brands, especially given their authentic nature.

However, there comes an element of risk – especially in a politically sensitive climate. Unfortunately, things can go wrong very quickly. Whether it’s a YouTuber making a racial slur, insensitive joke, or a politically controversial statement, it puts companies in a real lose-lose position of how they continue the working relationship with their fanbase and markets.

Blizzard struggled with this recently, with one of their streamers saying, “Free Hong Kong” during a livestream. Now, the company had to choose between the massive Chinese market and western fans; all whilst retaining their integrity. It was a hideous lose-lose situation with no easy answer.

This is why I think we’re seeing a rise in investment for the new “Virtual” Influencer, with characters like Lil Miquela securing $125 worth of investment for her company, and working with brands like Gucci before launching a music career. You still follow the story of Lil Miquela, as you would any YouTuber, but risk is mitigated. Plus, she has the unique appeal as an uncannily designed character: after all, in the social media space there are tons of real people to compete with, so why not go virtual?

Miquela posting to her “Miqueliens”

Most importantly, you can control what these characters do and say, and that opens up creative possibility. You can give them a background, a story, and a reason to watch. Miquela began life as an Instagrammer but has since moved to regular YouTube vlogs about life as a “robot,” bringing in a pseudo-Sci-Fi twist to the medium. In terms of story, she’s had fallings out with other virtual influencers, and has the same level of scripted conflict that you’d see on a soap.

But what does this mean for brands in general? More importantly, is this the future for immersive advertising?

IT’S NOT A PRODUCT; IT’S A CHARACTER

Mascots and icons have been around since the early days of branding. Everything from the Michelin Man to Mickey Mouse exists in some way to connect a brand with a character. This was a way to anthropomorphise a product and was a way of instinctively drawing a connection between a product and a friendly, cool, or attractive character. But things have changed, or rather evolved.

We have a level of interactivity that we haven’t really had before. The same way the visual poster revolutionised the world of marketing in the early 1900s, so too has social media changed the way we interact with brands.

KFC is currently in the midst of a curious rebrand for their icon – Colonel Sanders. Instead of the folksy Southern chicken colonel, we now have a virtual *ahem* “Sexy” Colonel Sanders; across multiple mediums; most notably creating a tongue-and-cheek Instagram account.

Earlier this year I wrote about how I fell in love with Colonel Sanders through the dating sim … I promise it’ll make sense if you read the post. Although not a virtual brand ambassador, the steps KFC have taken this year are very much in line with modern marketing, and directly reaching out to consumers via social media.

Colonel Sanders in the video game, and the virtual instagram influencer on the official KFC Instagram account.

Having the official KFC mascot appear as a CGI brand ambassador and Virtual Influencer creates a more immersive marketing campaign – with more shirtless poses than I suspect the actual Colonel Sanders ever did.

Whereas KFC’s Colonel Sanders already exists to promote a brand, something like Lil Miquela exists as a character in her own right, before even partnering with Gucci or other name brands. Her character has a greater sense of independence than something like Sanders, and can represent multiple brands at once. That’s where I see potential; a consistent “character” partnering with multiple brands in the long-term.

In the modern market it’s possible to create a character, gain a following, and then out-licence them accordingly. Not only is this new advertising potential, but also brings with it new story potential; generating revenue and can even build a franchise.

A MULTI-PLATFORM MEERKAT: THE FRANCHISE INFLUENCER

Although technology changes, story remains consistent. This is the same with virtual characters. They may seem new, but they do in fact tell a story which in turn sells a product. In essence, this is a multi-platform marketing strategy.

For this past decade, we’ve seen the same success unfold on our small screens; in Britain. Beginning in 2009, Compare the Market launched a campaign that has since spiralled into a form of digital influencer all on its own: Compare the Meerkat.

I confess, I’m not a major driver, nor have I needed to compare car insurance. But the brilliance of this campaign is their character driven focus, which has endured and evolved over the past ten years in Britain.

The character of Aleksandr Orlov (and sidekick Sergei) is a Russian-accented Meerkat who showed up in a ton of commercials at the start of the decade. The commercials gave details on the Orlov’s struggles through Siberia, and slowly flesh out the lovable character through short-form commercials.

Aleksandr Orlov’s family backstory – a final “chapter.”

Essentially, the character eclipsed the product. Before long, he had his own book: A Simples Life, launched for Christmas of 2010, merchandising, and Red Nose Day sketches. He was even interviewed Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain in a Mixed Reality space.

Aleksandr Orlov on Good Morning Britain – not even selling a product; it’s a character.

The multi-platform appeal of Compare the Meerkat is something that can be currently replicated through social media, as we’ve seen with later brands. Most importantly, it’s an example of establishing and defining a character for long-term returns; and arguably building a franchise. With more and more companies looking into short form content, like Quibi, this shows how there’s potential in creating and sustaining a brand through minute-long increments.

When it comes to immersive storytelling it’s this philosophy producers must implement. Even as the technology changes, a quirky character and compelling story is the core behind modern longevity.

THE UPCOMING DECADE OF IMMERSION

We’re at a technological turning point as we look towards the 2020s. There’s greater investment in Mixed Reality technology – specifically regarding AR.

Whilst we’re still deciphering how best to use this tech, it’s about to become increasingly more accessible. For example, there’s speculation about glasses being the next big thing following smartphones; where (ideally) you can just wear them and see AR images/characters/locations around you.

This is all just hearsay for now. But it presents a method with how we approach media and digital avatars. There are going to be evermore ways to interact with characters and brands, whether it’s through social media like Instagram, or short form content like YouTube and Quibi. Of course 5G will be a game-changer for the amount of content and data we can access on our devices.

It may seem like we need to revolutionise our way of thinking, but in reality our understanding of story remains consistent. But the immersive potential going forward presents a new opportunity.