Influencer relations – An interview with Miriam Henn from Sanofi
Virtual influencers, a relatively new phenomenon, have primarily found their place in marketing, often utilized for product endorsements. Certain characters within this realm have gathered millions of followers on social media, paving the way for new opportunities in influencer communications.
Working with influencers
We’re observing the progressive fragmentation of the public sphere. Media and journalists still play a central role but are no longer the only (information) channels. Social media are more and more preferred when it comes to gathering information, especially among young target groups.
In a Bitkom survey, 78% of those under 30 said that without social networks they wouldn’t know what was happening in the world. Currently, 50 million people in Germany are active in social networks. Some 54% of Internet users aged 16 and above actively use Instagram, 38% TikTok and 27% X (previously known as Twitter) (source: Bitkom, February 2023). For several years corporate communications has been facing different requirements, as direct dialogue with the various (sub-) target groups via social media is possible and necessary. As a healthcare company, we’re subject to special legislation, above all the Pharmaceutical Advertising Act (Heilmittelwerbegesetz), which prohibits us from talking about specifi c medicines to the general public or patients. Although this isn’t an obstacle to contacting our target groups, it does require more creativity. After all, we see it as our responsibility to educate people about diseases and prevention, and to highlight research progress. Our focus lays on relevance and credibility.
„78% of those under 30 said that without social networks they wouldn’t know what was happening in the world.“
Influencers are seen as having a high level of credibility within their peer group, and they have a good sense for the relevance of topics that affect their respective target groups. Through their communities and reach, influencers bring in target groups that we would not reach through our own social media channels.
An influencer must fit Sanofi ’s purpose. For this reason, we’ve developed an in-house influencer selection tool to categorize potential collaborators based on various criteria. Key considerations include: Can an influencer credibly represent our topics externally, e.g., through their own scientific expertise? Do they have an active community with significant reach? What other collaborations have they previously been involved in? These are points that we considered when selecting our last collaboration.
„Through their communities and reach, influencers bring in target groups that we would not reach through our own social media channels.“
For us, influencer collaborations on Instagram and Tik-Tok have proven most suitable, striking a balance between educating the audience and fostering dialogue. Finding the right influencer or creator is crucial because they not only have to fit the company and the topics, but also to have a high level of credibility. If they are also able to explain complex scientific issues, then the influencer is the perfect „fit“ for us and for social media users. KPIs are the engagement and conversion rate to our homepage.
Virtual characters for influencer communication
A virtual influencer makes sense for companies on certain clearly defined topics for exactly defined target groups. Part of our communication strategy at Sanofi is to position internal experts in social media, such as our researchers, who have a high level of credibility due to their expertise. We were curious to explore how a virtual influencer that shares internal impressions from Sanofi could complement these activities.
„A virtual influencer makes sense for companies on certain clearly defined topics for exactly defined target groups.“
Our non-binary influencer “Sam” spent a day as an intern getting to know the topic of digitization in various areas of Sanofi and conveying entertaining impressions of the world of digitization at Sanofi . Strictly speaking, our pilot project “Sam” isn’t an “influencer” in the narrower sense, as she was newly created. We therefore followed the “content-centric” approach (people no longer follow people, but topics) of TikTok, which Instagram also adopted. For ethical reasons, we made it transparent that Sam is a computer-generated, fictitious person.
We underlined the playful character with GIFs integrated into the various scenes. Sam thus clearly addresses a younger target group, especially prospective hires. It’s important to evaluate upfront for which topics and target groups are more suitable for virtual influencers and which for real influencers.
Due to rapid technological progress – especially the latest developments in artificial intelligence – I am firmly convinced that virtual influencers will increase in relevance. There are already very good tools for the AI-based creation of avatars. And if avatars are already able to joke with each other and show emotions, then at some point they will hardly be distinguishable from humans, and we are more likely to run into an ethical discussion. This makes it even more important to identify them as avatars or virtual influencers.
About the project
Sanofi collaborated with Professor Stefan Stieglitz and Sünje Clausen from the University of Potsdam for a year-long research project exploring virtual influencers. As a segment of a Bachelor project, students from the University of Duisburg-Essen developed a virtual character, marking an initial foray into utilizing computer-generated characters for influencer communication within corporate environments.
You can find Sam’s takeover of Sanofi Deutschland’s Instagram account here (“Digi” highlights).