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Virtual influencers for corporate communication
Are virtual influencers a glimpse into the future of corporate advocacy? Synthetic media enables the increasingly automated creation of virtual characters, some of whom have amassed millions of followers on social media.
Led by Professor Stefan Stieglitz and Sünje Clausen from the University of Potsdam, a research project ventured into harnessing these computer-generated characters for influencer communication within corporate landscapes, drawing insights from a case study conducted with Sanofi.
Miriam Henn (Sanofi), Stefan Stieglitz and Sünje Clausen (University of Potsdam) discussed the outcome of the project during the Science Updates at the Hermes Dinner 2023.
Influencers are relevant organizational stakeholders that can provide valuable resources for strategic communication. These include competencies in content production and distribution, a unique relationship quality with their audience, and a personal brand that enables personalization of corporate communications.
What makes influencer communication effective?
- Approachability: Social media influencers often present themselves as approachable by interacting with their followers rather than maintaining distance and exclusivity.
- Intimacy: Promoting a sense of intimacy with followers (e.g., by sharing personal experiences and problems), making them appear more genuine and trustworthy.
- Continuity: The relationship is maintained through constant and recurring communication (e.g., regular upload appointments)
Collaborating with them, however, also poses challenges. For instance, organizations can’t always dictate their moves, and influencers often demand a level of independence and autonomy. Therefore, virtual influencers offer a solution to some of these challenges while also opening up new opportunities for influencer communications.
Virtual influencers are digital entities with human or non-human appearances, created and managed by individuals, creative agencies, or companies. They share social media content and engage in interactive communication to gain influence among users. Similar to human influencers, they can engage with significant audiences and establish relationships.
As depicted on the left, there are various types of virtual influencers based on realism and anthropomorphic traits.
Advantages and risks of virtual influencers
- Allows designers to tailor virtual influencers to the interests and demographics of specific target audiences or to align influencers seamlessly with brand values.
- Can contribute to promoting unrealistic societal beauty and lifestyle standards
- Enables new forms of misrepresentation and the commercial exploitation of marginalized groups
- Lowers or eliminates the risks of scandals and reputational damage
- Owners of virtual influencers can choose to stay anonymous which might be abused for exhibiting unethical behavior without the risk of being identified.
Flexibility and scalability
- Can save time and resources and open up new possibilities for content generation.
- More scalable as virtual influencers can be simultaneously active on multiple platforms and produce more content.
- Can promote unrealistic expectations of human lives and abilities.
- Increases scalability through automated content generation.
- Enables the acquisition of valuable consumer insights.
- Could be used to mislead or exploit users.
Developing a virtual Influencer
University of Duisburg-Essen for Sanofi
To engage and maintain interest in a virtual character, a strong creative vision and concept are crucial.
- The vision should be based on the target audience’s interests and the aim behind the virtual influencer or of the brand or company it represents. Details should be included about the form, human features, residence, background, and personality.
- Furthermore, the concept should specify their core values, personality traits, hobbies, interests, and political affiliations.
For the research project, a virtual character was developed by students from the University of Duisburg-Essen in cooperation with the healthcare company Sanofi. The virtual character “Sam” is a medical student interning at Sanofi. During a one-day takeover of Sanofi Deutschland’s Instagram account, Sam showcases various areas in which digital technology is used in healthcare (e.g., machine learning’s role in drug development).
You can find Sam’s takeover of Sanofi Deutschland’s Instagram account here (“Digi” highlights).
Considerations for virtual characters in corporate communications
When it comes to integrating these virtual characters into a communication strategy, there are two primary avenues:
- Collaborate with agencies or individuals that manage existing virtual influencers and benefit from the influencer’s public persona and community.
- Create or oversee the creation of virtual characters as corporate influencers or prospective independent influencers in specific areas. This allows the unprecedented tailoring to specific target audiences and brand values.
While developing a virtual influencer takes time, expertise, and resources, initial investments remain significant. For experimenting with virtual influencers in corporate communications, it is easier to approach existing virtual influencers.
About the study
Recognizing its significance, the 2022 Communications Trend Radar identified synthetic media as one of top five trends. Professor Stefan Stieglitz and Sünje Clausen from the University of Potsdam collaborated with Sanofi 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.