In summary

  • New research led by Swinburne marketing expert Professor Sean Sands has looked at human versus artificial intelligence (AI) influencers on Instagram
  • A virtual AI influencer can be as effective as a human influencer
  • For consumers who are attracted to ‘uniqueness’, they may actually prefer AI influencers

Robots are always coming for our jobs, but this time it’s influencers on the line.

New research led by Swinburne marketing expert Professor Sean Sands has looked at human versus artificial intelligence (AI) influencers on Instagram, comparing the likes of the Kardashians with the world’s first digital supermodel, Shudu (@shudu.gram), and Miquela (@lilmiquela) who has over 3 million followers and ‘describes herself’ as a “19-year-old Robot living in LA”.

Professor Sands found that, in many ways, a virtual AI influencer can be as effective as a human influencer.

Influencers are our taste-makers. More than that, influencing is a multibillion-dollar industry – expected to reach US$15 billion in 2022. Part of the influencer’s appeal is that they are seen as more authentic and credible than traditional forms of advertising – and as such, they can be hugely effective in advertising campaigns.

The Swinburne-led research reveals that this could be true even of AI influencers.

We're just as happy to follow AI influencers as humans

The team found that people are just as willing to follow AI influencers as their human counterparts.

“Consumers are equally open to follow an AI or human influencer, and they perceive the level of personalisation provided by either influencer type as similar.”

The researchers pose that this can be explained by a ‘spill-over effect’ from consumer experiences with other AI recommendation systems. We listen to AI recommendations all the time, from our Netflix telling us what to watch next, Amazon telling us what we might like or Goodreads suggesting similar books to the ones we’ve enjoyed.

While we know they’re not real people and we, therefore, trust an AI influencer less – the research found that AI influencers are more likely to kickstart word-of-mouth trends.

For consumers who are attracted to ‘uniqueness’, they may actually prefer AI influencers.

Why advertisers might turn to AI influencers

AI influencers are rising in prominence.

Global brands including KFC, LVMH, Mini, Netflix, Nike and Samsung have all worked with AI influencers. French luxury brand Balmain went so far as to drop the Kardashians as their social media influencers in 2018, appointing three virtual AI influencers in their place: Shudu, Margot and Xhi. More recently, social media users may have seen the World Health Organisation engage AI influencer Knox Frost, with more than a million Instagram followers at the time, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research found that AI influencers are able to “quickly leverage social media trends.”

There is also scope for new opportunities for marketers and brands.

“A further benefit of AI influencers is that they potentially enable an infinite number of micro-targeted – or even entirely personalised – influencers to be rapidly created by a brand. At the extreme, all consumers could be targeted with their own personalised influencer bots.”

Read more

The research paper, titled ‘Unreal influence: leveraging AI in influencer marketing’, was written by  Professor Sean Sands (lead author, Swinburne), Associate Professor Colin Campbell (Swinburne), Dr Kirk Plangger (King's College London) and Dr Carla Ferraro (Swinburne).

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