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Virtual influencers to 'unlock infinite job opportunities in SA'

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SA’s first virtual personality, Kim Zulu.
SA’s first virtual personality, Kim Zulu.

While some jobs will be displaced by the rise of virtual influencers, the increasing demand for computer-generated “personalities” will see the creation of many more digital roles in South Africa’s social media landscape.

This is according to brand and social media experts, allaying fears of job losses, as virtual influencers − or computer-generated imagery influencers − increasingly invade the digital world, with some garnering millions of followers across the globe.

Virtual influencers have been identified by The Economist’s annual “The World Ahead” feature as one of the key emerging technologies to watch out for in 2022.

These fictional computer-generated “people” have realistic human characteristics, features and personalities. Behind them are clever creators, brands or individuals, with a keen eye for technology, who remain faceless, according to The Media Online.

While still in its infancy in SA, the rising trend in influencer marketing has seen some local virtual influencers market companies' product offerings, executing brand campaigns and sharing social content across platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

However, as these virtual beings increasingly disrupt the industry, several studies show they will impact on the future of jobs for “real” influencers.

Despite this, local industry pundits say the new revolution will create far more jobs than it will likely replace.

Lebo Kambule, founder of Johannesburg-based artificial intelligence start-up The Avatar Company, which has debuted three virtual influencers in SA, tells ITWeb: “Technology may take away some jobs on one side of the spectrum, but we feel it will ultimately create new jobs and opportunities on the opposite side of the spectrum.

“As ordinary users of technology, we have already been conditioned to using robot-like services without realising it. Take for instance Apple’s Siri; she has become an artificial intelligence information hub and assistant, and as a result, we no longer need an assistant to manage our calls or diaries. Siri is also a telephone directory, so we no longer need the services of the Yellow Pages.”

In 2020, The Avatar Company debuted SA’s first virtual influencer, named Kim Zulu, a 23-year-old female who identifies as a “virtual human”.

Since then, Zulu has brought in great revenue for brands and has attained global fame, being profiled in Forbes US, Elle China and Fashion TV, and featured at the Mercedes-Benz Russia Fashion Week in 2020. Zulu has also done collaborations with brands like Mini Cooper, Puma and Veet, among others, notes Kambule.

Television host Ayanda Thabethe’s digital twin, iYANDA.
Television host Ayanda Thabethe’s digital twin, iYANDA.

According to Kambule, local brands are increasingly hopping onto the virtual influencer express for various reasons, mainly because they are often more affordable than human influencers and give brands more control over their campaigns.

“Over the last few years, we have learnt that local brands understand the meaning of virtual influencers and they are willing to experiment with this growing global trend.

“For any brand, the key advantage of having a virtual influencer is cost-efficiency. By this, I mean brands can now book a virtual influencer for a photoshoot in the desert, without incurring the heavy costs of flying an entire production crew to the destination. This can all be created virtually.”

The rise of the metaverse marketing trend is one of the key factors that will contribute to the proliferation of virtual personas in SA, as more companies accelerate their virtual strategies to explore unique ways of engaging consumers, adds Kambule.

Combined influence

Some of the world’s most followed virtual influencers include Brazil’s Lil Miquela (32 million followers on YouTube); Barbie doll (over 10 million YouTube followers); and Nobody Sausage, an abstract 3D animated sausage, has over 14.1 million followers on TikTok, according to Virtual Humans.

Natasha Miller, international media manager at The MediaShop, points out that while the trend is unfolding at a slow pace in SA, virtual influencers are expected to unlock infinite job opportunities.

“Virtual influencers are not there to replace human influencers. In this digital age and era where machine meets man, it’s more of a collaboration rather than a hostile takeover.

“It takes a team of talented graphic designers and social community managers to rally behind the development and management of a virtual influencer, as opposed to a ‘one-man show’ in most cases with real influencers. So, more opportunity is actually being created for designers and teams to manage a virtual influencer.”

While some clients prefer to deal with an agency, within a few years, the evolution will lead to a hybrid approach to influencer marketing, with more virtual and real influencers collaborating to deliver on a set of brand goals, states Miller.

Leandri Janse Van Vuuren, MD of social media company Social Media 101, points out that while virtual influencers have the added advantage of being available to their clients 24 hours a day and providing brands with extremely customisable content, they have several shortcomings.

“When brands model these virtual influencers on their ideal client avatar they may inadvertently be alienating certain ancillary audiences.

“Another issue to consider is transparency; currently there is no legislation that requires virtual influencers to disclose that they are in fact virtual influencers. Virtual influencers are also creating beauty standards that are literally impossible to attain,” notes Janse Van Vuuren.

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19 Aug
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