Common people that influence a large number of their followers are known as digital influencers. They usually have some knowledge of a certain subject, such as beauty, health, food, or travel. But there is no need for definitions made by scholars, because haven’t we all crossed paths with these influencers before? You know you’ve had at least one interaction with them, right? Let’s get back to the origins of this industry with its currently-estimated $21.1 billion market size in 2023.
As a consequence of rapid advancements in network technology, the Internet has become an essential component of our everyday lives, and the way customers and organisations communicate and do business has been dramatically affected by the 2.0 Web’s expansion of the internet. Evidently, while the phrase “social media” may be dated back to 1978 with Bulletin Board Systems, the current notion of social media as we know it today evolved in the early 2000s. Rapid advances in internet and communication technology have drastically transformed the concept, scope, and usage of social media since then. Individuals are increasingly likely to migrate their interactions to virtual platforms as social media applications grow more integrated into people’s daily lives. Actually, apart from being a permanent part of our lives, social media has also been a hot topic in academic field. From an academic standpoint, as the effect of social media on marketing has grown, different study topics have emerged to investigate this issue from diverse perspectives. As social media continues to expand, it has added terminology such as “influencer,” which originated in the sphere of bloggers. In other words, as said at the very beginning, ordinary people with the ability to influence a big number of their followers via social media networks. People who are old enough to witness the rise and fall of blogs actually are very well aware of what this is about. Yet also people who are young enough to grow up with social media knows what this TikTok or Instagram fame is.
Influencer marketing is one of the most important tools preferred by digital marketers, recent research conducted in 2023, shows that brands & companies are willing to increase their influencer marketing budget, while the same research shows that more than 25% of the corporate participants were already spending more than $50k per year on influencer marketing. Also, it is important to mention some brands keep their budget less than $10k per year so we can definitely say that influencer marketing is preferred by brands of all sizes. But it is pretty normal to have this tendency towards a tool that has 71% of ROI. It’s not surprising that influencer spending varies, leading to the categorization of influencers based on their follower counts — and from my humble professional experience I am not here to judge or deny the tool that is increasing the ROI of my marketing activities-. This categorization significantly impacts brands’ marketing budgets, as influencers with larger followings tend to command higher collaboration fees. Moreover, during the influencer marketing boom, particularly intensified by the pandemic, consumers have shown a preference for micro and relatively smaller influencers, valuing their authenticity.
- Nano-influencers who have followers between a thousand till 10 thousand.
- Micro-influencers who have followers between 10k and 100k.
- Macro-influencers whose follower number is between one hundred thousand until one million.
- Mega/Celebrity Influencers.
All of the prior literature, research studies and market analysis demonstrate that influencer marketing has progressed well beyond the straightforward act of producing pictures and has become a marketing technique that surpasses both traditional and other digital marketing tools. It has its own success stories, either from influencers’ perspective such as Chiara Ferragni who started as a blogger turned into social media influencer and now a successful business owner with her very own brand (actually, she, as a personal brand and “The Blond Salad” as her commercial brand and blog had been studied by Harvard Business School). Or there are successful campaigns such as “Seven Urban Wonders of the World” of Hilton Hotels, or Dunkin’ Donuts collaboration with Charli D’Amelio, happened and more and more are still happening thanks to the collaboration between brands and social media celebrities.
Actually, with the power of social media, traditional and digital celebrities created their brands, and some of them, especially in the fashion and beauty sectors, became really successful. But none can deny that the pioneer of this field is the Kardashian-Jenner ‘klan.’ Yes, it is obvious that Kim Kardashian cannot be considered as a digital influencer, she rose to fame because of her reality show and her family as well even before social media. However, academic studies, -yes there is an academic study about her! — show how successfully she monetized her social media power and created multiple successful brands, including Skims, KKW Beauty, and KKW Fragrance, the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood phone app, and the Keeping Up With The Kardashians TV show, all of which contribute to her $350 million net worth, as previously stated social media created the influencers meanwhile it empowered the existing celebrities and changed the game.
But hey, even the Kardashians or Ferragni or name whoever you want to, who used to rule the influencer world, seem a bit passé now, because we’re living in the era of AI taking over just about everything. Or maybe I am wrong and exaggerating.
I remember a time when I was reading the book ‘The Age of AI’ by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher. There was a small passage that attracted my attention, as follows: “AI is not an industry, let alone a single product. In strategic parlance, it is not a domain. It is an enabler of many industries and facets of human life: scientific research, education, manufacturing, logistics, transportation, defense, law, enforcement, politics, advertising, art, culture and more.” And today, AI is everywhere with or without realising, we are using it or it is somehow helping us directly or indirectly.
We’re witnessing the emergence of various AI tools such as ChatGPT, Jasper, Murf, and others. These AI innovations are making their presence felt not only in the business world but also in unconventional areas like AI girlfriends (I have some intriguing thoughts on this topic, as a sneak peek: for those guys out there who complain about being single, maybe it’s time to treat your ‘flesh & blood’ girlfriends a little better?). Even more interestingly, influencers, who are traditionally supposed to promote brands or products through their social media influence, are now being created by humans with the assistance of AI algorithms.
This all occured in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic (I apologize for bringing back those chaotic memories), it was during this time that AI influencer Knox Frost collaborated with WHO to remind people of pandemic-related restrictions and hygiene practices. Even before that, the fashion brand Balmain turned to collaboration with three AI influencers after parting ways with the Kardashians. Interestingly, Balmain described these AI influencers as a ‘better representation of the brand’s celebration of inclusivity.’ In the academic sphere, discussions on the ethical use of AI in research have been ongoing, while brands like Prada, Versace, and Calvin Klein have embarked on their own AI experimentation journey. Actually during the aforementioned period, I am not mentioning the chaos of 2020 again don’t worry, I believe that we can say a new trend was rising to power. There are different perspectives on the usage of AI, depending on the way it is employed and the fields in which it is used, particularly for what purposes they are being used. But let’s focus on influencer marketing because it is neither expertise nor interest to dive deep into AI itself.
As just mentioned above, it is -almost? maybe?- time of AI influencers. But who are they? And how does it function to collaborate with them? An AI influencer can seem and act like a human influencer, indicating that they may have impacts similar to those associated with traditional brand ambassadors. Also actually, research on AI and machine learning also suggests that AI influencers may have beneficial impacts that can be achieved. In particular,given that the line separating human activity from bot-like behaviour is diminishing, making it potential for a bot to gain enormous power. So in the future there might be no difference between the AI influencers and human influencers. Given that it is pretty hard for us to tell the distinction between the outcome of AI work and human work.
Here are some of the most popular AI influencers with millions of followers. As you can see from their own pages, they have a very high amount of collaborations. We see that they have much higher engagement rates than their colleagues who have been doing this for years and have not reached the top-tier level. So what drives brands to AI influencers other than being a trend? Unfortunately, since there is no academic study on this subject, we do not have precise statistical data regarding the outcome of AI-generated influencer collaborations, I can only make inferences and generate ideas based on my professional experience and of course through some resources I have read.
To begin with, when you work with a machine or a program, the results are highly accurate. It’s very unlikely to be surprised, mistaken or deviate, and the combinations of micro-marketing possibilities that an influencer programmed only for marketing, or rather targeting, can make are of course beyond humans. A machine like this, a machine whose goal is only promotion, can create thousands of content types or alternatives for a campaign, but naturally there is a limit to the human brain and its capacity and it cannot compete with a solely programmed “influencer”.
It is not easy to work with people. Especially in cases where financial interests and fame enter simultaneously and in a sector where competition is so intense, decisions can change at the last minute, programs can be canceled, last minute changes can occur due to humanitarian situations, etc. This is why brands are known to turn to AI influencers for stability: Everything is standard, fixed and planned. In addition, since they are fed 24/7 in the field for which they are programmed, influencers created by artificial intelligence can both follow social media trends instantly and it is relatively easier to set trends. And all of these reasons actually lead us or brands to efficiency, which is the first rule of business science. But even though their numbers are increasing day by day and they are collaborating more and more, will they or will they not be able to replace human flesh and blood influencers? The most important factors here are authenticity and relatability, which have been effective in influencer marketing recently. Because these are actually the reasons why relatively smaller-scale influencers are preferred over mega influencers. Because social media users, or more precisely consumers, have never been exposed to so much advertising and online promotions before, and now everyone has developed an instinct of distinguishing, and the aforementioned authenticity and relatability have become the determining factor here.
As a result, how much trust will consumers have in artificial intelligence influencers in this scenario? Product categories, in my opinion, are crucial here. It’s unlikely that something without a physical presence in industries driven by influencers, such as beauty and fashion, will have power. However, in a campaign involving technology, for example, customers are more likely to believe an AI-generated influencer since it delivers the greatest insight and is directly associated to technology. This stance, which is neither wholly human nor entirely computer, naturally raises questions in people’s thoughts.
While it’s a growing phenomenon with considerable influence, the prospect of virtual influencers replacing human counterparts in the near future seems unlikely. According to a survey conducted in March 2022, 35% of consumers in the United States had made purchases based on the recommendations of virtual influencers. Additionally, the virtual influencer industry was valued at approximately 4.6 billion dollars in 2018, making it a force that both marketers and brands can ill afford to overlook. Nevertheless, we must remember that we are all humans, and AI raises unforeseen concerns and uncertainties. As we navigate this transformative landscape, it’s essential to strike a balance between technological innovation and preserving the values that drive consumer trust. Perhaps the most effective method in this ever-changing environment will involve a harmonic combination of human and AI influencer partnerships. Regulations and ethical concerns will be critical as the AI revolution proceeds to ensure the proper use of technology in influencer marketing.