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If you can't understand how Instagram 'influencers' make millions, good luck with these virtual ones doing even better

Marketing is getting weird in 2020

Comment While the number of so-called "influencers" on Instagram has rocketed a new trend may leave you scratching your head even harder: the arrival of "robot" or "virtual" influencers.

What are we talking about? CGI-created characters – some cartoonish, some strikingly realistic – that have their own accounts on the social media network and are the new hot earners, making upwards of $6,000 per post, usually for holding or wearing something from a sponsor.

The top earner, according to research and stats compiled by online retailer OnBuy, is a hyper-realistic skinny model called Lil Miquela who has around 2.5 million followers and is making $11.7m a year by posting pictures and short videos of herself.

Second comes Noonoouri, who is far more cartoonish, with an oversized head and eyes in a style popular in Japan, who is expected to make $2.6m this year by posting pictures online. And there are another seven of these virtual influencers making over $45,000 a year.

And if that makes no sense to you – that a fake person can earn more than an actual person doing daily work by occasionally posting images of themselves online – we don't blame you.

The truth of it, however, is that it's all product placement and stealth advertising in an era where the customers for many types of goods no longer watch TV or read magazines but view YouTube and scan Instagram. And the companies selling those goods need to find where the most eyeballs are. It's marketing by CG artists.

Real people, real money

By far the biggest earners for product placement on Instagram are global celebrities, typically musicians, movie stars and sporting heroes: Ariana Grande, Dwayne Johnson, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the like. The money is almost entirely connected to the number of followers, and Ronaldo has 235 million of them. But rather than pay someone like Ronaldo to do a photoshoot with their product and then pay a magazine to feature the image in their high-end magazine, advertisers these days cut out the middleman and get the star themselves to post the image on their Instagram feed.

The money, at first glance, appears to be obscene. Ariana Grande, for example, makes around $500,000 for each sponsored post. But then, with an estimated 1.55 per cent "engagement rate" for each post for her 197 million followers, that means that over three million people actively interact with or respond to pictures featuring a company's product. And that, marketers have decided, is a good return on investment.

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But back to the virtual influencers. How on earth does a CGI character that doesn't have several award-winning albums, massive blockbuster movies, or dozens of mind-blowing goals become an "influencer" in the first place?

And the answer is a carefully cultivated image. The top two robots, Lil Miquela and Noonoouri, apart from having visually appealing pictures – something that is much easier to do when they only exist inside a computer – have built up an Instagram following by jumping on board social trends like #BlackLivesMatters and posting messages designed to get young people to like and follow them.

Lil Miquela has taken things a step further: the people behind her have used Hollywood-grade CGI software to animate her in a hyper-realistic way. They have kept tight-lipped about the details, not wanting to ruin the illusion, though the company behind it – Brud – has hired real models (some say British model Emily Bador), put them in the image-capture suits used in movies, and had them dance and move, then used that to create realistic-looking videos.

Recently they have even branched off into music and music videos. It's not great music and they aren't great videos – often only a few seconds long – but let's be honest, popular music has always been about the image more than the music.

All in the look

While Lil Miquela is the equivalent of a live photoshoot, with real backdrops, made hyper-real by graphics, Noonoouri is like a printed magazine ad – all style and look. Of course, advertisers will pay to have their brands associated with the next cool thing.

The company behind Lil Miquela, incidentally, currently dominates this strange market. In the top 10 virtual influencers, it is also behind another two of them – a white, blonde girl called Bermuda and a young black man called Blawko. The company has its creations interact with one another leading to even more ridiculous situations by creating a kind of virtual soap opera.

If there is semblance of sanity in this whole thing, it's that the prevalence of these virtual influencers – and, in fact, the number of real influencers – is extremely small. While there are 10 CGI models that make more than the average American, there are tens of millions of real people earning that amount by doing things other than posing with other people's products. ®

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