Thailand's rise of virtual influencers born out of Covid-19 curbs that limit humans

Ai-Ailynn is one of Thailand's first few virtual influencers created to mimic the features and personality of a real person PHOTO: AI_AILYNN/INSTAGRAM

BANGKOK - Like most Generation Zs, Ai-Ailynn uses her Instagram account to document her outfit of the day and her escapades around Bangkok cafes and museums. And in less than a month, she amassed more than 5,000 social media followers.

Cutting a slim figure and sporting a sleek black bob with a beauty mark just under her right eye, the 21-year-old, who celebrated her birthday this month, hopes to make it big as an influencer. A possible campaign with AIS, Thailand's largest mobile operator, is already in the works.

But there is one catch - Ailynn isn't a real person.

She is one of Thailand's first few virtual influencers created to mimic the features and personality of a real person, in some instances appearing so lifelike that one might not realise they are crafted out of pixels.

Created by SIA Bangkok, which touts itself as Thailand's first virtual influencer agency, Ailynn was largely born out of pandemic limitations.

"There are huge opportunities for virtual influencers. Developing a metaverse influencer like Ailynn allows one to overcome limitations like social distancing and an ageing society," said SIA Bangkok, which started this year and introduced Ailynn to the online world last month.

The agency told The Straits Times via e-mail that it expects the local market for virtual influencers to grow. Thais in particular, spend a good amount of time online.

A 2020 government survey showed that Thais spent an average of 11 hours 25 minutes online per day - an increase of about an hour from 2019 figures - with the study citing the pandemic as one of the driving factors.

Brazilian icon Lu of Magalu is one of the world's earliest virtual influencers to hit the scene in 2009, created by local retail conglomerate Magazine Luiza. Known for her unboxing videos as well as product reviews, she has over 10 million followers on Instagram and TikTok combined.

Another virtual influencer that boasts more than six million followers on both platforms is Miquela Sousa, also known as Lil Miquela, who has released music videos, advocated for social cases and appeared in Calvin Klein, Samsung and Prada campaigns.

The forever 19-year-old, created by Los Angeles-based tech start-up Brud, was also named one of Time magazine's 25 most influential people on the Internet in 2018.

Thailand's Ailynn is part of a growing cadre of virtual influencers that are becoming increasingly common on social media feeds, with characters emerging from countries like South Korea, Russia and Mexico in recent years.

Players in the influencer marketing industry say that unlike their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers are versatile and can meet the needs of brands.

"At a human level, dealing with influencers and their managers can have its challenges. Brand messaging, compatibility and fees can be issues. So (virtual influencers) provide an alternative, possibly a less challenging one," said managing director of Influencers Thailand Thana Rappeepanya.

A virtual influencer can also be given any image, personality or "life" experience to connect with the target audience, and is a "perfect entity" for the brand or message, said Mr Nirote Chaweewannakorn, the country director for Thailand at influencer marketing agency Gushcloud.

Assistant Professor Sakulsri Srisaracam, who specialises in digital media at the Panyapiwat Institute of Management, said there is the added element of "transparency", as most virtual influencers are upfront about their unreal nature.

"It creates a sort of fantasy for people and some find it exciting to connect and experience this exotic character's life," added Dr Sakulsri, noting that such influencers can also be more cost effective, as all they require are tech skills such as computer editing.

Computer-generated influencers are also scandal-free, said Mr Nirote, noting instances where brands have had to do damage control when human influencers get embroiled in problems.

"Many (real life) influencers are young people who from time to time act recklessly - like humans do. Virtual influencers, on the other hand, are not prone to this," he said, adding that Gushcloud does not rule out the possibility of having virtual influencers in its talent line-up.

Still, industry players do not see these virtual characters overtaking the demand for human influencers.

Said Mr Nirote: "Influencer marketing is based on trust and it's not easy to build trust for a virtual influencer, especially when everyone knows it's a fictional character."

Dr Sakulsri believes the influencer marketing space will see more virtual characters emerging, but they will co-exist with their human counterparts.

"The experience that virtual platforms and influencers provide is becoming increasing important, but there will definitely be a segment who still prefer human influencers whom they can interact with in real life," she said.

But in this aspect, human influencers will have to rethink their role and seek to differentiate themselves even more.

"Perhaps they will not have such curated and perfect social media feeds. They might want to reveal more emotions for a deeper connection," she said.

Added Mr Nirote: "When a (human) influencer walks on the street and his or her fans come to ask for a photograph - that's the human connection right there. It is not something virtual influencers can give to the fans."

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