GA+ Sessions – The Future is Virtual… But can pharma take its place and influence the digital space?

Welcome to GA+ Sessions where today we’ll be leaving our reality and entering another, but before I get started, and before I even introduce myself, I think it’s important that I introduce you to someone else. Say hello to Miquela Sousa.Miquela has 2.3 million followers on Instagram, she has partnered with some of the biggest brands and companies in the world, and she’s an influencer. But what makes her different?

She’s not real[1]. At all. She’s a Virtual Influencer. One of the first, and probably the most famous one yet. Miquela isn’t who I want to talk about, but what she is specifically is today’s subject – Virtual Influencers. This is something that we here at Get Animated have become completely fascinated by, and I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned in my research and the ways I think they could really reinvigorate the consumer health, pharma and medical device industry.

Virtual Influencers are more than static images, as you can see here:

As far as some are concerned, because of the influence she has she’s just as real as many of her less successful human Influencer counterparts.

We have slowly progressed past the stage where the term “Influencer” was a fad or a phase. The idea of paying someone who may not have as much knowledge as an expert, but exerts influence over enough people to make a difference, may make some companies, especially medical and pharmaceutical ones, feel uneasy. Well – Virtual Influencers may be able to strike the balance you’re looking for.

With a Virtual Influencer, created, managed, and maintained by a company in the medical and pharma industry, you can far outreach the influence of an expert or talking head, but have the knowledge and expertise to back it up. Want to see how? Let’s start outside of the medical and pharma industry first. Say hello to imma[2].

As real as imma looks in a lot of these images, she isn’t a real person either. She’s another Virtual Influencer, created by CG company ModelingCafe[3] and managed by Aww Inc. from Tokyo, Japan, an agency that manages Virtual Influencers. Yes, you heard that correctly – Virtual Influencers have agents, too. Right now, she’s already amassed over 175,000 followers on Instagram, her newly created male virtual counterpart, no, has 12,000 followers and her virtual dog, einstein has almost 500 followers – more than any of our staff has!

So, what’s imma’s claim to fame or her niche? It’s in her bio.

She’s “interested in Japanese culture, film and art.” In some aspects, she’s an idealised version of a cool, young person living in Japan, but to the outside world she can be viewed as a conduit to Japanese youth culture. Being run and operated by a Japanese agency, it’s likely that they have their finger on the pulse of what’s cool and what’s new. A young person outside of Japan can have some faith in the fact that the things she posts about, wears, advertises, and promotes are authentic to what her human counterpart would be into and ultimately, what they should be into as well. The same can happen with and for the medical and pharma industry – and it already has.

In April, and when COVID-19 was at its height, the World Health Organization partnered with Los Angeles based agency, Influential, to utilise Virtual Influencer Knox Frost’s million-follower Instagram page to share best practice methods and ways younger people can curtail the spread of Coronavirus[4].

This was clearly a positive use of Virtual Influencer’s and one of the biggest steps forward for the medical and health industry in this realm of marketing to date.

The benefits to pharma and medical companies partnering with pre-existing Virtual Influencer’s are clear. They come with built in followings – ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions upon millions of active and engaged followers and fans. That built-in audience already trusts them, so you know your message will be seen. But unlike say, a clothing brand or a soft drinks company, pharma and medical are under a different, more specific type of scrutiny and follow strict laws and best practice codes from regulatory bodies. This is where there can be many hiccups that extend beyond a brand misstep and into the territory of malpractice.

We know that healthcare, pharma and medical companies want to protect their patients and customers at all costs – we do to – which is why it is important to always remain up front and honest in any form of marketing and not to disguise or mislead. That same care, patience, and honesty should go into partnerships with Influencers, and especially the Virtual ones. With strategic and thorough planning, and backed by the not only the research of a medical company and their regulatory teams, but the insight and research of a communication company like ours, I’m sure it would be more than feasible to plan, approve, and execute any virtual marketing strategy.

I can hear some eyes rolling right now and many marketeers could look at the risks and think that taking Virtual Influencers off the marketing mix table completely is the best and safest way to more forward – but that does beg the questions…are you leaving behind a whole line of engagement and marketing channel untouched? Will your competitors get there first?

But I think there’s a better way of doing it.

There’s always an opportunity to improve and better yet, make opportunities like this unique. What if a pharmaceutical company, or medical device company had a Virtual Influencer of their own? Not a short-term or long-term partnership with a pre-existing Virtual Influencer, but one unique to that company or brand. A Virtual Influencer that could educate, promote (where appropriate) and engage with people about specific products, services, or entire line-ups of products. Someone who not only engaged in this new marketplace in this new way, but was backed solely by that company’s knowledge, best practices and aligned to industry regulatory standards?

I’m sure you can already think of some of the benefits yourself, and backed by the research data pharma companies acquire in the process of targeting their audience and customers, their team awesome team of regulatory to control content, a bespoke Virtual Influencer could be created to properly engage with and grow a company’s following.

One that jumps to my mind is that a Virtual Influencer could make it easier to tackle subjects that are harder to talk about in person, such as cancer or illnesses relating to physical or sexual health. This can be especially difficult when it comes to younger patients and the healthcare professionals trying to reach and get through to them. I talked earlier about Knox Frost, the Virtual Influencer the World Health Organization partnered with to spread information about Coronavirus to younger people. Knox also posted about ways that younger people can cope with the anxiety and loneliness that may affect them during lockdown[5].

Mental health is something that is vastly increasing in outward acknowledgment and discourse, but can still be difficult to broach when it comes to specifics. A Virtual Influencer owned by a medical company could be a way to openly and actively engage in this conversation, without having to worry about posts promoting a pair of trendy trainers or a high-priced flash-in-pan piece of tech sandwiching their valuable and potentially life-saving information. It’s a misstep like this, or partnering with a controversial figure that can result in negative PR overrunning your brand[6].

Influencer marketing is also a financially viable route to take. Adweek wrote about a study that showed Influencer Marketing pays $6.50 for every $1 spent[7]. If you then consider Virtual Influencers who are markedly cheaper than their human counterparts, and then further consider creating your own Virtual Influencer, you can imagine the savings.

You can see why the idea of Virtual Influencers has been a topic of conversation here at Get Animated+. We’ve even tried our hand at creating some concepts and ideas that we’re itching to test out. And we love working with companies who don’t rely on the tried and true, but want to not only challenge us, but challenge themselves for the benefit of their patients and customers. To be honest, it’s when we do some of our best work. Could that be you? We hope so!

It might feel like wading into uncharted territory, but instead of thinking of Virtual Influencers as something completely new, consider them as part of current, ongoing and future marketing strategies. Whether you’ve used influencers in the past, or worked with Key Opinion Leaders in your field, Virtual Influencers are a way to supplement those strategies while reaching newer demographics in ways that engage them like never before.

Better yet, they are a way to take a step forward into and own a new line of engagement and a future marketing channel with untapped and unlimited potential. Virtual communities around healthcare are sprouting and growing every day[8], and a Virtual Influencer is a great way to give your brand and community a figure to rally around.

More than a cute animated character to tack on to your logo, or a celebrity to endorse your product or service – Virtual Influencers are a way of truly connecting with your customer base and owning your own channel of communication with a huge return on investment for not only you, but your customers.

You’ve heard what we think, and we know this won’t be for everybody, but we really want to hear from you. It’s in our nature to track and research the latest digital trends, and it helps us further develop our brand of creative storytelling. We’re ready to throw around some ideas with you, and maybe get you started on the road to creating your direct channel to your target audience starring your very own Virtual Influencer.

REFERENCES

[1] https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/lil-miquela-digital-avatar-instagram-influencer.html

[2] http://aww.tokyo/human

[3] https://interestingengineering.com/meet-imma-the-worlds-first-computer-generated-model

[4] https://talkinginfluence.com/2020/04/06/world-health-organization-cgi-influencer/

[5] https://www.mobilemarketer.com/news/who-enlists-virtual-influencer-for-covid-19-prevention-campaign/575493/

[6] https://www.allure.com/story/kim-kardashian-controversial-morning-sickness-drug-instagram

[7] http://www.adweek.com/digital/study-influencer-marketing-pays-6-50-for-every-dollar-spent/

[8] https://www.bloomcreative.com/how-to-use-healthcare-marketing-to-build-communities-and-why-you-should/

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