A New Frontier in Interdisciplinary Research, Special issue of the Journal of Business Research; Deadline 15 Jan 2023
Author: Bernadett Koles
Virtual Influencers: A new frontier in interdisciplinary research
Submission window: Dec 1, 2022 to Jan 15th 2023
Managing Guest Editor: Ameen Nisreen <Nisreen.Ameen@rhul.ac.uk>
Influencer marketing is a relatively nascent but rapidly growing industry with current projections at 13.8 billion USD; a 42% increase from 2019. It refers to the promotion of products and services by social media influencers (SMIs) (Ge & Gretzel, 2018); those people who “gained popularity due to their social media presence and content, such as bloggers, YouTubers, and Instafamous individuals” (Aw & Chuah, 2021, pp. 146). With a tendency to specialise in a specific industry or domain like fashion, cosmetics, travel or technology, SMIs can range from mega-influencers – capturing both traditional celebrities who emerged outside of the Internet as well as fully online-born stars – with follower counts in the millions, to micro-influencers accounting for fewer than ten thousand followers (Pittman & Abell, 2021).
Contemporary influencer research often engages the literature on opinion leadership (Casaló, Flavián, & Ibáñez-Sánchez, 2020) and parasocial relationship (Jin & Ryu, 2020; M. Kim & Kim, 2020; Aw & Chuah, 2021) to explore and understand the behavioural intentions of followers in relation to SMIs’ recommendations (Farivar, Wang, & Yuan, 2021; Zhang, Chintagunta, & Kalwani, 2021). In addition, a growing number of studies explore relevant SMI characteristics such as authenticity (Audrezet, de Kerviler, & Moulard, 2020), credibility (Sokolova & Kefi, 2020), trustworthiness (Jin, Muqaddam, & Ryu, 2019; D. Y. Kim & Kim, 2021); the effectiveness of different content and engagement strategies (Lee & Theokary, 2020; Tafesse & Wood, 2021); and the strategic use of influencers as brand management tools (Ryu & Jin, 2019; Carlson, Donavan, Deitz, Bauer, & Lala, 2020; Valsesia, Proserpio, & Nunes, 2020; Wang, Thai, Ly, & Chi, 2021).
A more recent but thus far largely under-explored area concerns Virtual Influencers (VIs); referring to artificial Computer-Generated Imagery (CGIs) or interactive avatars that are similar to human influencers in a number of functionalities (i.e. they share various types of online content and can be followed by others), but they are not human. The most popular virtual influencer today is Lil Miquela, who – despite her open admission of not being human – has managed to acquire over 3.1M followers. Created in 2016 by the transmedia studio Brud, this ‘forever 19-year-old Robot living in LA’ collaborates with luxury fashion brands including Prada, interacts with real people such as Bella Hadid in a commercial for Calvin Klein, and sings. Although Lil Miquela exhibits a human appearance, her virtual influencer counterparts often portray dollish attributes, cartoon-like characters, or robotic features. Kizuna AI is a good example, who is a Japanese cartoon VTuber followed by over 4 million subscribers across three YouTube channels. Created in 2016 by the company Activ8, her videos resemble those of human YouTubers, with talks, Q&A sessions, and gaming content. Among her activities, Kizuna AI collaborates with the gaming company Asobimo on the video game Avabel Online (she is both a game character and an endorser of the game on her YouTube channel); serves as an ambassador for the Japanese National Tourism Office; and promotes the famous Japanese instant ramen noodle company, Nissin.
Given their popularity and increasing number, virtual influencers are likely to have a profound future impact on a variety of marketing endeavours, although specifics remain largely unknown. For instance, in a recent conceptual paper contemplating the evolution of social media in marketing, Appel, Grewal, Hadi, and Stephen (2020) explore the role of virtual influencers, placing particular emphasis on certain advantages vis-à-vis their human influencer counterparts – i.e. no need for rest, breaks, or food and no illness or health concerns. With further advancement in computing power and artificial intelligence algorithms, the authors anticipate an increase in the prominence and social media presence of VIs in the near future; encouraging brand managers as well as scholars to contemplate the processes, relationships and developmental trajectories of influencer engagements and their impact on consumers.
These questions have become particularly relevant more recently, driven by two forces; first, the pandemic and the increase in the strategic use of online space; and second, the anticipated expansion of avatar-driven interactive options that might push online engagements further to the mainstream. Consequently, in addition to drawing comparisons between human and virtual influencers, it might be interesting to explore whether the applicability of earlier research on avatars and digital objects (Nagy & Koles, 2014; Koles & Nagy, 2016) might help inform consumer/brand relationships with virtual influencers above and beyond those established with human influencers (Ki, Cuevas, Chong, & Lim, 2020), with particular attention to digital object attachment trajectories (Koles & Nagy, 2021). In addition, the integration of deepfake technology in the context of virtual influencers is under explored and requires further attention (Whittaker, Letheren, & Mulcahy, 2021).
With this background, the objective of the current Special Issue is to explore the above-mentioned areas of inquiry and invite submissions that will help complement and extend our understanding of Virtual Influencers and their role in the future of marketing. We welcome and encourage scholars to pursue studies with an inter-disciplinary orientation and engage theoretical frameworks from fields that are adjacent to marketing and consumer research (e.g. psychology, sociology, technology, human-computer interaction, etc). Given the recency of the field and the need for contemporary and high-quality research in this area, the current SI invites conceptual and empirical contributions employing qualitative, quantitative, experimental approaches, or mixed methods designs. We also encourage collaborations between academics and the industry. Finally, scholars can approach the issue of Virtual Influencers from various stakeholder perspectives, including consumers, brands, influencers, and more holistically the field of marketing theory.
Topics along the following areas are highly encouraged and welcome, although other relevant areas will be considered:
The CONSUMER perspective
- What are the similarities and differences in human and virtual influencer follower behaviour?
- What are the motivations that encourage consumers to follow virtual influencers?
- What are the obstacles of consumer openness towards virtual influencers and how to overcome them?
- How are virtual influencers perceived by consumers across different cultural settings?
- How are virtual influencers perceived by the younger generations of consumers such as millennials and Gen Z?
- What are the psychological aspects associated with following virtual influencers, for example, self-image, self-concept, body image, buying behaviour, among others?
- Is the parasocial relationship theory the most suitable to explain consumer-virtual influencer relationships?
- How can earlier research focusing on avatars and digital objects be applied to better understand virtual influencers?
The BRAND perspective
- What are some of the risks and benefits of incorporating virtual influencers into a brand’s strategy?
- How can brands across different industries (e.g. luxury, sports, hospitality, etc) interact with virtual influencers?
- What are some successful and unsuccessful cases of brand / virtual influencer interactions and what can we learn from them?
- Are human and virtual influencers complementary or contradictory? In other words, do brands have to choose?
- Which objective do virtual influencers help to achieve within a marketing strategy?
The INFLUENCER perspective
- What are the unique qualities and attributes of human influencers that virtual influencers lack, and vice versa?
- Can virtual influencers complement the work of human influencers?
- Does the gender of the influencer matter when promoting products or services?
- What are the characteristics of the virtual influencers that can enhance consumers’ trust in them?
The SOCIETAL perspective
- What are the opportunities and risks associated with the emergence of virtual influencers to tackle major societal issues (racism, gender equality, LGBT+ environmental challenges…)?
- Are there mental health issues associated with the development of virtual influencers to promote products and brands?
- Can virtual influencers be used effectively to promote actions related to sustainability and well-being?
- How to provide transparent and understandable information to consumers regarding a commercial relationship between a virtual influencer and a brand?
- What is the impact of virtual influencers on over tourism, destination image, travel decisions, or intentions to visit?
The TECHNOLOGY perspective
- How can virtual influencers be used for promoting fake news? Or for fighting fake news?
- How does the adoption of machine learning-centred AI enable virtual influencers to generate social media content? What are the major challenges and how can we overcome them?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of deep fake technology when utilised in the context of virtual influencers?
- How might virtual robots reshape the world of social media?
- Which aspects of technology motivate individuals on social media to follow virtual influencers?
- Why are virtual influencers livestreaming? What can contribute to a successful livestreaming experience?
- What are the key factors the contribute to the successful adoption of virtual influencers for social commerce?
Potential authors are encouraged to submit an optional extended abstract to attend an invitation-only workshop supported and endorsed by the UK Academy of Information Systems (UKAIS) (https://www.ukais.org/) and the International Federation of Information Processing (IFIP) Working Group 9.5 “Our Digital Lives” (http://www.ifip95wg.org/) which will be taking place as a virtual workshop. Constructive feedback will be provided on each presentation during the course of the workshop.
- Optional abstract submission deadline to be considered for the workshop: 14th April 2022
- Virtual workshop 6th June 2022
- Full paper submissions deadline: 15th January 2023
Bernadett KOLES, Associate Professor of Marketing, IÉSEG School of Management, Paris, France. Email: email@example.com
Alice AUDREZET, Associate Professor of Marketing, ISG International Business School, Paris, France. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nisreen AMEEN, Lecturer in Marketing, School of Business and Management, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK. Email: Nisreen.Ameen@rhul.ac.uk
Brad MCKENNA, Associate Professor of Information Systems, Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, UK. Email: email@example.com
Julie Guidry MOULARD, Associate Professor of Marketing and the Balsley-Whitmore Endowed Professor in Business, Louisiana Tech University, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Appel, G., Grewal, L., Hadi, R., & Stephen, A. T. (2020). The future of social media in marketing. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 48, 79-95.
Audrezet, A., de Kerviler, G., & Moulard, J. G. (2020). Authenticity under threat: When social media influencers need to go beyond self-presentation. Journal of Business Research, 117, 557-569.
Aw, E. C.-X., & Chuah, S. H.-W. (2021). “Stop the unattainable ideal for an ordinary me!” fostering parasocial relationships with social media influencers: The role of self-discrepancy. Journal of Business Research, 132, 146-157.
Carlson, B. D., Donavan, D. T., Deitz, G. D., Bauer, B. C., & Lala, V. (2020). A customer-focused approach to improve celebrity endorser effectiveness. Journal of Business Research, 109, 221-235.
Casaló, L. V., Flavián, C., & Ibáñez-Sánchez, S. (2020). Influencers on Instagram: Antecedents and consequences of opinion leadership. Journal of Business Research, 117, 510-519.
Farivar, S., Wang, F., & Yuan, Y. (2021). Opinion leadership vs. para-social relationship: Key factors in influencer marketing. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 59, 102371.
Ge, J., & Gretzel, U. (2018). Emoji rhetoric: a social media influencer perspective. Journal of Marketing Management, 34, 1272-1295.
Jin, S. V., Muqaddam, A., & Ryu, E. (2019). Instafamous and social media influencer marketing. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 37, 567-579.
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Lee, M. T., & Theokary, C. (2020). The superstar social media influencer: Exploiting linguistic style and emotional contagion over content? Journal of Business Research.
Nagy, P., & Koles, B. (2014). ‘My Avatar and Her Beloved Possession’: Characteristics of Attachment to Virtual Objects. Psychology & Marketing, 31, 1122-1135.
Pittman, M., & Abell, A. (2021). More Trust in Fewer Followers: Diverging Effects of Popularity Metrics and Green Orientation Social Media Influencers. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 56, 70-82.
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Sokolova, K., & Kefi, H. (2020). Instagram and YouTube bloggers promote it, why should I buy? How credibility and parasocial interaction influence purchase intentions. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 53, 101742.
Tafesse, W., & Wood, B. P. (2021). Followers’ engagement with instagram influencers: The role of influencers’ content and engagement strategy. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 58, 102303.
Valsesia, F., Proserpio, D., & Nunes, J. C. (2020). The Positive Effect of Not Following Others on Social Media. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 57, 1152-1168.
Wang, T., Thai, T. D.-H., Ly, P. T. M., & Chi, T. P. (2021). Turning social endorsement into brand passion. Journal of Business Research, 126, 429-439.
Whittaker, L., Letheren, K., & Mulcahy, R. (2021). The Rise of Deepfakes: A Conceptual Framework and Research Agenda for Marketing. Australasian Marketing Journal, 29, 204-214.
Zhang, W., Chintagunta, P. K., & Kalwani, M. U. (2021). Social Media, Influencers, and Adoption of an Eco-Friendly Product: Field Experiment Evidence from Rural China. Journal of Marketing, 85, 10-27.