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Meet the virtual influencers inspiring climate action


By Dr Maximilian Gerrath

Encouraging people to take climate action remains one of the most important and yet difficult tasks of this century. With climate change scepticism still prevailing, it is crucial to figure out innovative ways to encourage pro-environmental action.

Virtual influencers (social media influencers that are not human) could be part of the solution. Their avatars and posts are created using computer-generated images and increasingly with artificial intelligence. Compared to their human counterparts, virtual influencers do not have a private life, are less likely to be involved in scandals and have a lower carbon footprint. What’s more, due to their lack of free will, their content can be more easily tailored to the needs of the advertisers (for example, governments or charities promoting climate goals).

Virtual influencers can be effective ambassadors for climate-related causes, albeit with some caveats.
My research, conducted with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, suggests that people generally welcome the idea of virtual influencers joining the conversation around climate change and promoting pro-environmental action.

Our findings indicate that virtual influencers’ effectiveness in promoting climate action significantly increases when they use warmer and empathetic language in their posts, contrasting with the diminished impact of less warm and more scientific communication styles. People perceive themselves to be more emotionally connected to the virtual influencer when warmer language is used. People who do not trust experts and scientists especially show increased willingness to engage in climate action when virtual influencers use warmer language in their posts.

These five virtual influencers show how digital personas can effectively promote climate action:

1. Miquela Sousa

Miquela Sousa (aka Lil Miquela) is one of the most famous virtual influencers with around 2.5 million followers on Instagram. Known for her collaborations with high-profile fashion brands such as Prada and Calvin Klein, Miquela is described as an activist.

Miquela is an example of a human-like virtual influencer. Researchers have found that trust in pro-environmental messages of virtual influencers increases if they look more human-like.

Virtual influencers are also more effective at promoting climate action if they belong to the same race as the audience. Ethnic similarity appears to be particularly effective if pro-environmental behaviour is relatively simple and low-cost (for example, recycling). However, when climate action is more expensive (such as buying carbon offsets), ethnically dissimilar virtual influencers are perceived as more trustworthy.

2. Noonoouri

Noonoouri is a popular virtual influencer with 454,000 followers on Instagram. She is also an AI musician, known for her vegan lifestyle and passion for sustainable fashion.

A recent study concluded that virtual influencers can be as effective as human influencers in promoting pro-environmental action if their social media posts are created on behalf of a brand. However, if the initiative was not supported by a brand, human influencers are still more effective at promoting climate action. The post below illustrates this approach:

3. Shudu.Gram

With 240,000 followers on InstagramShudu.Gram – described as the “world’s first digital supermodel” in their Instagram bio – has featured in Vogue and Cosmopolitan and collaborated with luxury brands like Balmain.

In some of her posts, she promotes sustainable fashion. Just like her fellow virtual influencer Miquela, Shudu.Gram is an example of a human-like virtual influencer.

4. Bee_nfluencer

Bee_nfluencer is the first “bee influencer” developed by the French governmental agency Fondation de France with a mission to save the bee declining bee population. The influencer is focused on saving the bees and has 225,000 followers on Instagram.

5. Vida.Kit

Vida.Kit – a young virtual and green influencer with 8,700 followers on Instagram – was developed by a team at the University of Sheffield to educate children and adolescents about sustainable behaviour and climate change. Vida is often seen with her sidekick Hank the cat. Research shows that the presence of a virtual influencer’s companion increases the trustworthiness and effectiveness of their posts.

Despite a recent rise in popularity, some may deem virtual influencers to be inauthentic – especially when discussing socio-political issues such as body image, healthy livingsexual violence or climate change.

It’s often unclear whether these posts are generated by AI, by an ad agency or a political thinktank. This lack of transparency may reduce trust in the claims of virtual influencers.

While using virtual influencers instead of humans offers many benefits for advertisers, it is essential to know how to employ them effectively. Research on the effectiveness of virtual influencers in promoting climate action is still in its infancy – most studies cited here have been published in the past few months.

Virtual influencers can be an exciting tool to encourage new audiences to fight for the protection of our environment. Young, disengaged, and disenfranchised audiences appear to be a suitable target audience for such pro-environmental campaigns. As traditional media is no longer effective in reaching such audiences, using innovative communication tools may be key in the fight to protect our planet.

This blog written by Dr Maximilian Gerrath, Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Leeds, has been republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation. Read the full article here.