Method and implementation
The goal of this study is to get a better understanding of the field of virtual influencers which, as explained before, is a modern topic where no deeper research has been made. Develop new theories by collecting data, will lead to a broader knowledge about the field, which is exactly what this paper is aiming for. The type of approach, where investigating a field in order to develop theories is the focus, is called an inductive approach (Saunders, Thornhill, and Lewis, 2009).
In order to get as much knowledge as possible about virtual influencers it is important that the research reflects multiple perspectives, which is why qualitative data is the most relevant in this study (Greener, 2008). In contrast to quantitative data which have the tendency to generalise ideas from the collected data and that can restrict the knowledge over the investigated subject.
As explained before, Virtual influencer is a subject that needs to be explored more deeply in order to get a better understanding of it and of the reasons behind it. The research question of this paper is of an explanatory nature, as it aims to explain the how and the why of the phenomenon; Which is appropriate to be researched through experimentations (Saunders, Thornhill and Lewis, 2009).
Experimentations will help to determine as many aspects as possible of the subject, mainly because it allows immersion in the field. This method is suitable because it aspires to define causal links in the phenomenon, but also since the focus is on investigating what the causal links might be and is not about proving the exact causality of it (Williamson and Johanson, 2018).
Experiments in general can be categorized in two different groups, on the first hand, laboratory experiments, also called true experiment which is used for testing theories in a laboratory setting where everything is controlled. And on the other hand, field experiments which are conducted in a natural setting environment (Williamson and Johanson, 2018). The context of social media is crucial for the existence of virtual influencers; therefore, it is important to include the factor of human behaviour in this research. In consequence, a field-experiment is more appropriated since that type of experiment does not exclude the setting of everyday life situation (Valli, Stahl and McDonnell Feit, 2017). Moreover, as this study aspire to get a better understanding about virtual influencer and is not about proving the exact causality of it, a quasi-experimental research design, which is a category of field experiment, is adopted (Williamson and Johanson, 2018).
Implementation and strategy
The purpose of this experiment is to investigate and discover what are the possible causes behind the success of virtual influencers. How much followers, engagement and interest can a fictional profile get and can it really keep its anonymity? In this experiment, an instagram account for a fictional character have been created and managed during a period of two months by using different tools and strategies explained below. During the progress of the experiment, the participants have been unaware about the fact that the account is an experiment in order to avoid response bias. It has been revealed when the experiment was fulfilled, and that the data has been collected.
This thesis is written within the field of informatics and by performing this experiment there will be an opportunity to study and analyse how people interact with technology, in this case it is the interaction between Instagram users and a virtual influencer. In addition to this, the virtual influencer is a fictional character created by people with the help of technological tools and software, this creation is another situation of the interaction between people and technology. As mentioned earlier, Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing explains Informatics as “Informatics students build new computing tools and applications. They study how people interact with information technology. They study how information technology shapes our relationships, our organizations, and our world” (IUPUI, no date) and for this reason this thesis along with the experiment is believed to add knowledge to the field of Informatics.
The first step in this experiment was to create the mental part of the fictional character. Should it be a woman? How old? How would it be named? And how should it behave on social media is typically questions that needed their answers to be established in the beginning of the process. (See figure 1 below)
In order to create an interesting profile, some details about the character has been chosen so they stand out, as for example her name, Esmeralda. By defining that the persona lives in Jönköping and study at the university, it makes targeting people easier and also easier to create content that people can relate to, as for example pictures of some recognizable places in Jönköping, like school or restaurant. These details make the profile much more interesting and anchor the created profile into the real world since it combines realistic places with virtuality of the persona. The tone of voice adopted for this profile is in coherence with the persona’s personality which in turn is concordant with influencers manners in general. Influencers appears often friendly with a lot of confidence therefore these same characteristics have been adopted when creating captions.
The fictional character also needs an appearance; How should it look like?
There exist different tools when creating the appearance of a virtual influencer and, as discussed in the introduction, the realism of virtual influencers is variable. Since the difficulty is an interesting aspect for the research, the method adopted for this experiment did not required advanced skills. The appearance of the character has been inspired by a feature available for iPhone X and plus owners, memoji. But, to make the creation of this character available for most people, even for owners of other telephones brands, like Samsung, the elaboration of the character’s face used of an app called, facemoji. Facemoji enables the user to put a non-realistic face over a picture already containing a real face in it. The app also has some predefined facial expression and haircuts which enables some variations of Esmeraldas appearance. In addition to the app, we have also used two apps called snapseed and vsco to make the picture more harmonious by doing small adjustments so that the colour of the skin matches the face for example. (see figure 2 below)
An important factor when creating a virtual influencer is to plan which content needs to be published in advance in order to create the perfect feed. A harmonious feed is the detail that is noticed in almost all of the influencer’s accounts. Most of them use a preset, which they apply on all their pictures to make them match visually together. Besides the harmony in the pictures, it also needed to be harmonious in terms of content of the pictures. The type of content needed to be diversified and needed to reflect the type of category, Esmeralda as influencer is grouped in. As explained in the background virtual influencers and on regular influencer usually niche their content into a specific area, so Esmeraldas account have been niched into fashion and lifestyle. Therefore, the content published on her account is a mixed of outfits, selfies, food, drinks and places, mainly around Jönköping.
Typically, instagram strategies have been used in order to raise awareness of the account and get interactions which will then be analysed in order to identify which ones are essential.
As explained above, the experiment was targeting principally people in Jönköping for a beginning, because it is easier for them to recognise places like specific restaurant or the background of some pictures. The use of geotags when posting on Instagram can be an important tool to help spread content, because locations have their own feed, which means that if someone is searching for pictures in Jönköping, Esmeraldas pictures will be showed and that may attract people to her profile.
In order to spread the account, following and engaging with other accounts was an important key. As explained above, in the section algorithm, Instagram’s algorithm will show posts in people’s feed mainly if they have interacted with the account in the past or relatable accounts, like if they have liked or shared a post before. In order to make use of that algorithm, it was important to be active with the account, which means following, liking people’s pictures, looking at their stories, commenting posts etc. When it comes to start following people, as explained before, the strategy was to follow people in Jönköping, primarily people that usually are active on social media. To make sure of it, the group that was targeted were people that had liked the last posted content of school associations for example.
Data collection method
Since our research question is of an exploratory nature, and that an inductive path is the most relevant for our research, the gathering data method that suits this study is the observation method. It consists of observing and documenting about the experiment, during a defined period of time, regarding the behaviours, the actions, what is happening. This method is even more appropriate for this study since “The purpose of observation is not to tell the truth about what is being studied but to provide a developed and well-founded picture of the phenomenon using what has been experienced, what has been observed” (Blomkvist and Hallin, 2015).
When using observation as data collection method, it is important to take into account the two different orders of construct. The first one is observing exactly what is seeing, heard and experienced. This is done, in this study, by gathering numbers about followers, likes, reach and number of visits on the profile. The raw data have been then analysed and this part is included in the second order of construct, which is about our own reflection and interpretation about what has been experienced. Separating these two orders of construct is important in order to being able to report the observation with authenticity and credibility (Blomkvist and Hallin, 2015). Authenticity and credibility are, in this case, achieved by being consistent when collecting data, which means collecting the same type of data, daily during the progression of the experiment, at the same time of the day in order to see the progress of the experiment. The type of daily collected data is the reach of the account, the numbers of followers and the number of visits on the profile. When the experiment is considered finished, after two months of time, data about each post, as likes, reach, number of sharings is also collected and analysed. It is only collected at the end of the experiment since it is the global result that is interesting and not the evolution of each post per day.
From the account overall as well as each post, the relevant statistics will be gathered through Instagram’s own tool (see figure 3 below) which then will be analysed in order to create theories in line with the research questions. From each post the amount of likes, comments, shares, reach, where the visitors are from as well as unique visitors compared to exposures. The likes and comments will reflect the engagement of the crowd and theories will be made from analysing different factors of that particular post, such as type and location for example, the post will also be measured in comparison to other posts to find casual links in order to create relevant theories. The amount of shares will also be measured since it can reflects curiosity and the word-of-mouth phenomenon. In addition to this, data will also be gathered from the account itself, measuring the development of the follower base and the number of daily visitors and from where people have found the profile and its content to be able to generate theories of what might be key factors when creating a virtual influencer.
Validity and reliability
The collected data itself has high reliability; it is simply statistics gathered. However, the theories and conclusions made from these statistics makes it more complicated. This kind of qualitative experiment is done in a natural setting which means there are factors that can not be controlled in the same way as in a laboratory study, as a result the reliability is lower. In addition to this, there is no previous research either that might have supported or opposed the conclusions that were made. The time frame is another aspect that affects this study. The experiment was active for two months where data was collected but the result could have looked different and more data could have been collected if operating for a longer period of time. On the other hand, the data is collected from a reliable source through instagram’s own statistics tool therefore the validity and reliability of the statistics is a factor that can not be affected by human biases.
Findings and analysis
The data below has been collected each day about the number of followers, the number of visits and the number of reach of the account. The raw data can be found in table 1, in appendices under appendix 1.
The blue line represents the development of the accounts amount of followers, which generally has increased during the time of the experiment. However, four different periods can be noticed. The first period is defined between 1/03/2019 and 11/03/2019, the second period is defined between 12/03/2019 and 22/03/2019, the third period is defined between 23/03/2019 and 31/03/2019 and lastly the fourth period is defined between 1/04/2019 and 1/05/2019. The first and the third period are observed as period of growth. During these periods the diagram shows that the numbers of followers has continuously increased. While the two other periods, the second and the fourth ones are observed as stable periods, since the number of followers has not remarkably increased or decreased.
The green line represents how much the profile has been visited during each day. While the Orange line represents how much unique accounts have seen any of the accounts post. The diagram clearly shows that they are related, since their lines follows the same path. There is a lot of variations between days in terms of profile visits and reach, however there is remarkably more activity between the 1/03/2019 and 26/03/2019 than during the rest of the experiment.
1.1 Problem discussion
1.2 Purpose and research question
2 Theoretical background
2.1 The definition of Influencer
2.2 The definition of Virtual
2.3 The definition of Virtual influencer
2.4 Spreadable media
3 Method and implementation
3.1 Research approach
3.2 Research design
3.3 Implementation and strategy
3.4 Data collection method
4 Findings and analysis
5 Discussion and conclusions
5.1 Discussion of findings
5.2 Discussion of method
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VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS -anonymous celebrities on social media