Last year, American rapper Travis Scott was watched by 12 million fans as he performed live in Fortnite using an avatar.
We’ve also seen avatars breaking free from the gaming world onto social media with virtual influencers like Lil Miquela. She has over three million followers proving that you don’t have to be real to create engagement.
The question is: Are avatars just a gimmick or could they have potential for business and brand communication?
What is an avatar?
The most widely accepted definition of an avatar is that it is a digital representation of a human user that facilitates interaction with other users, entities or the environment. 1
There are three aspects to this definition:
This is important as the use of avatars in communications falls within a broader category of computer-mediated communications. The term is used to describe any kind of human-to-human communication that happens via the medium of an electronic device, whether it’s a computer or mobile device. Computer or device mediated communications has become a powerful alternative to face-to-face interactions. Think how much you use your phone and platforms like Zoom for communications.
We tend to think of all characters that inhabit gaming as avatars, but this is not the case. There are two types of characters: avatars and agents. Avatars are controlled by human users and agents are controlled by AI. And whilst there may be some AI involved in simulating the movements and expressions of an avatar, ultimately, there is a human behind it.
This is the purpose of an avatar. It is designed to interact with or communicate with other human users. Whilst the use of avatars may have started in gaming, it will not end there. They are spreading to social media and other forms of digital communication.
Consider that millennials and Gen-Z have grown up using avatars in one aspect of their lives. It would be unrealistic to think that they wouldn’t expect to use or interact with them in other aspects of their lives including work and communications.
Avatars in communications
We tend to think of our customer avatar as their persona. The qualities that define who they are so we can better understand them and tailor our communications towards them.
Avatar-mediated communications takes this one step further. Not only have we drawn up a profile of who they are, but we can also turn that into a digital representation of them. It is well-known in storytelling that to connect with someone you need to tell them a story about a character they can relate to.
So, by literally embodying your customer or staff member in an avatar, you have the means of directly communicating with them.
Another approach is for businesses, brands and individuals to represent themselves and their personalities on digital platforms and in virtual spaces. Using an avatar as a spokesperson or brand ambassador in your social media strategy, augmented reality applications or at virtual events are just a few examples.
Real human interaction
If you think your audience will reject an avatar because it isn’t real, think again. The Media Equation (1996)2 first theorised that people treat mediated communications as if they are real people. This means that we respond to the media in the same way as we respond in real human interactions.
Just think about how we respond to the emotions expressed in a film. We know they are just actors paid to do a job, and yet we cannot help but respond emotionally to what we see on screen. These responses are known as human-human social scripts. They are involuntary human responses to other humans or media of humans.
Over the past 25 years, since The Media Equation was published, there have been many changes in media technologies and consequently, in human behaviour.
There is now evidence to show that we may be developing new human-media social scripts, which determine how we respond to media representations of humans.3 Think of how you may interact with Siri versus your spouse. Okay, that’s a bad example but you get the point.
Whilst these interactions may be changing, they are no less important to the future of communications. How we interact with media may also affect how we consequently interact with humans. This is an ongoing evolving landscape.
The Proteus Effect
It is well-known within the field of avatar psychology that the characteristics of an avatar affect the human user. 4 This is not only while they are using the avatar in digital spaces, but also once they are back in the 'real' world.
What this means is that the qualities expressed using an avatar can affect real-world behaviour. Whilst this affects the way gamers think of themselves outside of a game world, it can also have powerful repercussions for branding and communication.
The qualities and values expressed by an avatar as a spokesperson or ambassador can affect how customers and staff perceive the business or brand. This in turn affects their behaviour.
Avatar-mediated communications (AMC)
It is no massive stretch of the imagination to see the possibilities that AMC presents. Apart from using an avatar for content creation, there is also the possibility of interacting live with an audience using an avatar.
The fact that we are creating new social scripts for our interactions with media indicates the depth of our relationship with media.
What we are seeing is just the beginning. Avatars are set to become an accepted means of communication for brands and businesses.
1. Avatars and computer-mediated communication: A review of the definitions, uses, and effects of digital
representations – Nowak and Fox
2. The Media Equation - Reeves and Naas
3. Building a stronger CASA: Extending the computers are social actors’ paradigm – Gambino, Fox and Ratan
4. Coursera – The Psychology of Avatars – Ratan