Sign up now to get early access to Rapport. Get on the list

The Rapport Report

October 20th, 2020

How to Create Social Presence Online with Avatars

by Ashley Whitlatch, VP of Marketing

This past week, Rapport’s CEO, Dr. Gregor Hofer delivered a keynote about the importance of building social presence online at Agora’s first virtual conference, RTE2020. We wanted to share some of the key takeaways. As more of the business world turns to online forms of communication, creating social presence is crucial for engaging with your customers and clients.

But what actually is social presence? A term with roots in academia, it’s the degree to which someone is perceived as a ‘real person’ in varied forms of communication. Media with high levels of social presence are seen as sociable, warm, and personal, while low social presence is perceived as colder, and less personal. And the quality of the communication medium can have a huge impact on the level of social presence. For example, video has a much higher social presence than audio or text. There’s a definite scale.

Text is one of the most basic ways to communicate, and while emojis help us today, it can still feel like you’re quite removed from the person on the other end. Audio is better as you can pick up on the subtle nuances in a person’s voice. The sentence below can be read in seven different ways depending on which word you place the emphasis on, so hearing someone say it eliminates the guesswork:

I didn’t say he stole the money.”
“I didn’t say he stole the money.”
“I didn’t say he stole the money.”
“I didn’t say he stole the money.”
And so on...

When you introduce video, you can increase social presence quite a lot, since you can see the other people, you can pick up on social queues like attentiveness, and see each other actually speaking. We’ve all gotten used to this during our current situation with COVID-19. But in person is by far the best. It’s good to remember that what we’re trying to achieve with these mediated communication systems is approximate the feeling we get when we’re in a physical place with other people. But what if video is not an option?

We’ve all been in video calls where we or other people have our video turned off. Maybe we’re still in our pajamas and have bed head, we’re dealing with low bandwidth wifi issues, or just don’t want the camera on. But this actually hurts the person with their video off more. It’s harder to get a word in because you’re easily forgotten—the group is paying attention to the people they can see. So even though we’re all struggling with Zoom fatigue these days, think twice before you turn your video off, and encourage your team to keep video on to increase social presence.

What happens when you introduce AIs + Avatars to the mix?

Currently, there is little social presence when you’re interacting with a conversational AI system. Most of these systems today only produce text (and very rarely, audio), which is quite boring, and as mentioned previously, doesn’t have a high social presence. How many times have you been chatting with a customer service agent or bot and forgotten you left the window open? People often forget they’re chatting with a customer service agent when it’s purely through text, and separate from the fact there’s an AI or even a person on the other end. And if you wonder why there are so many trolls on Twitter, it’s because people disassociate the human or AI behind the text they’re interacting with. So how do you create social presence for situations like this?

What if we replaced video with an avatar? Would that generate an increased feeling of social presence? Turns out, it does! In recent studies, participants used more positive words to describe an interaction with an avatar vs. voice only. When avatars are combined with an appropriate level of behavior, it can enhance social presence. So this means the movement of the avatar is important to the perception of the avatar. Its expressions need to match what is being said in order to feel natural. Something as simple as a smile, can affect the interaction. In fact, it has been shown smiling avatars can generate similar responses to real people smiling. Stanford released a study where they found people who interacted with smiling avatars reported more positive feelings.

What’s fascinating about this finding is it proves it’s possible to enhance people’s positive feelings of interacting with an avatar by manipulating or increasing the smile of that avatar. It allows us to have much more control over the situation or interaction and how we, or a brand, is perceived.

In fact, in another study, it was found avatars increase trust in e-Commerce transactions, and people rely on avatars more in uncertain situations. Even seeing a picture of an avatar increased a consumer’s willingness to ask a question of a service rep over text. And by testing out different looks of avatars, the study found businesses could elicit different kinds of trust with their customers depending on the stage they were at in the buying process. For example, having an expert-looking avatar at a stage where a potential customer is wanting to learn more about a product. As a brand, you have control over the look, behavior, and expressions of an avatar and can, in turn, have more control over the type of interaction you have with a potential customer.

Use cases for Avatars Building Social Presence.

So now that we’ve established avatars do generate a feeling of social presence, what are some use cases? Today, there are two main use cases, and one not-so-distant future use case:

  • User to user: people interact through their own avatar
  • User to AI: a person interacts with an AI represented by an avatar
  • AI to AI: AIs interacting with branded avatars

In the first scenario, it’s a fun way to interact with colleagues or friends. You can interact over a video call using an avatar and your avatar allows you to have a stronger social presence—no one will forget about you, and it sends clear signals to the other people on the call when you’re speaking, and engaging in the conversation. Another obvious use case is in multi-player gaming environments where you want to be able to interact with your friends in real-time using your character avatars. While there are a number of use cases, one with a clear positive impact on a business is with customer care when you want a consistent look and feel for your brand. Especially in our current situation, with people working from home, you can eliminate the worry about varied backgrounds, locations, or distractions, and have a consistent, virtual representation of a support agent for your customers.

In a user to AI scenario, it’s all about a friendly face, and the trusting presence it gives to the AI system. Onboarding is a great use case example for this. An avatar can provide a perfect first introduction to a new product, and establish a baseline of trust with a new customer. They feel taken care of.

Another example is repetitive tasks in healthcare, like home instructions for medicine or physical therapy exercises after a procedure. Most often these are sent via email or text, and it’s not an engaging way to interact with patients. As avatars are being introduced in the healthcare system, rapport (pun intended) is being built between patients and healthcare providers. It also feels like a two-way interaction. Rather than it feeling like a one-way reminder, it’s been found that patients interacting with an avatar actually increase their compliance with their treatments.

And yet another natural use case is education. Engaging with students can often be a challenge and avatars are a wonderful way to pique students’ interest. In the past, we’ve used specific animations to teach language pronunciation with avatars and found it to be hugely successful. But this isn’t just for traditional students. It can also be a solution for in-house training. How many boring seminars or training sessions have you sat through, and how much do you remember? Utilizing avatars can help increase retention of the information, and it’s an efficient way to engage your employees.

The real beauty of being able to use avatars though, is they’re available 24-7. In today’s world people are purchasing across time zones, countries, and languages, and they want information immediately. An AI-driven avatar can handle multiple customers, students, or patients at a time, and deliver information in a way that’s engaging, consistent, and trustworthy.

And of course, in the future AIs will also communicate with each other and interact with us as part of a multi-user chat where the AI might function as a notetaker, advisor, or even representatives of organizations.

But what’s possible today?

We have built a platform focused on delivering these exact use cases and experiences mentioned above. Rapport solves the technical challenges of delivering avatars at scale, on the web, in real time. By combining computer graphics, speech technology, networking, and cloud infrastructure, we’re making it a seamless experience to integrate avatars into any webpage.

And taking it even further, we’re now developing voice analytics to give businesses even more insights into what customers are talking about, and what they’re feeling. It’s the first platform of its kind—built on both science and technology to solve hard problems.

Rapport is currently in early access, and we’re seeing creators starting to build some inspiring applications. We want to continue to hear and learn from the development community, so if you’re interested in seeing how avatars could be used for increasing social presence in your business, sign up here to get access to Rapport.


Oh CS, Bailenson JN and Welch GF (2018) A Systematic Review of Social Presence: Definition, Antecedents, and Implications. Front. Robot. AI 5:114. doi: 10.3389/frobt.2018.00114

Let the Avatar Brighten Your Smile: Effects of Enhancing Facial Expressions in Virtual Environments Oh SY, Bailenson J, Krämer N, Li B (2016) Let the Avatar Brighten Your Smile: Effects of Enhancing Facial Expressions in Virtual Environments. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0161794. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0161794


Join the waitlist and get early access to our platform.

We’re giving early access to the kind of people who like pushing the envelope. People like us, basically. Sign up to be one of the first to build the future with our technology.
Get early access