Virtual Influencers: What Brands Need to Know

What is a virtual influencer? How can you make them work for your brand? We have the breakdown on what you need to know, and our metaverse tips to follow.
Fanbytes | Virtual Influencers

In 30 seconds:

  • Virtual influencers are digital characters who operate popular online social media accounts.
  • But as the metaverse evolves, these CGI “content creators” are going to be sharing increased digital space with their human influencer counterparts.
  • A virtual influencer presents an interesting opportunity for brands seeking exciting online collaborations. But who should brands work with?

We might not have quite reached the point where robots walk among us undetected on the streets, but on social media, you can easily scroll past them on your feeds. 

That’s because virtual influencers have been appearing across multiple social platforms, presenting popular insights into a completely fictionalised world. 

These characters represent another development in influencer marketing; an industry which has continued to grow over the last few years. In 2016 it was estimated to be worth $1.7 billion, but now, in 2022, that figure is expected to reach around $16.4 billion

Plus, over 70% of brands are planning to increase their influencer marketing budget in the next 12 months. That’s because young consumers overwhelmingly trust influencers more than celebrities, and 82% of people trust social networks to guide their purchasing decisions. 

For brands marketing online, it’s expected that influencers should form part of their campaign strategies. But what about the use of virtual influencers?

What is a virtual influencer?

It’s important to be clear on what exactly is meant by “virtual influencer”, given that all social media influencers operate in the virtual world to some extent. After all, TikTok is not a physical place.

But there are still two forms of virtual influencer: those whose existence is entirely virtual, and a second, new form of virtual influencer we see emerging; real-life, human influencers in virtual spaces (such as the metaverse).

Let’s look at the non-human example first.

The big difference that sets these virtual influencers apart is the fact they don’t exist outside of their online profiles. Sometimes CGI-generated, sometimes based on character models, these content creators have *themselves* been created by brands or other individuals. 

These creators then operate the social media accounts on behalf of the influencer to make the profile appear as if their virtual creation were a real, flesh-and-blood person. They upload updates about their day to day “lives”, write friendly captions and voiceovers, and collect just as many followers as their real life influencer peers. 

Plus – of course – they post about brand deals. 

Virtual influencer benefits for brands

54% of all UK consumers find virtual entities appealing on some level. That’s a potentially wide demographic of people intrigued by virtual influencers, some of whom have audiences in the millions. 

In addition to their impressive audience figures, working with a virtual influencer presents intrigue for brands. This is often down to:

1. Control.

From the phrasing of the caption right down to the exact pose and expression, virtual influencers can execute a brand’s vision to the highest degree of accuracy. 

The ability to completely control the face of a campaign certainly appeals to the perfectionists out there, as they can finely tweak or completely re-hash a campaign without fuss. 

2. Predictability.

If there’s one thing you don’t need to be concerned about with a virtual influencer, it’s unpredictability. As a computer-generated creation, a virtual influencer will do exactly what you – or rather, the digital artist – ask of them. 

In a world full of change, that’s tempting. Virtual influencers were able to keep up a steady stream of polished content during the pandemic: appearing to enjoy visits to busy tourist areas during lockdowns, and meeting celebrities when borders were closed. 

Is it worth choosing a virtual influencer over a human one?

Virtual influencers are not hampered by real-world limitations like lockdowns, but they have limitations of their own.

Real-life influencers bring huge benefits to their brands precisely because of their personal experiences. These people are the masters of their craft, able to conceptualise social media posts that draw in thousands – if not millions – of engaged followers. They’re naturals at using new tools, and they know how to sell. 

Real-life influencers also build relationships. They have personal networks who can spark organic content or draw more partnerships to your brand. But they also have a relationship with their audience that goes deeper than a virtual influencer can achieve. A large proportion of Gen Z want to become influencers themselves. Young followers want to emulate influencers, not simply through their purchases, but through imitating their careers. This connection is simply not possible for virtual influencers.

It’s also all-too-easy for Gen Z to read CGI influencers as a brand’s “puppet”, and we know that Gen Z distrusts messaging that’s seen to come directly from brands.

This could explain why 48% of these CGI influencers have “negative follower” growth. This means that a substantial percentage of their audience is made up of either bots or uninterested followers.

Brands that can give creative freedom to real-life social media influencers for their campaigns stand to gain far more than brands who assert complete control, and who simply see influencers as a microphone. The truth is that human influencers can bring far more to the table this way.

Human influencers in virtual reality

All the recent talk about the Metaverse has brands wondering about how to engage young audiences within virtual spaces. Will there be influencers in the metaverse? If so, we would be looking at an entirely new form of virtual influencer: a human acting as an influencer via an avatar in an entirely virtual realm. 

How can brands work with virtual influencers like this?

At this moment in time, googling “VR influencers” will give you a list of the top Virtual Reality and augmented reality developers (like Sabarush Gnanamoorthy), VR company founders and CEOs (like Julie and Alan Smithson and John Carmack), and VR thought leaders (like Kent Bye and Charlie Fink). These are the people influencing the virtual reality landscape – but they’re not “content creators” like you see on TikTok or Instagram. That’s still to come.

But influencer marketing will happen in the metaverse. Gen Z are the generation who engage the most with influencers – human ones – (and trust their recommendations for purchasing decisions). They’re also the generation with the most interest in purchasing virtual items. As we explained in our article about Fintech, this generation has grown up in a financial crisis which altered their attitudes towards investment, meaning they have more faith in crypto currency than traditional banks, for example. Influencer marketing and the metaverse, therefore, are a perfect match for attracting Gen Z custom.

As Influencer Marketing Hub notes, the metaverse will “provide creators with a whole new aspect of interaction and communication, not only with their fans but also with their fellow influencer peers.”

Influencer marketing works because it leverages the relatability of peer-to-peer marketing (with a perfect balance of aspiration). In the metaverse, this increased access and interactivity – the ability to share the same virtual space as the real-life personalities followers tune into online – could turbo-charge the power of influencers.

In the metaverse, it won’t just be CGI influencers who’ll be dressed in virtual clothes and sport virtual products from brands. It will also be the avatars of real-life people, too. Companies should consider how this interplay between real, human relationships and digital creations can provide extra value for their brand.

Top 5 virtual influencers to follow

Virtual influencers – of the purely CGI kind – have already been making a splash in fashion circles. Vogue Business reports that increasing numbers of sportswear and high fashion brands (including Prada, Puma and Yoox) are creating avatars in-house, having previously “dressed” well-known influencers such as the first virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, and Noonoouri (who also has “worn” styles by Dior and Versace).

But who is the Bella Hadid or Aimee Song of the computer graphics world? Here are the top names you need to know.

#1 Shudu (@shudu.gram)

With an Instagram account that describes her as ‘The World’s First Digital Supermodel’, Shudu is the creation of photographer Cameron James-Wilson

She has previously landed partnerships with brands such as Fenty Beauty (who shared her content without first realising it was virtual), Tiffany&Co., and Hyundai – as well as gracing multiple front-page magazine covers. 

One definite benefit of being a virtual model? Her digital nature allows her to easily “work” from multiple locations, (presumably without the jet lag), so expect to see Dubai, London, Tokyo and more all featuring on her feed. 

#2 Liam Nikuro (@liam_nikuro)

Liam is Japan’s first male virtual influencer. You can find him on Instagram in star-studded company, (posing with The Weeknd in this post), sharing images from the recording studio and from around Tokyo.

A Vice profile on Liam included a conversation with his creators, who revealed that one of the overriding thoughts behind his creation was in order to have someone ‘who isn’t going to ditch work or cause scandals.’

#3 Lil Miquela (@lilmiquela)

Lil Miquela, otherwise known as Miquela Sousa, is the original and perhaps most famous virtual influencer. She was created by LA-based start-up Brud

The so-called “19-year-old robot living in LA” has amassed over 3 million followers on her Instagram account, where she shares the kind of content that wouldn’t look out of place on any young influencer’s feed: photos with her boyfriend, outfit shots, and candids with friends. 

The virtual influencer has appeared in campaigns for Samsung, as well luxury brands like Calvin Klein (alongside Bella Hadid), and was named one of Time’s ‘Most Influential People on the Internet’ in 2018.

#4 Bermuda (@bermudaisbae)

For a while, it was thought that this virtual influencer account had been created by Cain Intelligence, who are leaders in the artificial intelligence space. Now, Bermuda is part of the #BrudGang, along with Lil Miquela and her on-again, off-again virtual boyfriend, Blawko (@blawko22). She is represented by the same PR company that handles Frank Ocean and Bjork. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking every virtual influencer is sanitised and safe; Bermuda’s account is full of drama. Whether she’s trash-talking her fellow influencers, or airing her break-up with fellow VI Blawko (yes, really). Think of it like a reality show, with none of that tricky “reality”. 

#5 Imma (@imma.gram)

Another popular account based in Japan, Imma is famous for sharing streetwear looks that pair stylishly with her distinctive pink haircut. 

She is also available for brand partnerships, which she shares with her 350k+ Instagram followers, many of whom comment on her posts as if she were real. In a recent campaign for Lenovo, the virtual influencer wrote that ‘I’ve always considered the phrase “you’re different” to be a compliment.’ She certainly does represent a different, and futuristic, approach for the technology company.

As for content creators (of the human kind) in virtual reality, watch this space: the list of best virtual influencers is sure to feature some recognisable faces (TikTok influencers-turned-Metaverse influencers, anyone?) in the near future.

Fanbytes | Human influencers in virtual reality

Is the virtual influencer the future of influencer marketing?

Young consumers trust the word of influencers. They more readily accept advertising from faces that look “like me”, which is why influencer marketing has proven so successful at targeting Millennial and Gen Z consumers. 

Does this extend to virtual influencers? 

As the metaverse opens up, it’s certainly possible that virtual influencers (of the computer-generated kind) will have increasing appeal: Gen Z are already buying virtual items; perhaps they’ll be more encouraged to purchase the virtual fashions worn by virtual influencers for their own avatars in the metaverse. This is the gamble that high fashion brands like Prada are taking.

Before embarking on a partnership with a virtual influencer, however, you should consider: how do you make a virtual influencer work for your brand? Is it likely to fit your brand image better than a partnership with a human influencer would? Does complete control over your campaign outweigh the benefits you would receive from working with a real person

We say this because, soon enough, virtual reality will also present more opportunities for followers of a human influencer to interact and engage with them, in a shared, immersive space. For brands, this is fertile marketing ground to explore.

The type of influencer you use for your brand campaign directly impacts the response you receive. A play for virtual influencers should come from genuine understanding of how your Gen Z audience interprets virtual spaces and experiences. Simply working with a virtual influencer because you think you should? You need to go deeper.

Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to us about how to leverage your Gen Z audience’s current digital behaviours to create compelling, modern marketing campaigns, and inspire them with the latest – and most insightful – marketing methods. 

Want to learn more about the sci-fi world of VR marketing or the metaverse? Or interested to learn more about how to work with virtual influencers’ human peers? Check out the links below: 

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