- The number of virtual influencers is on the rise, with this group serving as viable brand partners who exist on a purely digital scale.
- Virtual influencers offer brands plenty of benefits including high engagement rates, high follower counts, lower payments, and no biological limitations.
- From a social proof perspective, a virtual influencer could come across as less genuine than a real influencer.
Virtual Influencers: Future or Fad?
The metaverse-driven, computer-generated (CG) humanoids may be the future of influencer marketing. But what are they?
Virtual influencers are computer-generated characters that are also referred to as digital avatars, digital characters, or computer-generated models. They do not exist in our physical world, but rather live entirely on social media and are managed by a team of designers and artists. While some are designed to look decidedly animated, some are so humanlike with hyper-realistic physical features, personalities, and characteristics, that they are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.
While virtual influencers are not yet mainstream, they’re certainly growing in popularity with some boasting hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers on Instagram. According to Statista, 58% of survey respondents in the U.S. said that they follow at least one virtual influencer, as of March 2022.
Is This Metaverse-Related?
You bet it is. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are key components of what makes the metaverse the unique landscape it is, and digital avatars are absolutely part of that VR world. Creating an entirely digital entity is a leap beyond touching up photos and positioning the finest parts of life on social media — but it’s certainly in the same vein, if not a wholly extreme evolution of the same concept, in that it’s 100% curated by a team behind the screen.
Meet The Influencers
Who exactly are these “not-people?” Miquela Sousa, who goes by Lil Miquela on Instagram, is one of the most famous currently. She was designed by artificial intelligence (AI) firm Brud and self-identifies in her Instagram bio as a “change-seeking robot with the drip,” with quite the roster of accomplishments. With a debut single and a music video under her belt, the latter of which debuted at Lollapalooza’s online festival in early 2021, she has over three million Instagram followers and makes roughly $8,500 per sponsored post. She’s also worked with Prada, Dior, and Calvin Klein, and is an arts editor at Dazed Beauty – and that’s just a sample of her opportunities. Which is just great for her.
Knox Frost, the top male virtual influencer on Instagram has an uncanny valley vibe. He is another avatar designed with human quirks and characteristics. With a mostly male audience (though a quarter of his following and reach is female), he’s just like any 20-something American man. Except that he doesn’t exist. But his influence is certainly real – at least that’s what the World Health Organization (WHO) determined when they partnered with him in 2020 to help promote COVID-19 awareness and solicit donations from his hundreds of thousands of followers.
Then there’s Candy, a “virtual muse” created by Prada to promote their fragrance collection of the same name, with a goal to help consumers “rethink reality” as she appears in all kinds of advertising for the luxury fashion brand. This is one of the first (though certainly not the last) instances of a brand creating a digital, humanlike persona to represent their brand instead of partnering with human influencers.
That’s not to say that all virtual influencers are a Black Mirror episode in the making. One of the most popular virtual influencers right now is Mattel’s Barbie, who has her own social media accounts and is hard at work churning out all kinds of content. It makes sense given that Barbie having professional experience in every field is confirmed canon. And hasn’t Mattel been positioning Barbie as “The Toy” for young girls to emulate since she was created in the 1950s? Obviously, she’d be a natural influencer.
How They Drive Brand Awareness And Sales
Like physical products, virtual influencers have a strategy and a market that they were designed for. Some are transparent, like Body By Ralph, for example; he is a personal trainer and life coach who is active in the fitness industry. He has over 163,000 followers on Instagram and his own app.
But some are more abstract, like janky, whose one million followers on Instagram have made him famous enough that he has Tinder, Prada, and Red Bull sponsorships attached to his name. What does he do, exactly? He’s a part-time cartoon stuntman and is a purchasable skin on Fortnite. He is closely tied to fellow anthropomorphic influencer and Fornite avatar Guggimon, who has acquired partnerships with Paris Hilton, Gucci, and various NFT drops. (Also: both janky and Guggimon were created by animation/entertainment giant Superplastic). So, not exactly fitting into one particular vertical, but just absurd enough to garner followers and deals from all around.
What Do Virtual Influencers Mean For Brands?
Virtual influencers are becoming increasingly popular with brands, and for good reason. For starters, brands have total control over virtual influencers and how they represent their brand in sponsored content. And, since virtual influencers do not have the same biological limitations – like the need to sleep, the process of aging, or their very mortality – the avatar can theoretically keep “working” forever with a team of humans behind the wheel. They’re also completely unregulated and have no labor laws or safety regulations to limit them. Plus, according to Medium and HypeAuditor, virtual auditors are nearly three times more engaging than human influencers.
Not to mention all of the cost savings. Virtual influencers, many of whom have a high enough follower count to be considered macro- or mega-influencers, will partner with brands for significantly less compensation than their human counterparts (they don’t have bills, remember?). If Lil Miquela’s sponsored posts cost a luxury brand like Dior $8,500, why wouldn’t they opt for her over a human influencer with the same following that’s charging $250,000?
What Do Virtual Influencers Mean For The Creator Economy?
You’re probably already anticipating the most obvious issue: that for all their efficiencies and lower cost, virtual influencers could put human influencers out of business. Virtual influencers may be designed by real people and have all the characteristics of a real human – including the occasional acne breakout – but it’s indisputable that they lack the humanity to be a suitable replacement for real content creators.
While digital influencers are growing in popularity, so long as humanity perseveres, there will always be a need for human influencers. And as a brand, putting influencer marketing budgets towards partnerships with virtual influencers may seem like a fascinating trend to adopt, but for all its supposed benefits, there are still some challenges to consider.
For one, virtual influencers could cheapen a brand’s social proof. It’s understood that for influencers to produce sponsored content for a brand, there must be some level of bias. Dropping the human in favor of something without a soul, heart, or brain to speak of may feel so transparently ingenuine to consumers that they fail to trust the digital influencer and the brand that they’re promoting.
In addition, virtual influencers typically have high follower counts, comparable to a macro- or mega-influencer. Their reach is broad and many virtual influencers don’t have a defined niche. This means that nano- and micro-influencers should largely remain untouched by the competition, which is just as well: we already know that micro-influencers are the ultimate triple threat and wildly valuable to brands.
But while it may make us feel better to think that brands wouldn’t go for a virtual influencer when they could have the real thing, we don’t know that for sure. At some point, a brand may feel that a virtual influencer’s benefits outweigh the cons.
Mavrck co-founder Lyle Stevens told the Wall Street Journal, “Creators and models alike will need to adapt and learn how to license their likeness and make a living from their art in new ways.”
Bottom line: don’t ignore virtual influencers. There are benefits to their existence, and with the success of so many already, don’t be surprised if we see more being “born” and brands partnering with them (either in place or in addition to their existing, human creator cohort). There are sure to be more innovations in this space, and we know that to see it is to believe it. Will digital influencers become the way of the future? Only time will tell.