Technology takes over: Do you need a virtual influencer for your marketing strategy?

    Technology takes over: Do you need a virtual influencer for your marketing strategy?

    The concept of fictional influencer marketing isn’t exactly new. Ever since the dawn of marketing itself, there have been fictional characters promot...

    The concept of fictional influencer marketing isn’t exactly new. Ever since the dawn of marketing itself, there have been fictional characters promoting products: for almost a century, the face of Coca-Cola has been Santa. 

    But today, with the rise of the Metaverse, virtual influencers are becoming one of the hottest marketing trends. Businesses of all kinds — big and small, from different industries, and across different countries — are turning to virtual influencer marketing to promote their products and services. 

    The question of whether virtual influencers are the next big thing in the marketing world is polarizing the community. In March 2022, The Influencer Marketing Factory conducted a study where they surveyed over 1000 American responders regarding their experiences with virtual influencers and their opinions on them. The results of the survey turned out to be quite interesting:

    • 58% of respondents follow at least one virtual influencer on social media; however
    • 24% of surveyed social media users who don’t follow any virtual influencers didn’t even know they were a thing. 

    Regardless of whether you fall into the first category, the second category, or somewhere in between, it’s time for us to dig deep into the subject of virtual influencers, what their rising popularity means for the world of marketing, and help you decide whether or not your brand should consider landing a deal with one of the metaverse stars.

    What — or who — are virtual influencers?

    A virtual influencer is a CGI-based, digital character that exists in the metaverse. Traditionally, virtual influencers are designed to emulate humans. However, they’re not limited to a human-like form exclusively. There are also virtual influencers in the form of animals.

    Virtual influencers don’t actually exist in the traditional meaning of this word, as they aren’t present in the physical world. Nonetheless, they still rack up real brand deals and checks for their social media posts; all because they are capable of impacting customers’ buying decisions. In fact, 35% of people claim they have bought a product or a service because it was promoted by a virtual influencer. So how does that work? Why do so many people recognize virtual characters as trustworthy opinion leaders and listen to their recommendations?

    There are different reasons why people follow virtual influencers online:

    • 26.6% are interested in the content virtual figures post online
    • 18.6% are fascinated by the storytelling
    • 15.5% claim virtual influencers inspire them
    • 15.5% discover new music through virtual influencers
    • 12.1% enjoy the avatar aesthetic 
    • 11.8% like to interact with digital characters online

    Behind every virtual influencer, there’s a talented, tech-savvy creator with an eye for digital trends, a great understanding of AI technology, and human psychology. While remaining faceless, they develop the social media accounts of their projects, make connections with brands, and establish robust relationships with their audience.

    By editing these virtual figures onto any backdrops they want, creators rule over where virtual influencers “hang out”, who they spend their time with, who they date, and — most importantly — what products or services they use. As a result, the virtual influencer’s page on social media becomes an object of attraction for hundreds of thousands of internet users who consume their content.

    Today, as the line between the real world and the metaverse is fading, the number of virtual influencers is growing by the day. But it wasn’t always like that. Just a couple of years ago, despite the existence of Gorillaz and the Japanese virtual pop star Hatsune Miku, the concept of virtual influencers was still very new to the world; people weren’t sure how to react to human-like digital characters. 

    Some were intrigued by the extremely realistic appearance of CGI-generated figures, some were suspicious of them, some — skeptical or even disturbed; but no one remained indifferent. Excited to solve the mystery of a virtual character (are they a real person or not?), people would follow them on social media and keep an eye out for every publication. This subsequently kickstarted the popularity of virtual influencers and made virtual figures so well-known in the real world. 

    Below, we’ve compiled a list of the top 5 most popular virtual influencers from around the world. 

    #1 — Lil Miquela

    Number of followers: 3 million

    Miquela Sousa aka Lil Miquela is the most well-known virtual influencer in the world. She first appeared on our radars in April 2016, when the first post aired on the virtual model’s Instagram account. Back in the day, there was a lot of confusion and rumors surrounding Lil Miquela; people couldn’t tell if she was real or not. 

    In the first months of Miquela’s existence, there was speculation that the account belonged to a British model, Emily Bador. Bador denied this despite acknowledging the resemblance. 

    The real creators behind Lil Miquela were Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, responsible both for the creation of the project and for the Instagram page associated with it. 

    Lil Miquela has quickly become an influential figure in the Instagram community, and then expanded her area of influence to Twitter, Tumblr, TikTok, and YouTube. 

    After coming to fame, Lil Miquela has been pictured with a number of celebrities; she also took part in several marketing campaigns by different brands. For instance, in 2018, the forever-19-year-old did an Instagram takeover for Prada as part of Milan Fashion Week; a Calvin Klein ad with Bella Hadid; and a collaboration with Samsung.

    #2 — Guggimon

    Number of followers: 1.5 million

    Guggimon is the most famous non-human virtual influencer that identifies as a ‘naughty bunny’ and a ‘fashion horror artist & mixtape producer with obsessions: handbags, axes, designer toys, Billie Eilish, & The Shining’.

    Since his first appearance online back in 2019, Guggimon has achieved global recognition and landed a lot of deals with brands and real-world influencers such as Paris Hilton. Some of the most notable collabs Guggimon has done are his recent Gucci and Nike campaigns. 

    #3 — Knox Frost 

    Number of followers: 662 thousand 

    Knox Frost is one of the top male virtual influencers on Instagram with over half a million organically gained followers. 

    Knox Frost’s personality and goals are easy to relate to — the virtual influencer is simply trying to ‘fit in’, just like thousands of other real people around the world. This social aspect of Knox Frost’s personal brand brought him a range of different partnerships and marketing projects, including those with the World Health Organization and Rock the Vote. 

    On top of that, Knox has made his way to Forbes, Business Insider, AdAge, Fortune, Adweek, Buzzfeed, Mashable, Dazed, Betches, CNN, and more.

    #4 — imma 

    Number of followers: 356 thousand

    Born in 2018, Imma has the prestigious title of the first virtual influencer in Japan, and the first Japanese virtual influencer to go viral globally. 

    Apart from a funky appearance and a trendy pink bob, imma also boasts a quirky personality. According to her storyline, imma is self-aware and extremely curious, so she questions her own identity with the hashtag #ithinkimcgi. On top of that, imma explores the questions of race, environment, and gender.

    Throughout her career, imma has been cast for top brands such as Porsche Japan, IKEA, Dior, Puma, Nike, Valentino, Amazon, Calvin Klein, Valentino, and more. 

    #5 — Shudu

    Number of followers: 227 thousand

    Shuda is the first digital supermodel; she gathered her following base by posting photos in eye-catching, trendy outfits, and posting inspiration and lifestyle content. 

    Shudu is a part of The Diigitals model agency, along with a few other virtual models. 

    Some of the most notable collaborations and marketing projects Shudu has participated in include Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Balmain, Smart Car, and more.

    Risks and advantages of marketing your business with the help of virtual influencers

    There’s a good reason why brands from all over the world turn to virtual influencer marketing to promote their products and services. Here are just a few advantages of incorporating virtual influencers into your marketing strategy…

    • It’s easier for brands to keep their reputation clean by controlling the values and messages they project via the virtual influencers they work with.

    When it comes to real people, there’s always a risk of them messing up and accidentally becoming the center of a scandalous situation. With virtual influencers, things like that rarely happen. The actions of virtual influencers are carefully curated by the creators of the project, so they don’t say or do controversial things unless it’s a part of their brand. Hence, working with them is way more risk-free than with their real-life counterparts. 

    • Virtual influencers tend to have higher engagement rates than traditional influencers. 

    According to a study conducted by the Virtual Humans project in collaboration with Hype Auditors, the potential to engage with fans through synthetic content is often higher than through real-world influencers:

    Source: Hype Auditor
    • There aren’t any collaboration regulations with virtual influencers (yet). 

    Unlike with real-world influencers, there aren’t any set-in-stone pieces of legislation that can limit your benefits when working with virtual influencers. 

    • It gives your business a competitive advantage by setting you apart from other brands and evoking certain associations. 

    The concept of virtual influencers is still very new, so all brands partnering with virtual influencers to market their products are seen as pioneers in their market. It can add an element of innovation to your marketing campaign and present you as a brand that keeps up with the latest trends. 

    A great example of this is Adidas and their launch of the Ozrah sneaker. Trying to highlight the futuristic design of the new sneakers, Adidas partnered with virtual musician and artist RUBY9100M to design a custom sneaker, and have her perform in it in her music video. 

    Source: Adidas
    • Brands have more creative freedom.

    Virtual influencer backstories can be modified in any way to suit a particular brand’s values and be more appropriate to promote a specific product or service. 

    • Working with virtual influencers is cheaper than working with real-world influencers. 

    Finally, virtual influencers are simply more cost-effective. While traditional influencers with over a million followers would charge brands over $250,000 per post, Lil Miquela — the most popular virtual influencer with over 3 million followers — charges only $9,000.

    However, there are several drawbacks associated with working with virtual influencers, too:

    • Brands can get a lot of backlash for using human-like CGI-based characters in their campaigns. According to the concept of the uncanny valley, a lot of people can feel uneasy when confronted by humanoid robots. 
    • Virtual influencers may not be seen as authentic. 
    • Virtual influencers aren’t 100% exempt from scandals and controversy. 

    Case study: 3 brands that have successfully incorporated virtual influencers into their marketing strategy 

    There are dozens of examples of successful virtual influencers in marketing campaigns by brands of different nature, and the number continues to grow. Let’s take a look at some of the best ones… 

    Samsung’s #TeamGalaxy featuring Lil Miquela

    Samsung went all out when it came to expanding their #TeamGalaxy and invited Lil Miquela to join the squad. She was a perfect choice for the campaign, as she embodied the tagline “Do What You Can’t” flawlessly. 

    Miquela’s feature was great as it appealed to the creative depth the new Samsung phone allowed its users to reach, and highlighted the innovative nature of the brand. 

    The World Health Organization and Knox Frost against Coronavirus

    Technology takes over: Do you need a virtual influencer for your marketing strategy?

    Back in 2020, when the world was first struck by the pandemic, the World Health Organization understood the importance of urging young people to stay at home and follow social distancing guidelines. To deliver this message to its target audience, the organization partnered with Knox Frost, a virtual influencer with a history of promoting health and wellness, particularly on the topic of mental health.

    Prada’s Candy

    Turns out, you don’t necessarily have to choose a virtual influencer to collaborate with among already existing figures. You can solidify your brand’s presence in the metaverse by creating a virtual influencer of your own — that’s exactly what Prada did.

    After partnering with Lil Miquela back in 2018 and leveraging the benefits of virtual influencer marketing, Prada decided to take it a step further and introduce Candy, a virtual influencer created to promote the launch of the remake of Prada’s signature fragrance, Candy.

    As her own reality glitches, she begins to perceive another, expanding her existence through the power of technology. Free of constraints, her curiosity grows, new creative perspectives are opened and with them, an invitation to rethink reality.

    Spokesperson for Prada

    So, should you adopt virtual influencers for your business?

    The short answer is… Maybe. Just like with any other marketing strategy, it depends on your brand, your values, and your goals. 

    However, it’s a great idea to give virtual influencer marketing a try, especially since we’re shifting towards the metaverse quite rapidly. If brands want to stay afloat and outdo their competitors, they need to show their innovative side and adopt cutting-edge solutions. 

    If you do partner with a virtual influencer or create a new one to represent your brand, you can always rely on VistaCreate and our thematic formats to produce designs featuring them. It’s easy with us!

    Valerie Kakovkina

    Content marketing manager at VistaCreate. Valerie loves all things marketing, with her favourite areas being email marketing and social media. When out of the office, Valerie loves travelling, going to parties, and helping her friends with their art projects (oh to be surrounded by artists).

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