We’ve seen influencer marketing—also known as Key Opinion Leader (KOL) marketing in some parts of the world—rise alongside the growing relevance of social media in the last decade. Understandably so, as the heightened use of the internet and popularity of social media platforms led to more freedom and content choices for consumers.
Faced with the problem of their target audience being increasingly harder to reach, brands quickly found that influencer marketing makes an effective alternative in reaching their target audience.
The pandemic accelerated the shift to new ways to connect, such as livestreams, VR communities and social spaces in online games like Roblox and Fortnite. Social media companies are also leading the pack in opening doors to the metaverse by creating AR and VR devices and capabilities. As lines blur between virtual and reality, virtual influencers are gaining more visibility and attention across social platforms.
Rise of Virtual Influencers
As imaging software improves at scale and the ‘uncanny valley’ levels out, virtual influencers/KOL have begun building buzz. Just look at when Lil Miquela burst onto Instagram and took over the influencer landscape in 2016. Lil Miquela is a CGI-rendered character in the form of a 19-year-old American woman, and widely considered as the first virtual influencer. With a current following of 3 million, Lil Miquela appealed to the Gen-Z and young millennials for the past several years—so wide is her appeal that she was even named one of Time’s 25 Most Influential People on the Internet.
But what actually is a virtual influencer? Virtual influencers are CGI-rendered characters, who may be either completely fictional or an avatar controlled by a real person in real time. The latter includes the current zeitgeist of Vtubers, who are virtual live streamers who use CGI avatars and real-time motion caption software to entertain online. But like typical influencers, their creators share moments of these characters’ lives through photographed scenes or livestreams. And they can be solicited by brands for marketing campaigns.
The role of influencer marketing is expected to grow—potentially into a 16.4 billion dollar industry in 2022 alone—aided along by a crackdown on data collection by Apple which impacted social ads on various platforms and ad blocking and cookie deprecation on the horizon. Also, a 2021 HypeAuditor survey revealed that global engagement rates for virtual influencers with accounts of over 1 million followers is three times higher than their real-world counterparts. These virtual influencers also have a strong connection with the 18-25 year-old Gen-Z demographic—a sweet spot in social media for brands considering dipping their toes in virtual influencer marketing.
Spicing Up Digital Influence with Virtualization
The normalization of virtual influencers complements an overall shift toward virtualized experiences in commerce and pop culture. More use cases of brands touting their wares, which are virtually represented through virtual influencers while directing customers to a physical store, are making headlines. For example, China’s virtual influencer Ayayi was hired by Alibaba Group as its digital manager for its ‘Tmall Super Brand Day’ sales event in 2021 and also invited by Guerlain to attend its summer event. The pandemic further supported this new way of connecting in the metaverse and combining real-life experiences with VR. Some notable events in the past years include pop stars holding virtual concerts with replica avatars of themselves and major fashion houses releasing their latest collection via Nintendo’s Animal Crossing game.
Another example of this is a recent project by Media.Monks celebrating 25 years of the Pokémon brand. We first posted a teaser film on social channels in which Post Malone first engaged with the audience as a real-life influencer, drumming excitement and anticipation to the upcoming virtual concert. For the big show itself, the rapper was recorded using motion capture to translate his physical movement to a 3D avatar. Over 10 million fans watched the concert on YouTube and Twitch and participated in virtual easter egg challenges during the concert. As the metaverse develops, we can expect more instances where the physical and virtual realms come together to create new types of experiences and social connections—opening up space for more virtual characters to engage and interact with audiences.
Things To Look Out For and To Look Forward To
The exciting thing about virtual influencers is that there is no limit to who or what they can be. Because of this, any brand or business can thrive in the virtual space. It’s about finding the right voice and approach that can connect deeply with a target audience. Still, there is value in doing research to find something that strikes a good balance between brand objectives and the type of influencer marketing strategy to adopt, rather than jumping headlong into a trend.
An advantage to brand-owned virtual influencers is that they may be created with a personality, aesthetic, beliefs and tone of voice that reflects both a brand and the values of its target audience. And not only can they be tailor-fit to a brand’s own personality, they can also switch between environments with relative ease—like entering new metaverse spaces and experiences as they develop.
No matter your plans for virtual influencer marketing, remember that the storytelling aspect is what keeps a character alive and authentic in the social space. In the case of Lil Miquela, its creator evolved the storyline of the virtual character to start including more background into her existence and gave her a more emotional side, such as her wondering where she came from and who her creator is, as a way of injecting a deeper, more connected personality into the character. This both keeps a target audience engaged and adds to the authenticity of the character, which leads to a higher believability value for your brand.
With each new generation, consumers become more savvy digitally and more informed, it’s important to find a creative solution that makes sense for your brand and audience. As long as the brand message and influencer are authentic, we will be able to connect and inspire, and there will be an audience, regardless of the platform or ‘verse’.
Despite the digital developments about us, it’s also a good idea to take a step back to review that as humans, we tend to seek a person or an aspirational idea that we can look up or relate to or be emotionally connected with. Hence, even with changing appearances of influencers and virtual environments, the human need to feel connected will remain. And that should serve as a good reminder in how we plan our marketing, no less influencer marketing, whether virtual or not.
The writer is MD, Media.Monks India
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)