What's The Deal With Virtual Influencers?

Influencer marketing isn’t going anywhere. In 2022, the market was valued at a record $16.4 billion, a number that has more than doubled since 2019, according to Statista. With the rise of short-video marketing, machine learning, OpenAI, and (maybe) the metaverse, the question is where it’s going.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about a network of creative agencies launching a SXSW experience that will feature an influencer named Cinder shaking and serving drinks for eager festival-goers. Despite having her own social media accounts, Cinder is very much virtual––an influencer designed to guide her audience through an augmented reality.

I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s the deal with virtual influencers? How many brands are implementing virtual influencers over human ones? And what makes Cinder different from her human counterparts?

Virtual influencers are entirely digital beings typically made to look human so followers can experience a similar trust they feel with human influencers (Cinder, for example, has an Instagram account  that is eerily human, projecting her as a normal girl in her teens or twenties who posts pics and videos of snuggling with her virtual cat, even playing video games).

While Cinder is new to the game and only has a few hundreds followers, some virtual influencers have millions. Lu Do Magalu and  Lil Miquela have over 1.5 million Instagram followers, and they’ve worked with major brands like Dior, Calvin Klein, Balmain, Balenciaga, Prada, and more.

But not all virtual influencers aim to mirror a human appearance. Some of the biggest virtual influencers these days have been created by Paul Budnitz (founder of designer toy company KidRobot). With his startup Superplastic, Budnitz has plans to build an entire Marvel-esque universe around Guggimon, Janky, and Dayzee, a digital trio who just landed their own show with Amazon Studios.

The cartoonish trio has already landed playable skins in the popular metaverse game Fortnite, collaborating with brands like Tommy Hilfiger. And according to TechCrunch, Budnitz wants to see what his company can do with Whole Foods, and is curious about a branded energy drink deal.

Consumer interest is already here. An Influencer Marketing Factory survey from 2022 found 58% of respondents followed at least one virtual influencer, and 35% of consumers said they had purchased a product promoted by one, with those between 18 and 44 the most likely to do so. These numbers are likely higher now.

Virtual influencers offer brands and companies several benefits. First off, they often deliver free publicity. Second, virtual influencers are easier to control (albeit more expensive to create) than human influencers––and potentially less risky. Third, there are barely any limitations with virtual personas––they can be whoever a brand wants them to be, exist in whatever worlds they choose, and do whatever makes sense for the demographic a brand is trying to target.

Virtual influencers are also being used by brands to further their involvement in the metaverse and Web3, especially as more technologies are released that scale and support consumers’ ability to seamlessly experience augmented realities.

Potential downfalls to using a virtual influencer, aside from the money it takes to create and manage one, include consumers' perspective of a lack of authenticity. People are demanding authenticity and relatability from brands now more than ever, and CGI-animated avatars may not deliver that result.

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