Social Bites: Virtual Influencers Come Alive

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Virtual influencers are followed by millions. Mimicking the roadmap of a real-life celebrity—albeit with a few advantages—they give music concerts, collaborate with brands and even entertain kids from their YouTube channels. They come in all shapes, sizes and forms—ranging from CGI models that mimic humans to cartoon-style characters—and they’ve become fundamental players in the multi-million dollar industry of influencer marketing.

While some may mistake them for another trend in the new era of virtualization, a mere by-product of the metaverse, or a new development to demonstrate the power of artificial intelligence, these virtual personalities have been around for a while. You may have heard about Hatsune Miku, for example, a virtual singer created by the music technology company Crypton Future Media, Inc. She was released to the world in 2007 and has since performed sold-out concerts worldwide—including venues in LA, Singapore and Tokyo. Or perhaps you remember Lighting, a character from the Final Fantasy franchise with whom Louis Vuitton partnered in 2016 to model their Series 4 collection.

Either way, the concept of a virtual celebrity is not new. Its widespread growth, however, may have been deferred by a lack of access to certain technologies like CGI, or the necessary computing power for people to interact with them, things that we now hold—quite literally—in the palm of our hands. Moreover, as virtual influencers became more realistic and our lives moved increasingly online, people began to form communities around them, thus spurring a new level of engagement.

In the latest edition of Social Bites, the Social Innovation Lab explores the opportunities that virtual influencers bring for brands today, as well as how they are challenging our concept of beauty, talent and creativity. You can find the issue of Social bites here, and get into the swing of things with our key findings below. 

A Perfect Fit for Transmedia Storytelling

At their core, virtual influencers are computer-generated characters that engage directly with an audience on social media, live-stream commerce, in video games, or even in mainstream media. They have one main purpose: to increase followers, engagement and conversion. 

That said, many characters who now operate as virtual influencers were not born digital. Barbie, the fashion doll who debuted in 1959 long before the social media era, now communicates with fans through a popular YouTube channel and Instagram account. Now a virtual influencer, she moves across platforms and formats as needed to show up for her community. 

Because they are so diverse in form, virtual influencers offer endless possibilities in transmedia storytelling. They can seamlessly transition between different virtual environments to tell a single story, all while remaining recognizable to audiences. These benefits apply to marketing campaigns as well: the presence of a virtual character representing a brand can feel authentic anywhere from the metaverse to social media. On occasion, they even outperform their real-life counterparts when it comes to engagement.

What’s more, virtual influencers are never stuck in one place at a time. This great advantage extends to virtual versions of real-life celebrities. Last year, we worked with Pokémon and director Jason Zada to celebrate their 25th anniversary by hosting a computer-generated concert featuring Post Malone. The rapper performed for more than 10 million viewers on YouTube and Twitch, taking his fans on a journey “across the land”: a series of diverse biomes populated by Pokémon. We’re looking at a very scalable setup: in addition to virtual venues fitting more people than a physical stadium, it’s also possible to give the same concert several times, across multiple time zones. 

Ethical Considerations for Working With Virtual Creators

Just like real-life influencers, their virtual counterparts are diverse in their personalities, but they all have one dangerous thing in common: they can be shaped into any form their creators desire. They can advance unattainable standards—they don’t grow old, they don’t get tired and they can change their looks to match new trends at a moment’s notice. And while it may be tempting to use these unique qualities to your advantage, upholding such standards are counter to goals around diversity of representation. We recommend that brands working with virtual influencers focus on these matters as they would do with their real-life predecessors.

Tech companies are working on making virtual influencers showcase a larger diversity of body types and flaws. It’s about ethics, but also relatability. After all, people need to be able to connect with a creator to be truly engaged. The good news is that we’re already seeing progress in this respect. Angie, who was named “the imperfect virtual influencer” by CNN, offers a refreshing alternative. With her creased makeup, faint acne scars and uneven skin, she is challenging beauty standards in China and beyond—showcasing her imperfections for the world to see. 

That is to say that if done right, virtual influencers have the potential to reshape digital culture and our ideals of beauty, coolness or even what it means to be human. Brands that lead this evolution in marketing can strengthen their bonds with consumers, but only as long as diverse creators are involved and provide the space for consumers to feel seen.

The Immediate Evolution of Virtual Influencers

While virtual influencers operate under no location or time zone constraints, it’s true that the APAC region is leading the way in facilitating real-time interaction between them and their followers. Dior, for instance, created a digital avatar of its regional ambassador, Chinese celebrity Angelababy. As reported by the South China Morning Post, Angela 3.0’s surprise appearance generated more than 90,000 Weibo interactions in two hours.

Meanwhile, the ecommerce giant Taobao developed a gamified community where users create and dress virtual avatars in real-world items available on the platform. These 3D avatars can interact with others, perform daily tasks and use virtual coins to purchase items. 

There’s clear evidence that these brands have found virtual influencers to be a great tool to further engage their audience, and there’s a lot the rest of the world can learn from these advancements in APAC. Virtual influencers are here to stay, and the doors of opportunity are wide open for brands to experiment in this space. Especially for those who feel like working with a real-life influencer poses a risk, creating their own virtual influencer may be a perfect choice.

Looking for more social media insights? Tune into our weekly Social Innovation Lab podcast to hear from the brightest minds in social and learn how to create winning social media campaigns. Check out the latest episodes of the Social Innovation Lab podcast.

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