What are virtual influencers and how will they help shape marketing going forward?
The emergence of social media brought with it a new type of marketing asset: the influencer. From micro influencers with a few thousand followers to mega influencer stars like the Kardashians, these new movers and shakers have certainly shaken up the world of marketing. There is hardly a major brand out there today that have not worked with influencers as part of their marketing. Indeed, influencer marketing is increasingly becoming a stable of any marketing campaign. But there is a new kind of influencer entering the scene. One that is less prone to real-life scandals, works 24 hours a day and can literally be in several places at once. Say hello to the virtual influencer!
What is a Virtual Influencer
The virtual influencer phenomenon has been around since about 2016 but it has recently been gathering serious steam. As the name suggest, virtual influencers (also known as AI influencers), are not physical beings but rather computer generated and controlled entities.
In the US, the first and arguably biggest virtual influencer is Lil Miquela who as of this writing has 3.1 million followers on Instagram. As her short bio states, she is a “19-year-old Robot living in LA”. Being 100% programmed, she has taken over the Prada Instagram account as part of a promotion, been featured in Vogue and advocates on a number of social issues. She also made out with model Bella Hadid (image here above) in a Calvin Klein ad. She makes around $8.500 per sponsored post and it is estimated that she has earned more than $11 million so far. And she is not alone. There is a rapidly growing population of virtual influencers in the US, increasingly competing head-to-head with their human counterparts.
However, it is not the US that is leading the charge when it comes to virtual influencers. To see what is happening on the cutting edge, you need to go further east, to China and Japan. In China, the move has been towards the creation of virtual idols. The first such was Luo Tainyi, an animated girl who was launched in 2012 by Shanghai Henian Technology Co. With more than 5 million followers on Weibo, she has achieved mainstream appeal, even sharing the stage with Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang in 2019. Virtual idols are estimated to reach 390 million in China. They earned $540 million in 2020 with a projected yearly growth of 70%, according to iimedia Research. This would value the market at $960 million in 2021.
Virtual Influencers, Real World Rewards
Using virtual influencers offers several advantages for brands, beyond the immediate cool factor from being on the cutting edge. Virtual influencers do not have real life scandals which can affect brands they endorse. They provide another level of flexibility in how they can work with brands, given their virtual nature. They are easy to work with and direct. Oh, and they can work 24/7, do not need to sleep, never age and always look as flawless as needed. As such, they are a group we can expect to see more of going forward. This only more so as developments like the metaverse begin to take shape.
They are of course not completely free of issues. There can be technical glitches which people simply do not suffer from. They are also only as good as their software and handlers. A recent incident where a Japanese virtual idol used the term Taiwan and got banned on Bilibili is a recent example, though that could of course easily happen to an actual human influencer as well.
For now, virtual influencers are here and they are growing fast. As they are moving into more specialized niche areas, expect virtual influencers to continue to stake their claim.
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