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What Are Virtual Influencers, and Should They Be Part of Your Brand Marketing Strategy?

Virtual influencers may be fake people, but their followings are real and so is the benefit they bring to major brands. Are they right for you and your strategy?

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Meet 19-year-old social media superstar Lil Miquela

Miquela (AKA Miquela Sousa) appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 2016 when she started posting about her life on Instagram. She is now one of the world’s best-known influencers, with millions of Instagram and TikTok followers. Miquela has worked with top fashions brands like Prada, Dior, Givenchy and Calvin Klein, and she has her own clothing line. Miquela is cute, cool, slightly aloof and a powerfully influential online presence. 

She is also not a real person.

Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer, a computer-generated avatar with a personality, characteristics and values so realistic she seems almost human. She speaks to the camera and shares selfies, feelings and thoughts with her massive social media following. When she is not promoting fashion brands, Miquela hangs out with her friends, acting like any other teenager. The world she lives in is distinct and astonishingly realistic.

What Are Virtual Influencers?

Virtual influencers are digital creations, exclusively created and consumed in digital mediums. They are designed in digital graphics software and given a personality defined by a first-person view of the world. Brands then leverage these fictional characters to attract followers and likes on social media. Their growth has been explosive, and digital creations are now seen as the next big thing in influencer marketing. 

The Growth of Influencer Marketing

Lil Miquela is part of a new wave of virtual personalities helping make influencer marketing a billion-dollar industry. The influencer market grew from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $13.8 billion in 2021. That growth shows no signs of slowing down, as experts predict the industry will expand to $16.4 billion in 2022. 

eCommerce Gets on Board

With their vast social media reach, virtual influencers represent the future of eCommerce influencer marketing. They offer higher engagement rates and better growth retention than traditional human influencers. Given their dynamic impact so far, it is no surprise eCommerce brands are turning to virtual influencers. A reported 54% of the brands currently working with digital influencers operate eCommerce stores. And, 68% of brand marketers plan to increase their influencer marketing spending in 2022.

Many big-name brands have already jumped on the virtual bandwagon. Samsung, IKEA, Prada, LG Electronics and YOOX have run successful campaigns featuring popular influencers like Imma, Reah Keem and Miquela. Prada developed a custom virtual spokesperson named Candy to promote their fragrance collection, also called Candy. KFC designed a virtual Colonel Sanders and luxury French fashion house Balmain has created a “virtual army” of digital models.

Who Is Engaging with Virtual Influencers?

According to the AI-analytics website HypeAuditor, the majority of virtual influencer followers are women between the ages of 18 to 34. Not surprisingly, virtual influencers are especially popular with Gen Z and millennials. Studies reveal that the number of young social media users following virtual influencers is double those following human influencers. Studies have also suggested that younger consumers have a unique appetite for virtual influencers since they grew up in the internet age.

Virtual influencers have long been popular in Asia, especially with the “MZ generation.” MZ is a combination of millennials and Gen Z, born between 1980 and 2000. Also known as “Zoomers,” MZ is a rapidly emerging class of core consumers, especially in Korea.

4 of Today’s Most Popular Virtual Influencers

Screenshot of virtual influencer Lu of Magalu's Instagram account

Lu do Magalu: Brazil’s Lu Do Magalu is currently the world’s most visible virtual influencer, boasting millions of followers on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Lu uses her social media accounts to feature unboxing videos, product reviews and software tips for Brazilian retail giant Magazine Luiza. 

Barbie: Yes, that Barbie. Mattel has ingeniously kept Barbie relevant by reinventing her as a social media star. Millions of fans follow her on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where she posts as a vlogger. She also dabbles in music, with 200 thousand monthly listeners on her Spotify channel. Barbie is hugely influential, as witnessed by the 40 thousand likes for her 2021 Instagram post supporting Black Lives Matter. 

Any Malu: Originally from Brazil, Any Malu is a fully animated virtual influencer who has achieved worldwide fame. Since her first appearance in 2015, she has grown from an idea to a YouTube star to a transmedia experience. Any has millions of fans across Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. She is one of the few virtual influencers with a TV show powered by Cartoon Network. 

Noonoouri: Noonoouri is a 19-year-old German fashionista. She has worked with top fashion brands like Lacoste, Versace, KKW Beauty and Bulgari. Her goal is to entertain and promote fashion, but she also educates her audience about social causes. She is vegan, advocates for sustainable fashion and refuses to wear fur. She has over 700 thousand Instagram followers, and her TikTok videos have received more than 500 thousand likes.

6 Ways Virtual Influencers Can Benefit eCommerce Brands

There is no doubt that virtual influencers are becoming a powerful influencer marketing strategy for many brands. While not for every brand, working with a virtual influencer can have many advantages for those willing to take the leap.

They Are Cost-Efficient

Screenshot of virtual influencer creator virtualhumans.org

On average, real-life influencers with a million followers can charge over $250,000 per post. By partnering with Lil Miquela, who charges $8,500 per sponsored post, a company can save $16,500 per post. “Virtual influencers are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term,” said Christopher Travers, founder of the website VirtualHumans.org. “They are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die.” 

Brands Have Complete Control

Many companies are opting to create their own virtual influencers. Designing a customer influencer gives a brand complete ownership and control over the influencer’s story arc, personality, brand affinity and actions. Brands can then run far-reaching marketing campaigns to increase customer engagement through targeted content that resonates with their audience. Brand messaging to these target groups can also be better controlled.

Brands Can Manage an Influencer’s Image and Values

A virtual influencer’s story arc and backstory can be modified to suit a brand’s values. Brands can curate their digital ambassadors with the personality, look and ethics that best appeal to their clientele. An influencers’ personality can be tailored to match a brand’s values while reflecting the perfect audience persona back at their followers. In this way, virtual influencers can help strengthen brand image and accurately promote a company’s values.

Less Risk of Controversy

In an age of celebrity scandals and influencer controversies, virtual influencers guarantee brands a trouble-free experience. Brands can carefully craft a virtual influencer’s media presence, so there is little chance the influencer will wind up on TMZ. Since they are not real people, they will not bring personal “baggage” or hidden secrets that could harm a brand’s reputation. Digital influencers are also less likely to say or do something that could damage a brand’s image by association.

There Are No Physical or Technical Limitations

Human influencers often have physical constraints or limitations, like the pandemic’s lockdown or traveling long distances to attend in-person marketing events. Since they live in a digital environment, virtual influencers can be anywhere at any time. As a result, brands do not have to rely on real-world settings for the influencer to market their products. Brands can create an environment that best compliments the virtual influencer and engages their audience from start to finish.

They Can Live Forever

Virtual brand ambassadors never age and never experience human fallacies like sickness, burnout or death. “They are immortal,” said Elison Lim, associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “These traits of perfection and immortality are highly desired and are aspirational to many.” Staying forever young also means their appeal can be timeless, spanning generations.

Working with Your Strategy

Working with virtual influencers seems logical for brands who want to take their marketing strategies to the next level. And while they might seem like marketing’s shiny new toy, they might not be suitable for every brand. Brands need to ask if unreal spokespersons will sell a brand’s products through real customer connections.

Ultimately, whether a brand uses a virtual influencer depends on what makes sense for the business and its marketing strategy. For those brands that feel virtual influencers fit in with their overall marketing strategies, the future is now.

No matter how cutting edge they might seem, the best marketing efforts are only effective if you have the tech infrastructure to win and keep customers. Scalefast can help your business finish strong with a customized specialty store designed to keep your target audience engaged and delighted. Talk to one of our eCommerce experts today to learn more and schedule a demo.

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