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Virtual influencers: a trendy effect or the near future for Influencer marketing?

Their names are Lil Miquela, Naughty Boo, shudu.gram, itsbinxie or Noonoouri and for the past few months they have been taking over all social networks. They are active all over the world and have millions of followers on their accounts. They have a large following but are not influencers like the others. And for good reason, they are virtual influencers. That is to say, they have been created from scratch on a computer, their developers have given them an image, a story, emotions, an identity and a daily life to share with their various communities. While virtual influencers are said to get three times higher engagement rates than real influencers, are they the future of Influencer Marketing or just a tech trend? Let's decipher a phenomenon that is gaining momentum.

virtual screen
virtual screen

What are virtual influencers?

Virtual influencers are fictional computer-generated characters made entirely of algorithms and pixels. They have very realistic humanoid appearances, although some are developed in other forms such as robot or animal. They live a life that they share on social networks, interact with their communities of followers and collaborate with brands. But unlike 100% flesh-and-blood KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), they are fully programmed. Age, appearance, lifestyle choices, daily activities, emotional relationships, purchases are all imagined by digital tech professionals in collaboration with marketers and communication agencies who can do whatever they want with them.

Among the top most famous virtual influencers, we find, for example :

  • Lil Miquela: she is 19 years old, was founded in 2016 by Brud, a Californian start-up and has no less than 3.1M followers on Instagram. She posts selfies and videos of her daily life with her other virtual friends (Blawko22 and Bermuda among others) and even humans on Instagram. It is the combination of her realistic beauty and her personality that makes her a woman of her time and influencer. She owes her success in part to being a personality in her own right and brands are snapping her up for their Influencer Marketing campaigns.
  • Shudu.gram: This 28-year-old model was created by British photographer Cameron James Wilson. She has over 218K followers on Instagram. She doesn’t share her private life with her community but photos and videos of photo shoots and fashion shows made in the framework of her partnerships with brands like Balmain or Fenty Beauty (Rihanna’s famous brand). It is now managed by the agency The Diigitals. Thanks to its notoriety, brands such as Hyundai Lifestyle highlight their social and environmental commitments through their collaborations with the virtual KOL. This was the case with the campaign promoting the brand’s commitment to recycling Hyundai Motor’s Company’s industrial waste to make clothes.
  • Noonoouri: the 19-year-old Frenchwoman does not have the gynoid realism of her two colleagues, but she still collaborates with the biggest luxury brands.  The virtual KOL frequently presents the latest pieces from the collections of the big fashion houses to her 384K followers on Instagram. Chinese e-commerce giant Ali Baba has made her the ambassador for its virtual luxury platform. Noonoouri is also a self-proclaimed “activist” and vegan, a way for the new-generation influencer to be engaged and engaging with her community of followers.
  • Imma.gram: the Japanese influencer with 354K followers on Instagram has participated in campaigns for Ikea, Magnum and Porsche. Imma.gram has even developed her own clothing collection with Amazon Fashion. On her Instagram account, she describes herself as “a virtual girl (…) interested in Japanese culture, film and art”. Recently, her followers were able to meet up with her in a colourful collaboration with the famous ready-to-wear brand Desigual.

How big is the virtual influencer phenomenon?

Virtual influencers more and more present

More and more used, especially in the luxury and fashion industries, there are now more than 130 virtual KOLs worldwide. Very popular in the United States and Brazil, it is especially in Asia that they are reaching audience records thanks to the enthusiasm of the younger generations.

A fast-growing market in Asia in a singular context

The market for virtual influencers in China has grown from $15.5 million in 2018 and is expected to reach more than €200 million by 2023. The Covid-19 pandemic has only strengthened the use of these influencers who are malleable in a few clicks and available 24/7 by brands for their various Influencer Marketing campaigns.

Towards a virtualisation of exchanges

The craze for virtuality and digitalization has accelerated since virtual KOLs allow people to travel, wear luxurious clothes, and experience incredible events while remaining at home, behind a screen. In a dynamic of the metaverse and augmented reality, these new KOLs are becoming essential for professionals.

Driven by an unprecedented health and economic context, this digital environment simulating reality where avatars of ourselves will live surrounded by other avatars of real people or fictional characters is finally not so far away. A market that will prove to be very lucrative for the brands that will take on this new way of living and consuming.

Undeniable benefits for brands

The influencer is an undeniable asset for brands. Especially since virtual influencers have the ability to work at any time, to travel around the world at a lower cost and to publish fully controlled content. This is a boon for brands that sometimes struggle to find reliable influencers.

Thanks to the use of virtual KOLs, advertisers can also adapt their avatars’ interventions according to the communities’ reactions and comments. This allows them to create a being that reflects the image of the company that uses it, while perfectly meeting the expectations of their target audiences.

Curiosity, innovation, novelties, the virtual influencers make us enter an unreal and fascinating universe. A parallel digital universe that generation Z is already starting to integrate but which still needs to be framed.

Is the future so bright for virtual influencers?

Nevertheless, virtual influencers have some limits and it is important to be aware of them.

The psychological impact of virtual KOLs on the younger generation

One of the criticisms often directed at social networks is the fact that followers are constantly comparing themselves to influencers and the perfection of the lives reflected in their publications. The use of filters and avatars is becoming more widespread and many are already aware that Instagram stars do not necessarily reflect real lives. However, some social media users, especially younger ones, cannot step back and sort out the reality from the fiction imposed by the filters.

But when it comes to virtual influencers, the gap is even greater. Indeed, virtual KOLs are entirely imagined and created according to criteria chosen by their creators. In the case of brand avatars in particular, even when they are provided with characteristics that make them more realistic, the virtual muses are still entirely subject to the will of the brands that make them appear in their most beautiful guise. This is yet another opportunity for the younger generation to be confronted with standards that are still far from reality and that can lead to complexes and hamper self-esteem.

Virtual influencers: a lack of transparency?

Furthermore, one of the characteristics of influencer activation is the transparency of partnerships. Even in the context of product placements, affiliate links or other levers, the content created by the influencer must leave room for truth and authenticity. Virtual influencers don’t have this ability as content, posts and interactions are entirely dictated by the brands themselves.

Teams of editors, marketers and communication managers are in charge of making their communications convincing, influential and powerful. So how do we know who is really behind the avatars?

As these avatars are going to develop in our lives as real brand communication tools, it is important to understand all aspects and contours. India has already taken official steps to regulate the use of virtual influencers for commercial purposes. For example, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) July 2021 requires the accounts of these influencers to make clear the fictitious nature of the character.

Virtual influencers still have a long way to go to convince consumers. With the integration of Artificial Intelligence, they may become even more effective, but will they be more authentic? New professions based on neuroscience and behavioural psychology will be developed to make them live and interact in a more human way and gain credibility. A trend to watch.

About Kolsquare

Kolsquare is Europe’s leading Influencer Marketing platform, a data-driven solution that allows brands to scale their KOL Marketing strategies and implement authentic partnerships with KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). Kolsquare’s technology enables marketing professionals to easily identify the best Content Creators profiles by filtering their content and audience, and to build and manage their campaigns from A to Z, including measuring results and benchmarking performance against competitors. Kolsquare has built the largest community of influencer marketing experts in the world, and offers hundreds of customers (Coca-Cola, Netflix, Sony Music, Publicis, Sézane, Sephora, El Corte Inglés, Lacoste, …) the latest Big Data, AI and Machine Learning technologies to drive inspiring partnerships, tapping into an exhaustive network covering 100% of  KOLs with more than 5,000 followers in 180 countries on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As a Benefit Company, Kolsquare has been pioneering Responsible Influence by championing transparency, ethical practices, and meaningful collaborations to inspire change.

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