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What virtual reality influencers mean for brands

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Virtual personalities have their own social media accounts and blogs, they participate in fashion shows and other events. They communicate with their audiences as well as collaborate with famous brands… By 2023, there are 150 active digital influencers, with many of them having acquired huge followings. It’s time to figure out what virtual influencers are, and what virtual reality in business looks like.

WHAT ARE VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS?

A virtual influencer is a digital character having a first-person personality and affecting people’s decisions. On the whole, they act as “normal influencers”, therefore these fictional personas are becoming more and more attractive for brands. Computer-generated characters, as well as their real counterparts, create posts on their accounts, establish relationships with their following, promote products and services in favor of brands, and also – build their personal brands. Everything is just the same… despite the fact these personalities don’t exist in reality. 

“Anything a human influencer can do, a virtual influencer can do with more control, glance value, and engagement. Take this mindset, and you may start to understand, at the base level, where the virtual influencer has room to grow and evolve”, says Christopher Travers, the industry expert and the founder of VirtualHumans.org.

First digital stars have been existing for more than 20 years. Remember about the famous Gorillaz band that appeared in 1998 and have recorded platinum albums several times.  Hatsune Miku, a popular Japanese virtual singer, made her appearance in 2007, and in 2009 she gave a concert gathering 25,000 fans. 

As technology evolves, more and more virtual influencers appear on social media. And they are becoming more and more realistic. They have their bio, possess unique character and authenticity. Crowds of people follow these fictional personalities because they generate a sort of curiosity around their accounts. According to a survey conducted in March 2022, 58% of American social media users follow at least one virtual influencer. Among the main reasons the respondents named ‘interesting content’ (27%), and also ‘storytelling’ (19%) and a sort of inspiration (15%) followers receive from digital influencers.

HOW VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS ARE CREATED

A digital company is behind each virtual personality. The designing and creating process is very complicated involving a group of specialists of different skills. The manufacturing process is based on computer-generated imagery technology (CGI). The process begins with creating a 3D model. The model is then being improved by adding mimics, colors, and other details. The final stage is to animate the character and make all the gestures and movements realistic.

Very often digital companies develop virtual influencers by the order of brands themselves. Creating a brand’s own virtual influencer is a step forward: brands would get 100% control over the digital persona, the overall image of a virtual influencer, and the content. For instance, KFC collaborated with Generic Versatility to create the virtual version of a historic Colonel Sanders. 

KFC
KFC

Another good example is hair care brand Olaplex that created Kai – a virtual team member who handles their website and also acts as an influencer on the brand’s social media accounts.

Kai greets people inside the virtual Olaplex salon

VIRTUAL REALITY FOR BUSINESS: BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES

A mix of pros and cons – this is what virtual reality in business is by far. There are two ways for brands to leverage virtual influencers. One is to employ an existing virtual character, the other is to create their own personification of brand values. Like Renault’s virtual ambassador Liv, for example.

virtual influencers

If speaking about audiences that virtual influencers resonate with best of all, it goes without saying that this is about Gen Z and millennials. During the pandemic the World Health Organization was puzzled: how to reach younger generations who never watch TV and read newspapers. One of the solutions was very innovative and effective: The WHO bet on social media, and a virtual influencer Knox Frost in particular, who helped a lot in sharing best practices to keep the COVID-19 out. 

Thus, virtual influencers make it possible for brands to connect deeper with their audiences, at the same time having a complete control over the messages they are transmitting through the influencers. What are other undeniable benefits of collaboration with virtual influencers in comparison with human content creators? 

BENEFITS POSED BY VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS

Lowered risk of backlash

Humans are not perfect and can be unpredictable: in 2001 Britney Spears lost her multi-million dollar contract with Pepsi after having been captured drinking a Coke.

In case your influencer is virtual, you don’t need to worry about scandals or discrepancies. Any publicity stunt will be carefully crafted. All the messages and news are going to be intentional. This helps ensure control over the brand strategy and secure safety for brand reputation.

Luxury of customization

While it can be difficult to find the best fit among human influencers – the one who would ideally incorporate your brand values, in case with virtual influencers it’s easier to adopt a digital character’s traits, values, age and so on – to better resonate with your target audience. Do you agree that such luxury of customization is hardly possible with regular influencers?

Good chances to stand out

When you start to collaborate with a digital influencer this always attracts a lot of attention to your product or service. The social media landscape is oversaturated with human influencers’ content. But you have a great opportunity to stand out being promoted by a virtual personality. Your brand is sure to be perceived as highly innovative and trendy.

Minimization of costs in the long run

The process of creating a digital character is expensive, no doubt. But what could brands expect after the initial monetary investment? The fact that virtual influencers can be then infinitely reusable make them more cost-effective. Besides, they will never grow old (if only it’s not necessary for achieving certain brand goals). They are never tired and can appear at multiple places at once. In comparison with public figures and celebrities, when you do have to take into account their fatigue, comfort, and life circumstances. 

Let’s take a long-liver Gecko as an example. This funny animated lizard has been capturing the hearts of Americans for more than 20 years. Representing the GEICO insurance company, the GEICO Gecko explains it best himself: “My job is saving people money. I love my job”. Traveling all over the country and spreading good news about the car insurance company, the lizard has become a good friend for many Americans

Source: VirtualHumans

The GEICO Gecko served as a precedent for brands encouraging others to create their own digital spokespersons. Further, Mattel has also successfully enhanced Barbie’s status as a doll making her an admiring VTuber spokesperson

Increased reach and engagement

Surprisingly, virtual personalities’ engagement rates are even higher than those of traditional influencers. Today the majority of virtual reality influencers can be found on Instagram, however there are many of them on such platforms as TikTok, YouTube, and Spotify. 

One of the reasons that makes their reach and engagement increase is that these influencers are virtual, so they are not limited to this or that time zone or geographical location. They can be present at a fashion show, a brand launch, and a music festival on Spotify all at once! 

Lil Miquela, one of the most followed virtual influencers (having about 3 million followers on Instagram, and known for her collaborations with the top fashion brands Calvin Klein, Dior, and Prada ), made her debut at Lollapalooza online music festival at the time of pandemic – the time when all human celebrities had to cancel or postpone their performances. 

Lil miguela

FLY IN THE OINTMENT

Despite all the pros listed above in this article, virtual influencers won’t replace real ones – most obviously. There are as many controversies about them as benefits.

Risk to harm people’s self-esteem, and cross-cultural challenges

What are the appearances of the existing virtual influencers? Most CGI characters are designed to look like supermodels. It entails a lot of criticism in terms of harmful social impact on young generations’ self-esteem. Another thing is cultural sensitivity. For big brands it can be challenging to choose or create such a virtual ambassador that would fit each race, culture, and ethnicity. It’s easier to choose several human content creators from different social and cultural groups. However, there’s room for greater diversity among upcoming virtual personalities. 

Ethical problems

Ethical problems arise as far as virtual influencers promote products they cannot really feel – since CGI personalities are not real. Thus, how can a consumer trust an influencer who doesn’t smell, taste, see, or hear? Their recommendations turn out to be false as their emotions and feelings are not based on reality. 

Moody College’s Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations has conducted a number of interesting researches on the virtual reality industry. In particular, they have analyzed how virtual influencers are perceived by social media users. The study was based on Lil Miquela’s posts (because of her prominence in the virtual world, and very human-like nature). The researchers have found out that brand attachment and positive perceptions were higher when Lil Miquela was promoting virtual products in a mixed reality (a blend of the physical and digital worlds). But the followers’ brand attachment was the lowest when Lil Miquela was promoting a real product alongside real humans. It’s called the uncanny valley phenomenon, when people feel anxiety encountering someone or something acting and looking human, but not being human in reality. 

We can conclude that not every product or service can be effectively promoted with the help of virtual influencers. It’s no doubt that each new influencer marketing campaign requires thorough research and preparation. 

WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF VIRTUAL REALITY IN BUSINESS?

You see that the idea of a virtual character promoting a brand is not new at all. From Mr. Clean and Uncle Ben’s, GEICO Gecko and Barbie to human-like social media virtual celebrities, we can observe how the technology advances have made it possible to develop hyper realistic personalities able to gain their own (often huge!) followings on social media and influence their audiences.The argument in defense of virtual influencers is that they don’t differ much from our favorite content creators who we also do not see in real life, but nevertheless we follow them and trust them within a social media landscape.

One of the challenges that digital companies specializing in creating CGI characters have been trying to overcome is these virtual personas’ ability to appear in the real world.  

An interesting and effective attempt was made in this direction by IKEA Japan. Within the celebration of the opening of IKEA Japan’s first city-center shop, they brought the first Japanese virtual model Imma to the real world for the very first time. Imma was “living” in an apartment inside the shop window! 

Imma’s IKEA bedroom was installed with LED screens. Its color temperature was adapting in real time, making it impossible for the onlookers’ eyes to distinguish between the real and digital worlds. Those who couldn’t come to see Imma in real life had an opportunity to follow her livestream on IKEA’s YouTube channel.

FAMESTERS STAYS VIGILANT ABOUT VIRTUAL TRENDS – FOR YOUR BRAND TO BE AHEAD OF COMPETITORS

Let’s sum up: what is virtual reality in business, and what is its future? Brand-virtual influencer collaboration is one of the main directions where businesses can leverage virtual reality. Here at Famesters we believe that virtual influencers are here to stay, though there’s no threat they would totally replace human content creators. But you see that virtual reality personalities become more and more competitive on social media platforms, especially those targeted at the Gen Z audience. The very purpose of CGI influencers is to eliminate normal influencers’ limitations. And they accomplish this task – to a certain degree.

Why do so many people seem not to mind that they follow someone unreal on social media? Perhaps this is due to the nature of social media. Most people would never encounter their favorite celebrity – the same is with virtual ones.

In any case, we’re vigilant about all the latest social media trends in the influencer marketing industry. And we’re happy to help you to test the waters and launch the most effective influencer marketing campaign to make your brand visible and admirable on social media. Don’t hesitate to contact us to get more information and valuable consultation. 

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