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Virtual Influencers: America’s Next Top Model

By Sarah Xu | December 02, 2021 | 0 Comments

MarketingDigital Marketing Strategy and Execution

Imagine attending an Ariana Grande concert while riding unicorns through the clouds. Or while floating in iridescent bubbles. Now add a giant Ariana. In August, Fortnite hosted yet another virtual concert, following Travis Scott’s Fortnite performance in 2020 (which drew in nearly 28 million unique players) and Lil Nas X’s Roblox performance (33 million views). The success of these concerts show the potential of an upcoming trend — virtual influencers.

With pandemic lockdowns, people turned to the virtual world to connect with each other. Facebook, sorry — I meant Meta, knows that the lines between reality and the metaverse will only blur more in the next five years. Marketers need to be prepared to adjust their marketing strategies, specifically regarding influencers. 

What Are Virtual Influencers?

Virtual influencers are typically developed by third party companies and posted on social media to promote products, much like traditional influencers. Sometimes brands create them in-house, with more control over the creative process. Once marketers and consumers wrap their heads around the idea, the advantages are clear. Gone are the days of worrying about scandals and being cancelled. While still possible, virtual influencers significantly alleviate these concerns. Just the novelty factor alone draws attention to these humans.

Virtual influencers are already used in China, where they range from 2D cartoons to hyper-realistic. Some retail brands create their own virtual employees using AI to work during off-hours. They can host livestreams and answer questions on e-commerce platforms. Most of the time, marketers can opt to work with existing virtual influencers in much the same way they work with traditional influencers.

This shows examples of virtual influencers used in China. One of them is Ayayi, who is developed to look realistic. The other is a virtual store employee for beauty brand Chando, who is seen hosting a livestream and answering questions using AI.
China’s virtual influencers include Ayayi and virtual store employees.

Are These Used in the U.S.?

Even in the U.S., some of the most popular virtual influencers already have millions of followers. One of the most notable is Lil Miquela, who has more than 3 million followers on both Instagram and TikTok. Being a robot has not stopped her from living her life, posting vlogs, and dating fellow virtual humans. She’s worked with a variety of brands from fashion (like Dior, Prada, Calvin Klein) to electronics (Samsung) and auto (MINI). 

One of my favorite examples is KFC’s virtual influencer. Back in 2019, KFC posted a few pictures of a de-aged and fit Colonel Sanders (it’s easy to stay fit on a fried chicken diet when you’re virtual). The restaurant chain is adept on social media, ranking 11th in its industry in Gartner’s 2021 Social Marketing Benchmarks, so it’s no surprise that they were one of the early adopters of this trend. Virtual Colonel Sanders poked fun at influencers, but ironically did secure sponsorships with Casper mattress, Dr. Pepper, Turbo Tax and more. Not sure how credible these recommendations are from someone who does not sleep, drink, or pay taxes. But who am I to judge, he was a hit on KFC’s Instagram.  

Marketers should not scoff at the idea of a metaverse nor should they ignore this trend. To read more details on execution and other marketing implications, check out Gartner’s 2022 Marketing Predictions. After all, virtual influencers are about to get a lot more real in the next few years.

US virtual influencers include Lil Miquela, who has millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok, as well as KFC's satirical virtual Colonel Sanders.
US marketers are already using virtual influencers, including @LilMiquela and KFC.

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