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    The rise of virtual influencers: are they here to stay?

    The steady popularity of influencer marketing, coupled with rapid advancements in AI and metaverse technology, is fueling the growth of a new social media superstar: virtual influencers. These computer-generated personalities function a lot like real human influencers. They post selfies and content from their day-to-day lives alongside brand partnerships with major companies. The only difference is they don’t exist in the physical world.

    Are virtual influencers a trend with staying power or more of a novelty for brands looking to cut through the noise of an increasingly crowded social media landscape? In this article, we’ll define virtual influencers and how they work, the major considerations brands should have before working with one and some of the most prominent virtual influencers on the scene today.

    What are virtual influencers?

    Virtual influencers are digital personalities that exist primarily on social media. They’re not real people but computer-generated characters created with advanced CGI, motion capture and AI technology.

    There are different types of virtual influencers, ranging from non-human characters to highly realistic human-like personas. They’re often developed and managed by creative agencies specializing in AI, robotics or marketing. However, some brands have even created their own virtual influencers, like Brazilian retailer Magalu’s Lu. These brand-specific characters function more like spokesmodels or mascots, as they rarely have a platform or following outside of the brand.

    How do virtual influencers work?

    Virtual influencers operate much like regular social media influencers. These online avatars interact with social media users like human influencers, sharing content, endorsing products and engaging with followers. They offer a unique and innovative way for brands to connect with their audience. But there’s a core difference: The interactions they have with real-life products or services and the engagement with followers are completely fabricated.

    A virtual influencer marketing example would be Barcelona-based virtual influencer Aitana’s recent partnership with hair salon Llongueras. Aitana shared pictures of her new hairstyle on her Instagram feed and even documented a fake trip to the salon in her Instagram Stories.

    The rise of virtual influencers: are they here to stay?

    The benefits of virtual influencers

    Influencer marketing and AI are two huge trends that are quickly taking over the marketing industry. In a Q3 2023 Sprout Pulse Survey of 307 US-based social marketers, 81% said influencer marketing is an essential part of their overall social media strategy. And, our Sprout Social Index found that 81% of marketers say AI has had a positive impact on their work. But what happens when you combine the two? Here are a few of the most significant benefits of partnering with virtual influencers.

    Control over content

    Brands who want to get across a certain message or have a specific point to make with an influencer partnership have a different level of control over content with virtual influencers. Having more control over what an influencer posts can be appealing to some brands with a very specific message to share.

    Adaptability

    Virtual influencers never age, can speak any language and can ‘travel’ to any place. This level of adaptability and flexibility means brands can potentially use one virtual influencer for campaigns in different regions instead of finding different influencers for various markets.

    Consistency

    Unlike human influencers whose brands might evolve as they age or enter different life phases, virtual influencers have a consistent appearance, personality and content. This stability means brands don’t have to worry about unexpected shifts and can rely on a virtual influencer to promote their offer in a predictable way.

    How virtual influencers impact brands

    Are virtual influencers the future of social media marketing? Well, it depends. A 2022 consumer research survey found that nearly half of people who follow social media personalities are interested in following a virtual influencer. However, many brands and agencies are cautiously pursuing virtual influencer partnerships, as the new technology poses some risks.

    Here are some key points brands need to think about as virtual influencers become more popular.

    Brand safety and reputation

    Virtual influencers may seem like a safer bet than real-life influencers, but they’re not completely immune to controversy. For example, influencer Caryn Marjorie made headlines for creating an AI version of herself that some people criticized for being demeaning to women and enabling anti-social behavior.

    Additionally, AI has a black box problem. Humans don’t fully understand how these systems work or make decisions, which poses a huge challenge for advertisers and agencies. Without that clarity, it’s hard for brands to trust these virtual influencers completely. So, while AI has a cool factor, marketers must be careful about diving in headfirst to avoid future PR disasters.

    Transparency and authenticity

    Most people already struggle to tell the difference between authentic and AI-generated images. A recent study found that participants could only do so 61% of the time. As technology advances and virtual influencers resemble humans even more, it’s imperative for brands to be transparent about how they use these tools.

    The FTC said virtual influencers should disclose brand sponsorships just like human influencers, and the ad agency Ogilvy is pushing for clearer rules about AI-generated content. Still, virtual influencer regulations and guidelines are a work in progress.

    Additionally, most brands work with influencers to tap into their authentic relationships with their audience. While there are still real people behind a virtual influencer, they can’t directly connect with their followers in the same way. They also can’t interact with products or give honest reviews like human influencers can, which can make their endorsements feel less genuine.

    Audience sentiment

    Virtual influencers can impact how people feel about brands—for better or worse. While AI tools have recently exploded in popularity and have dozens of benefits for marketers, the more human-like applications of the technology can sometimes produce an “uncanny valley” effect where people find them off-putting.

    Some of the most popular virtual influencers also have racially ambiguous features, which marketing experts interpret as a way for brands to appeal to a broader audience. However, this approach could also work against a brand, as it can be seen as a shortcut to appearing more inclusive than they actually are—an issue many beauty and fashion brands have been criticized for.

    The top virtual influencers making waves on social media

    The trend may be gaining momentum now, but virtual influencers have actually been around for quite some time, quietly revolutionizing the world of influencer marketing and building massive social media followings. From fashion icons to animated characters, here are the top virtual influencers to follow.

    Lil Miquela

    According to her Instagram bio, Miquela (@lilmiquela on Instagram) is a “19-year-old robot living in LA.” A pioneer in the virtual influencer space with 2.6 million Instagram followers and 3.5 million TikTok followers, she was launched in 2016 and is now managed by creative agency Brud. She’s partnered with brands like Prada, Pacsun and Calvin Klein and even earned a spot on TIME magazine’s list of the ‘25 most influential people on the internet.’

    An Instagram brand partnership between Lil Miquela and Pacsun

     

    Imma

    Imma (@imma.gram on Instagram) is a virtual girl in Tokyo with over 390,000 Instagram followers. The brainchild of Aww Inc., she’s known for her iconic bubblegum pink bob and killer sense of style. She is also curious and often questions her identity, using the hashtag #ithinkimcgi. Recently, Coach launched a campaign featuring Imma alongside celebs like Lil Nas X and Camila Mendes, where she visits each ambassador in their virtual worlds.

    An Instagram brand partnership between virtual influencer Imma and Coach

    Janky

    Janky (@Janky on Instagram) is a mischievous cat-like character with 1 million Instagram followers and 11.9 million followers on a shared TikTok account with fellow virtual influencer Guggimon. They were created by Superplastic, a company known for its animated synthetic celebrities and designer toys. As a virtual influencer, Janky has collaborated with brands like 7-Eleven, Fortnite and Gucci.

    Janky's Instagram profile and one of his collaborations with the other virtual influencer Guggimon

    What’s next for virtual influencer marketing

    Virtual influencers bring a fresh and attention-grabbing twist to marketing campaigns. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about this technology.

    Our advice? Vet a virtual influencer just like you would any other influencer, and weigh the risks and benefits for your brand. Pressure test the idea against your audience’s expectations and your brand’s core values. Would your audience find value or entertainment in a virtual influencer partnership, or do they prefer real creator collaborations? Make sure the influencer is ultimately the right fit for your brand.

    If you do choose to move forward with a campaign, transparency is key. Use hashtags like #PoweredByAI to let people know it’s a virtual influencer campaign, and closely monitor any interactions between the influencer and your audience.

    Ready to start planning your next virtual influencer marketing campaign? Check out our influencer marketing budget template to optimize your spending and ensure you allocate your marketing dollars to the right partnerships.

    The post The rise of virtual influencers: are they here to stay? appeared first on Sprout Social.

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