Home Metaverse 6 Reasons why virtual influencers will be essential for social media and metaverse strategiesVirtual influencers outperform their traditional counterparts on these six brand benefits

6 Reasons why virtual influencers will be essential for social media and metaverse strategiesVirtual influencers outperform their traditional counterparts on these six brand benefits

by admin

Virtual influencers are one of the newest and weirdest trends of influencer marketing. And I believe they will soon be critical for brands’ digital, social media, and metaverse strategies.

A vast spectrum of brands — from high-fashion (e.g., Prada, Gucci) to high-tech (e.g., Samsung) and from boutique labels (e.g., Left Hand LA, Off White) to household names (e.g., Nike, Crocks, Takis chips, In-N-Out Burger) — have already worked with computer-generated virtual influencers who do not exist in real life. With impressive results: Engagement rates of virtual influencers are up to 3.5 times higher than those of traditional influencers.

Virtual influencers also super-charge other influencer marketing trends such as long-term partnerships (because they don’t age) and specialization into niche markets (because they can be anything, including non-human characters). On a more macro level, virtual influencers have created their own NFTs and have already entered a proto-metaverse called Fortnite.

Something big is clearly happening here. Yet, few marketers have heard about virtual influencers, let alone have integrated virtual influencers into their brand engagement strategies.

My goal for this two-part series is to offer a primer on virtual influencers and their potential for marketing strategy. I discuss why virtual influencers will soon be essential components of the marketing mix, how brand managers can best deploy virtual influencers today, and what technological developments will further increase the potential of virtual influencers in the near future.

virtual influencers offer six superior benefits to brands

The first part (this article) introduces virtual influencers and traces what recent technological developments have created the foundations for them to take off in 2022 and beyond. More important than technological feasibility, however, is what value virtual influencers provide to brands and consumers.

My key point in this article is that virtual influencers offer superior benefits to brands on the following six dimension. Virtual influencers…

  • outperform real-world influencers in terms of engagement rates,
  • offer cost saving opportunities in content creation and administration,
  • excel at reaching younger consumer audiences,
  • can offer unique product/brand-influencer fit,
  • limit risk exposure through expanding brands’ control, and
  • can be readily incorporated into brands’ metaverse strategies.

The second part of this series will flip perspective and discuss what value consumers receive from following virtual influencers. Drawing on my recent ethnographic research on how consumers consume social media influence and the Influencer Marketing Dartboard, I identify 10 best practices for creating and deploying virtual influencers today and in the near future.

Virtual influencers come in many different shapes. Image credit: Dr. Joachim Scholz

How to approach this article

These insights are based on my in-depth explorations of the virtual influencer phenomenon and my unique academic background.

I am the world’s first AR/XR Marketing Professor. I hold a PhD in Marketing, an MSc in Business Science, and another MSc in Consumer Psychology. I have researched and taught about digital marketing and consumer cultures since 2011. I started researching and teaching about AR in 2014, and I launched the world’s first dedicated AR Marketing courses for undergraduate business and MBA students at Brock University in 2020. I have published the first-ever conceptual article on AR Marketing and have conducted and published ethnographic research on how consumers utilize augmented reality as well as social media influencers. I am reasonably well plugged in to the AR/XR/metaverse community (industry and academia) and frequently share my analyses via industry publications (e.g., AdweekBetterMarketing), on LinkedIn, at conferences and industry events, and of course here on XR Marketing.

I hope that knowing my background will build confidence in my analysis and will motivate you reading this rather long article. My research, teaching, and speaking explore the intersection of marketing strategy, consumer insights, social media influencer research, as well as AR/XR/metaverse research and marketing practice. Virtual influencers combine these four areas into something new, weird, and profound. This is what got me excited to explore this space in the first place, and I believe I have the right mix of subject matter expertise and analytical/methodological skills to unpack the complexities of the virtual influencer phenomenon.

This article is written for a general audience and does not require any prior knowledge of virtual influencers or marketing strategy. Novices who have never heard about virtual influencers can just keep reading. Insiders who already know what virtual influencers are can skip the first two sections but will find value in my discussion of recent technological developments (‘Goodbye uncanny valley, hello lifelike expressions’) and, especially, the detailed and wide-ranging ‘Six benefits of virtual influencers’ discussion that follows.

Thank you for reading. Please share this article if you find it informative, and feel free to reach out to me if you have additional insights or questions about virtual influencers.

What are virtual influencers?

Virtual influencers are social media personalities that live their best life, promote brands, and push products just like any typical social media influencer. However, unlike the influencers we all know and love (or hate), virtual influencers do not exist in the real world. They are not made out of flesh, bones, and exceptionally flawless skin, but out of code.

Consider Lil Miquela, an influencer with over 3.1 Million followers on Instagram. Lil Miquela is a 19 years old musician, change-seeker, and style visionary. She lives in Los Angeles, feels strongly that #blacklivesmatter, and really wants you to vote.

What are virtual influencers?

Virtual influencers are social media personalities that live their best life, promote brands, and push products just like any typical social media influencer. However, unlike the influencers we all know and love (or hate), virtual influencers do not exist in the real world. They are not made out of flesh, bones, and exceptionally flawless skin, but out of code.

Consider Lil Miquela, an influencer with over 3.1 Million followers on Instagram. Lil Miquela is a 19 years old musician, change-seeker, and style visionary. She lives in Los Angeles, feels strongly that #blacklivesmatter, and really wants you to vote.

The rise of virtual influencers

Despite being literally “Forever 19”, or maybe because of it, Lil Miquela has become an extraordinary successful influencer. She has partnered with brands like Prada, Balenciaga, Nike, Calvin Klein, Samsung and Mini, and in 2018 she was listed in Time’s ’Most Influential People on the Internet’. She (her team) is estimated to earn over 12 Million USD per year through her brand endorsements.

Image Credit: Virtual Humans

Lil Miquela is not the only virtual influencer. Shudu (Instagram page) is a digital supermodel and fashion queen in her mid-to-late 20s hailing from South Africa, and Noonoouri is a cartoony, 19-year-old fashionista from Munich, Germany. And many more virtual influencer stars are born (built?) every week: Japan had around 200 virtual influencers in 2018. Catherine Henry, who heads the metaverse innovation strategy at Media Monks, estimates that there are over 9,000 today.

virtual influencers can look like real humans but can also appear as aliens or fantasy creatures

Virtual influencers are a diverse group (see this roster for a mind-boggling selection). They come from different countries, ethnicities, and ages; although I haven’t seen virtual influencers from the Baby Boomer or Silent Generation (born 1945 and before), yet. Some of them are photo-realistic humans, while others like Noonoouri take more cartoonish forms. Some virtual influencers are digital twins of real human influencers. Burberry, for example, has created virtual versions of Kendall Jenner and Naomi Campbell to streamline their content production process. On the other end of the spectrum, there are several fantasy creatures like the alien Blu. One of my personal favorites is B, a virtual bee with around 275,000 followers on Instagram.

Image credit: Blu

Virtual influencers can be free agents who work with multiple brands, or they can be created by a brand for its own exclusive use. Daisy is a virtual influencer who was created by online store YOOX and who only portrays fashion items that her fans can buy via the retailer’s online store. She doesn’t even have her own social media account but frequently appears on YOOX’s webpage and social media channels. Another virtual in-house model is Candy who was created by Prada in late 2021 as part of their aptly named Rethink Reality campaign.

Video credit: Prada

So far, Candy’s presence has been limited to the short-lived campaign, as she neither has her own social media presence nor has she appeared on Prada’s Instagram account since November 24, 2021. There are some rumors that Candy is just traditional VFX that used a real-world actor as a base, rather than a fully-reusable 3D model that can be used for fully digital content creation. Again, this points to the variety of the virtual influencer phenomenon: Some companies might opportunistically cash in on the current hype, while others (e.g., YOOX) will take a more long-term approach and create real backstories for fully virtual humans.

virtual influencers can be independent and work with multiple brands, or they can be created by a single brand for exclusive use

As you can see, virtual influencers are a quickly evolving and complex phenomenon. Catherine Henry at Media Monks has put together an excellent slideshow on the emergent phenomenon on virtual influencers:

Video credit: Catherine Henry / Media Monk

Goodbye uncanny valley, hello lifelike expressions

One thing that seems pretty certain is that virtual influencers are here to stay. In particular, I expect the industry to move even more towards human characters, rather than cartoonish or fantasy characters, as technology marches on and leaves the uncanny valley behind.

When virtual influencers first came up in 2016 to 2018, it was easy to dismiss the phenomenon. Back then, virtual humans just didn’t look too lifelike, and they had trouble moving around. Virtual influencer Brenn (pictured below) made waves in 2018 because of her more realistic body proportions, but her facial expression — even on still images — gave her an uncanny look.

Image credit: Brenn

However, our capabilities to create lifelike virtual humans have come a long way over the last few years, which will further fuel the rise of virtual influencers. Already today, when looking at images, consumers have troubles identifying whether an influencer or model they see is of flesh and bones, or pure code. A study (N=534) conducted by Fullscreen back in 2019 found that 42% of the surveyed Gen Z and Gen Y consumers had followed a virtual influencer without knowing it wasn’t a real person!

And video isn’t far behind. Armando Kirwin, a pioneer and expert in the creation of virtual humans, believes that videos of virtual influencers will become undistinguishable from videos of real people by 2025.

virtual influencers will become undistinguishable from videos of real people by 2025

How is this all possible?

Artificial intelligence-powered generative adversarial networks can create artificial human faces that are incredibly hard to distinguish from real humans. These can be used for deep fakes, which replace a real person’s image, voice, or both with similar artificial likenesses or voices. For this type of deep fake to work you still need source material of a real person.

However, a real human is not even necessary any longer thanks to recent advancements in virtual humans technology. Epic Games’ MetaHuman Creatorlets you create realistic human characters in minutes (rather than months) via drag and drop. The results are stunning: Epic’s MetaHumans look just like real people, as you can see below and in this video.

Image credit: Epic Games. These are MetaHumans who have not been launched as virtual influencers

Video is of course the holy grail in influencer marketing, and with this come new challenges. Not only do virtual humans have to look lifelike, they also have to convey emotionally laden facial expression. In other words: It’s not enough to look human. Virtual influencers have to portray human expressions in order to fully escape the uncanny valley.

Ziva Dynamics seems to have all-but-cracked this problem with its machine-learning-trained facial rigging system called ZRT Face Trainer. Starting from an existing face mesh, the system can transform realistic facial expressions onto any virtual puppet. As I understand it, you can create a virtual puppet via Epic’s MetaHumans or some other tool, and one hour later, thanks to Ziva’s ZRT Face Trainer, your virtual human can perform over 72,000 facial shapes. All without engaging in time-consuming motion capturing.

The results are impressive, as you can see below.

Image credit: Ziva Dynamics

Oh and by the way: virtual humans can speak! Check out these videos by Ziva Dynamics and Epic Games.

One last hurdle: Influencer marketing benefits from showing products embedded in lifestyle images and video. Rendering 3D visualizations of solid objects has been standard practice for years. However, rendering soft goods such as clothing has proven to be a much greater challenge. Not any longer, as you can see in the clip below. The virtual dress flows naturally, even when manipulated. The recent virtual fashion boom is also directly benefiting from how far we’ve come in creating digital textures and replicating real-world physics.

Image credit: Meta

Altogether, the last four years have transformed virtual influencers from a novelty or gimmick to a powerful and quickly maturing marketing channel. As these technological foundations become available throughout 2022 and beyond, they will fuel adoption by brands that search for new ways to engage and connect with their audiences.

Technological break-throughs alone, of course, do not make a compelling marketing strategy. Lifelike looking and behaving virtual influencers are the foundation for brands to consider their use, but whether virtual influencers should be integrated into marketing strategies must be based on an analysis of what benefit they unlock for brands.

Six benefits of virtual influencersAs crazy as it might sound, virtual influencers offer many benefits over traditional social media influencers. After extensively researching the phenomenon, I identify six unique benefits: Virtual influencers…outperform real-world influencers in terms of engagement rates,offer cost saving opportunities in content creation and administration,excel at reaching younger consumer audiences,can offer unique product/brand-influencer fit,limit risk exposure through expanding brands’ control, andcan be readily incorporated into brands’ metaverse strategies.Each of these benefits on its own should be enough to convince brands to start experimenting with virtual influencers. Together, these six benefits make a slam-dunk case for why virtual influencers will soon become a key element of brands’ digital, social media, and metaverse marketing strategies.Let’s dive into each of these six benefits in detail.1. Higher engagementThis maybe comes as a surprise to you, but virtual influencers are actually more effective than their traditional counterparts. Based on a study by HypeAuditor from November 2020, virtual influencers have up to 3.5 times the engagement rate of real influencers. These numbers are in line with the previous year, suggesting that this is not a short-lived fad.

Image credit: HypeAuditor

Careful though: The numbers for macro-level audiences are somewhat misleading. HypeAuditor’s 2020 study is based on a relatively small sample of 88 virtual influencers, and only four of them had more than one million followers: Barbie and Lu of Magalu are connected to a singular brand or retailer and create much lower engagement rates (0.55% and 0.28%) than the two more lifestyle oriented virtual influencer, a cartoonish rabbit called Guggimon (1.39%) and lifelike looking human teenager Lil Miquela (2.05%).There are a lot of factors in this study that make comparisons to real macro-influencers rather difficult: The extremely small sample size, the differences in how active Barbie (1,494 posts), Lu of Magalu (1,481 post), Guggimon (71 posts), and Lil Maquela (873 posts) are, and whether these avatars are lifelike or portray non-human characters.If I had to venture a guess, I would say that virtual influencers can outperform macro-influencers at much larger margins than what the chart above suggests: Lil Maquela resembles a normal human the most, and she has over twice the engagement rate of real influencers with similar follower count. It’s only a single data point, but it speaks to the power of virtual influencer, even on the macro-influencer level.Side note: Don’t trust charts. The devil’s in the details.human-like virtual influencers can easily outperform traditional influencers in terms of engagement, even on the macro-levelA key question is whether these vanity metrics translate into financial benefits for brands. The answer is yes.The Fullscreen study from 2019 found that of those consumers who engaged with virtual influencers, 55% made a purchase, 55% attended a branded event, 53% followed a brand that was promoted by a virtual influencer, and 52% researched a sponsoring brand or product.2. Cost savingsAnother reason for why brands are interested in leveraging virtual influencers are cost reductions. Content production by virtual influencers is by its very nature an entirely digital process, which means that spectacular content can be produced much faster, without the need for travel or setting up photo shoots. A digital content production process also eliminates the need for brands to provide physical products to influencers and thus reduces costs, cuts down on waste, and speeds up content production timelines.Additional cost-saving potential comes from administering influencer campaigns. While real influencers and celebrities have busy schedules, virtual influencers or digital twins of real-world influencers and celebrities are available on demand.Virtual influencers also do not age, or at least they don’t have to. I call this the Bart Simpson effect: The Simpsons debuted in 1989 and are currently in their 33rd season. The show employs a floating timeline, which means that even though episodes take place in the year they are produced and depict major life events such as birthdays, the characters do not age. Thus, a father and son can identify with the same Bart Simpson when they watched the show as ten-year olds, thirty years apart.Within the context of influencer marketing, the Bart Simpson effect enables long-term collaborations between brands and virtual influencers. For example, a clothing brand targeting teenagers could work with the same virtual influencer for decades as it cycles through multiple cohorts of teenagers, without ever losing touch with their audience. This allows marketers to cut down on the administrative overhead necessary to identify and coordinate with new influencers.3. Reaching younger consumersTalking about teenagers: Virtual influencers are a great way to reach younger, more techy audiences. HypeAuditor’s study found that the audience of virtual influencers skews towards younger demographics: More than half of the audience (52%) are 24 years or younger. Almost 15% of the virtual influencer audience is between 13 and 17 years old, which is double the average of regular human influencers. Data from 2019 shows that the audience of virtual influencers also over-indexes for women aged 18–24 years, by a factor of 1.7X.

Image credit: HypeAuditor

Another side note: I would not read this data to infer that developing a virtual influencer for older demographics must be useless. True, only about 9% and 2% of the 35–44 and 45–54 demographics, respectively, follow virtual influencers. However, this is at least in part driven by the fact that no virtual influencer who could resonate with this older audience seems to exist. Maybe, the next virtual influencer could be a soccer-mom robot or a grey haired and bearded financial wizard?Regardless of what audience is targeted, agencies and brands that create virtual influencers must involve people with the right background and demographics during the character creation process. This is because unlike for traditional influencers who built their online persona through accentuating specific personality traits (see this research study for a deep dive), virtual influencers have no organic grounding to anyone’s actual life experiences. Looking into how authors create characters for novels and movie scripts, for example through creating rich backstories, can offer a good template for creating virtual characters.4. Increased fit between influencer and product/brandOne of the key tenets of influencer marketing is to select influencers who are a good fit for the brand or product. And because virtual influencers radically expand the scope of available characters, far beyond what traditional humans could be, they offer new opportunities to create influencer/brand fit.Tech companies can benefit from the futuristic allure of virtual influencers because it emphasizes the innovativeness of their products. Samsung, for example, collaborated with Shudu Gram, for its Galaxy Z Flip phone. The phone aims to fuse technology with beauty and art, which is ‘embodied’ by the virtual top model.

Image credit: Virtual Humans

Non-human virtual influencers present exciting opportunities for non-techy brands. A French non-profit organization to save the bees created B, a virtual influencer who is… you guess it! A bee.Like other influencers, B shares content about his lifestyle, daily routines, and travels. However, B also educates his followers on the disappearance of bees due to the use of pesticides and collects money for projects to save the bees.

Image credit: B

The influencer might be virtual, but the fact that bees disappear at an alarming rate is a very real crisis. Yet, it is difficult to convince consumers to care about these tiny insects. By anthropomorphizing a bee, consumers can experience a bee’s life through its own five eyes, become aware of the crisis, and take action.This is a highly effective strategy: It enabled the foundation to complete four bee conversation projects, supported by collaborations with brands like AirBnB, Galeries Lafayette, and of course, Burt’s Bees.virtual influencers offer excellent ROIsBrand partners get out-sized returns on their investment as well. B’s average engagement rate is 7.65%, which is more than five times the average for traditional influencers with comparable following size.A key reason for B’s success is that it has a clearly defined audience, in no small part thanks to its non-human form factor. We humans tend to not distinguish between individual members of a different species (not counting companion animals): Thus, if you follow one bee, you like all bees, and over time you will care about their well-bee-ing. (I’m so sorry!)As influencer marketing moves further into niche industries and influencers specialize on certain topics, (non-human) virtual influencers that cater to specific niches are likely to gain traction.5. More controlAnother key idea of influencer marketing is that it allows brands to become part of influencers’ engaging storylines, personalities, and emotionally invested communities. Working with virtual influencers has the same goal but adds extra layers of control for the brand.Traditional human influencers come with lives outside of their carefully crafted online personas, which can lead to scandals or at least misalignments with the message a brand wants to convey. Do you remember when Britney Spears was a spokesperson for Pepsi but was photographed drinking a Coke? Or when Ellen promoted Samsung phones via her infamous Oscar selfie, but tweeted from her iPhone backstage? Since virtual influencers do not have a life outside of the content they produce, such misalignment risks are reduced.virtual influencers have no offstage-life that could contradict or harm brand messagesCreating their own virtual influencers provides even more control for brands. Rather than worrying about when Paul Logan will create the next scandal, marketers can marshall their virtual influencers so that they exactly and consistently represent the brand’s identity, values, and target customers.Two caveats should be noted at this point: First, my research on social media firestorms shows that brands can, under specific circumstances, actually benefit from controversy. Through backing an influencer who has come under unfair fire by brand critics or, vice versa, dropping an influencer whose actions violate brand values (like Disney has done with PewDiePie after he posted videos containing anti-Semitic jokes and Nazi imagery), brands can stand for something and bring their own values into clearer relief.Of course, the same dynamics could be engineered with a virtual influencer; the point here is that fetishizing ‘control’ and ‘brand alignment’ can make managers overlook valuable branding opportunities.The second caveat is more closely related to the difference between virtual and traditional influencers. Virtual influencers are carefully managed by a team of creatives and content creators who, despite their best efforts, can make mistakes that cannot happen to real influencers. You can find one of these mistakes when comparing the photo below with the very first photo of Lil Miquela above (i.e., the bathroom photo). Look very carefully; it’s a small detail.

Image credit: Lil Miquela

You surely noticed that the tattoo on Lil Miquela’s left elbow is missing in the bathroom picture. It is a clear oversight, since the tattoo shows up on pictures before and after the bathroom scene. One of her fans wrote this angry comment: “your job is so easy. yet you forgot to add the tattoo to her forearm. quit”Continuity problems intensify when multiple puppeteers engage with consumers, especially when such engagement happens in real-time. Fans can become confused and frustrated when content creators/community managers mix up details, like the title of the influencer’s favorite song. While tastes can certainly change, the artificial nature of virtual influencers might make consumers hyper-sensitive to such inconsistencies because they fracture the shared fantasy that the virtual character is a real person.6. Metaverse readyThis is where things get really exciting. The metaverse term took off in 2021 amidst the rebranding of Facebook into Meta and several companies (e.g., Nike with Roblox) making their first moves into the metaverse.The metaverse, which internet pioneer Tony Parisi describes as an embodied internet, is a complex and emerging phenomenon that offers new spaces for branded experiences and making connections; both in virtual environments (VR-leaning metaverse) and overlaid onto the real world (AR-leaning metaverse). Its differentiating factor from earlier online communities and social media networks is that the metaverse happens in 3D and all around you: It immerses consumers into virtual spaces or embeds 3D branded content (i.e., objects and avatars) into consumers’ public and private spaces in real life.As consumers (and brands) venture into the metaverse, demand for virtual influencers will multiply because their artificial 3D nature allows them to easily populate and move between these new spaces. Virtual influencers are metaverse natives, so to speak.virtual influencers are ready for the metaverseGuggimon, who his creator describes as “a 7 foot tall rabbit with a personality problem and an axe fetish” and who has over 3 million fans on Instagram and TikTok, made history in June 2021 by being the first virtual influencer to appear in the Fortnite game (which is kind of a proto-metaverse). Players can interact with a Guggimon non-player character and can unlock a Guggimon skin to transform themselves into the rabid rabbit.These types of transmedia collaborations provide fans with more and, crucially, richer opportunities to interact with virtual influencers. Whereas consumers can merely like images and type comment on social media, in games like Fortnite they can interact with Guggimon in real time and bond with the character as they wear its skin. These deeper connections in turn benefit the company behind the virtual influencer, as a more ardent fanbase is more willing to spend real money on NFTs and physical goods associated with the influencers.

Guggimon in Fortnite. Image credit: Virtual HumansThe metaverse will also increase demand for digital twins of human influencers and celebrities, such as the virtual versions of Kendall Jenner and Naomi Campbell mentioned above. Influencers launching their own products and collaborating with established brands have been massive trends for years. In the metaverse, influencers can offer more immersive spaces for their fans to interact and commune, which can range from boutique stores to clubhouses.Such immersive spaces in which we can interact in embodied ways are inherently superior to the largely imagined communities and connections on social media. Research has consistently demonstrated that for brand communities to flourish, fans need a place to commune. The metaverse can be this place, and our desire for more immersive (rather than imagined) forms of sociality will accelerate the adoption of virtual humans by brands and consumers.

The metaverse will offer places where virtual influencers and fans can commune. Image credit: MetaConversely, consumers can leverage augmented reality (see this conceptual framework as a primer on AR) to place virtual influencers within their own physical environments. This comes back to my earlier points that (1) there’s an AR-leaning version of the metaverse and that (2) virtual influencers, because they are computer-generated 3D objects/beings, are metaverse natives.virtual influencers can inhabit the actual world via AREmbedding human performances into consumers’ spaces has been done for years: In 2019, Dance Reality launched an app to teach you how to dance by projecting volumetric video into your living room. In 2021, Liam Payne’s performance for the BAFTA was streamed live into consumers’ living rooms via The Round app.

Source: The Round (original video here)

None of these experiences have really taken off, and it’s not hard to see why. The graphics leave much to desire, and watching a hologram that is only a few inches tall whilst holding up one’s phone is neither astounding nor relaxing.However, virtual influencers offer a much better visual quality (see above). And because they do not rely on volumetric video of real people, virtual influencers’ performances can be easily adapted and they can even interact with consumers in real time (or at least they will be able soon, according to Devin Mancuso who explored virtual influencers as part of his work for Google’s AR-YouTube integration).Hardware innovations will slowly overcome the second hurdle as well, allowing consumers to view life sized holograms either through AR glasses (see this NFL example via Snap’s Spectacles) or via installed AR infrastructure such as PORTL, a device that creates human-sized holograms.Given this technology road map, I am pretty sure that consumers will eventually embrace seeing virtual influencers in their spaces, to great benefits of brands that work with them. My optimism is rooted in prior research: In my own research on how consumers use AR beauty apps, I found that AR can create very close and deep consumer/brand relationships because it invites the brand (or virtual influencer, in this case) into consumers’ homes and even their most intimate places (e.g., their bedroom).virtual influencers combined with AR might super-charge consumers’ emotional connections with brandsOther research found that consumers are more confident in a virtual assistant’s ability to perform a task when the assistant was given a body. This should further motivate companies to create virtual humans, maybe even several ones, to make consumers trust more into their chatbots and customer service AIs.

How can brands leverage virtual influencers?

This article has built a strong case for why virtual influencers will become central elements of digital, social media, and metaverse marketing strategies in 2022 and beyond. Technological developments will continue to make virtual influencers near-indistinguishable from traditional influencers, and brands can benefit from utilizing virtual influencers for the six reasons outlined above.

To be clear: I do not suggest that virtual influencers will replace all traditional social media influencers. Both types of influencers will exist side-by-side, and to some extent they will overlap (e.g., via digital twins). And while virtual influencers outperform their traditional counterparts on the six brand benefits I have outlined above, real-world influencers will provide excellent brand value on other dimensions: For example, only real humans with real bodies can authentically discuss and exalt products in terms of their material properties. Individuals who grew up in a particular cultural milieu and who have developed their own unique habitus and style can capture the imagination and passion of consumers with similar backgrounds better than any virtual influencer created by a committee of writers and designers ever could. Most companies will also keep working with human influencers to mitigate risks and reach audiences who don’t follow virtual influencers or are weirded out by them.

However, savvy brands will not ignore the opportunities provided by virtual influencers and will shift some of their influencer marketing budget over to virtual talent.

brands will shift some of their influencer marketing budget over to virtual talent

The ‘how’ is coming next

After answering the ‘why’, the next step is to think about the ‘how’: What are some best practices that brands and agencies should consider when working with or creating virtual influencers? What are the next technological developments that will make virtual influencers an even more powerful marketing channel?

This is what the second part of this two-part series is about. (coming soon)

In the second part, I leverage my ‘Influencer Marketing Dartboard’ framework (see the research article here) to discuss what value consumers receive from following virtual influencers. By better understanding how consumers utilize virtual influencers’ content in their everyday lives, brands and agencies can fine-tune their virtual influencer strategies.

The graphic below is a teaser on what’s to come in part 2.

How to leverage Virtual Influencers. Image credit: Dr. Joachim Scholz

The three grey shades in the center of the graphic outline six different ways in which consumers incorporate influencer content into their own consumption and identity projects. Even though this research is based on real-world influencers, it nevertheless provides insights into what value consumers receive from virtual influencers.

By tacking back and forth between the Influencer Marketing Dartboard and my deep dive into the virtual influencer phenomenon, I develop 10 best practices for creating and deploying virtual influencers today (green segments) and in the near future (blue segments). In addition, I point out the one thing that virtual influencers must avoid at all costs (red segment) in order to avoid backlash from consumers.

Subscribe to my channel and XR Marketing to be notified when the second part is online.

In the meantime, please share this article if you found it informative and think it will be helpful for others, and connect with me on LinkedIn to share any insights or questions you have about virtual influencer marketing.


Foto: Prada


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