The Rise of Virtual Influencers in Brand Marketing

By GMO Research

With the rise of digitalisation, we continue to see unique marketing methods emerge – one being virtual influencer marketing. Influencer marketing has been around for decades, but it has gained quite a bit of traction over the past few years. Depending on the social status and power of the influencer, they can set trends and affect people’s decision-making capabilities.

Virtual influencers are digital characters created using computer graphic software, and they are assigned personas to act as influencers on social media platforms. Typically, virtual influencers have a large social media following and they are ‘hired’ by brands and companies to promote their products and services. With the help of computer-generated imagery, these virtual influencers are made to look a lot like humans, and they can interact with their followers in a similar way to humans, with their own distinct personalities and styles. Sometimes called ‘AI idols’, virtual influencers enable brands to interact with their audience more dynamically and cost-effectively and, at the same time, to reach a wider audience.

As mentioned above, virtual influencers can be cost-effective for brands as they can create content much faster than their human counterparts. There are also no additional expenses – such as salaries or travel expenses – that people would incur. The audience reach is similar when compared to real-life influencers, and virtual influencers can be used for specific target audiences, which enables brands to customise their campaigns accordingly.

According to a survey conducted by the Influencer Marketing Factory, 58% of respondents said they follow at least one virtual influencer account, while 35% said they had purchased a product or service promoted by a virtual influencer. Even though the survey consisted of American respondents who were 18 years or older, the numbers show how vital this industry is set to become, especially for Gen Z. It is estimated that the global influencer marketing market value in 2022 was US$16.4 billion.

In recent years, virtual influencers have gained significant popularity in Asia. Many companies in Asia have used this form of digital marketing to target younger audiences. For instance, Ling, a virtual social media influencer, boasts a following of over 150,000 on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and has secured advertising collaborations with notable brands such as Tesla, despite her fictional nature. Ling was created by Xmov Information Technology, a company that specialises in developing virtual assistants.

Another famous virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, has a following of over 2.9 million on Instagram and is often used to promote various products and collaborate with virtual and real-life celebrities. She has also worked with major brands such as Prada and Samsung. Brud, a Los Angeles-based tech start-up, created Lil Miquela. Her creators have given her a backstory and a personal history to make her more relatable to her audience, which increases her effectiveness as an influencer.

Judging by these examples, the future of virtual influencers for brands in Asia is expected to be bright as social media and emerging technology use continue to grow in the region. Virtual influencers are already popular in technologically advanced markets like Japan, South Korea, and China, and some companies have started to make virtual influencers their brand ambassadors. It is likely that virtual influencers will go mainstream and become one of the new forms of digital marketing as brands and businesses continue to turn towards them.

With rapid developments in the world of virtual and augmented reality, the appeal of virtual influencers will continue to rise. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digitalisation, which includes virtual events, digital marketing, and e-commerce, all contributing to the increase in demand for virtual influencers.

This article was first published in the Q1 2023 edition of Asia Research Media

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