Influencer marketing has surged in recent years, growing from a $1.7 billion industry in 2016 to $16.4 billion in 2022. The soaring popularity of short-form video on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram has been a key driver in this shift, as has the wider increase in consumers’ social media consumption since the global pandemic. Despite being a relatively new marketing tool, influencer marketing is evolving quickly due to rapidly shifting social media trends, increased appetite for social commerce, and the development of AI technology.
A new age of influencer
The ever-changing digital landscape has created room for a new kind of influencer – the virtual influencer – which are computer-generated or animated digital characters who are free of the physical limitations which affect their real-world counterparts.
The recent technological development and explosion of interest in AI are creating an opportunity for brands looking to keep up with rapidly shifting social media trends, target Gen Z, and expand into the metaverse to integrate these digital partners into their marketing strategies for the first time.
However, partnering with virtual influencers presents brands with challenges they may not have encountered before because the technology used to create these influencers is still evolving. While these characters are becoming increasingly customisable and realistic, they will develop even further as more technological resources become available. Brands should ensure that their team has the necessary bandwidth and resources to manage the development of their virtual influencer as the technological tools available to them become increasingly sophisticated.
Brands should remember that virtual influencers are still created by a team of humans. For an influencer marketing strategy to reach and resonate with a brand’s target audience, the messaging shared by the influencer on social media must be in close alignment with the values of the brand. As with real-life influencers, it’s important that brands work closely with them to develop and maintain an authentic connection between the virtual influencer and the brand.
Despite potential challenges, virtual influencers have numerous exciting attributes which can take a marketing strategy to new heights, especially for brands looking to reach Gen Z audiences and expand onto new marketing platforms. As a publishing studio with our own virtual influencer, Polar, we’ve analysed our learnings to help others unlock the value these characters can add to their marketing strategy in 2023. Below are some of the key benefits a virtual influencer can bring to your brand this year.
Faster content creation processes
In today’s always-on digital world, trends come and go in the space of a few days. Partnering with virtual influencers offers brands a better opportunity to tap into these trends because the content production process is entirely digital, and thus much faster than working with a real human. Quality content can be produced without the need for travel, schedule alignment, and set-up time.
The virtual influencer content creation process is also attractive to brands looking to reduce costs and improve their carbon footprint. By removing the need to provide physical products for influencers, brands can cut down on waste and shipping, while the lack of in-person photoshoots avoids travel, accommodation, photography, and studio fees.
Increased influencer longevity
The pandemic triggered a growing need for connection across society. This has had a profound effect on the way we use social media. Increasingly, consumers are looking for authenticity in their online interactions, and this has impacted influencer marketing. Partnering with an influencer for an isolated campaign is more likely to arouse suspicion from consumers, who are averse to inauthentic product promotion. This year, brands should develop longer-term influencer partnerships, to demonstrate a genuine affinity between the influencer and the product.
This is where the timelessness of virtual influencers is of real benefit to brands. Since they are digitally created, virtual influencers do not have to age. A brand that is targeting a particular target audience, such as Gen Z, can continue to partner with the same virtual influencer to market its products for many years, reaching multiple cohorts of its target audience without losing touch or relevance.
In the future, this means that multiple generations could be inspired by the same virtual influencer, creating opportunities for an incredibly deep and intergenerational association between influencers and brands.
Reach Gen Z audiences
For brands trying to reach Gen Z, virtual influencers can be an especially useful marketing tool. As the most tech-savvy age group, Gen Z makes up more than half of those who follow virtual influencers on Instagram.
It’s important to note that Gen Z is also the age group who see the most authenticity from such influencers.. This poses a possible challenge for the staying power of virtual influencers amongst Gen Z, since virtual influencers are not actually human and thus do not have any lived experiences to which followers can relate.
Though an initial hurdle, this should not be viewed as a barrier to entry for brands trying to reach Gen Z. Virtual influencers are still created by humans and can be brought to life through rich backstories,a consistent narrative, and a unique tone of voice, all created by regularly posting behind the scenes content, sharing personal experiences, and discussing daily routines.
To ensure their character engages their target audience, agencies and brands should involve people from similar backgrounds and demographics throughout the character creation process. With Polar, our team focuses on creating storylines that will resonate with Gen Z audiences, who comprise the majority of her fan base. Polar uses her platform to discuss relationships, fashion, and pop culture because these are topics that her audience can relate to, and talk about in their real-world friendships. As such, Polar can become an extension of their friendships, providing support and relatability as her audience navigate adolescence.
Virtual influencers tailored to your brand
Unlike human influencers, virtual influencers can be created from a blank slate, meaning they are untainted by bias, experience, or a particular worldview. As such, brands can design their influencer to perfectly fit their brand messaging in many more ways than would be possible with a human.
Brands can have greater control over the content created by a virtual influencer, and there’s far less risk of scandal tainting a brand’s reputation – so long as you trust the voices behind them! As long as the relationship between the brand and the influencer’s creative team remains healthy, these virtual influencers can be relied on to consistently represent the brand’s identity and values in front of the target audience.
Expand across new platforms and into the metaverse
Virtual influencers have the unique ability to seamlessly move across platforms, which is especially important given that the metaverse is developing rapidly, with a growing number of brands hosting events in the space. Also, consumers are curious about the metaverse and are using it to socialise, shop, and engage with branded events.
It is within the metaverse that virtual influencers really come into their own. Unlike on social media, where fans can simply like or comment on posts, in the metaverse they can enter a virtual influencer’s native world, interacting with them on an equal level by creating their own avatars. The deepened connection between fans and influencers within the metaverse has financial benefits for brands, as users can spend money on digital products for their avatars, as well as purchase physical goods via the platform.
Our own virtual influencer, Polar, drew in more than 2.2 million visitors when she headlined The 2022 Solar Sounds Festival on the mobile metaverse platform, Avakin Life. The increased immersion and connection between Polar and her fans throughout the festival helped to grow her following outside of the metaverse and foster community among her fans.
There’s still so much scope for further refinement of metaverse graphics and platforms, and we will see this happen rapidly throughout 2023 and beyond. Brands that lead the charge by experimenting with the space early on will ready themselves to reap the benefits of a virtual influencer partnership in the metaverse as it develops and becomes mainstream.
Looking to the future
Virtual influencers will become central to digital and metaverse marketing strategies as we move through 2023 and beyond. This does not signal the end of real-life influencers, who still have great value to offer in terms of reporting on the physical quality of items, attending real-world events, and connecting with consumers who choose not to engage with new technologies and platforms.
Overall, the best marketing strategy will leverage the power of virtual and real-world influencers in tandem, to diversify their content across platforms and reach different segments of their target audience.
Patrik Wilkens is vice president of operations at digital studio TheSoul Publishing