Move aside, digital celebrities; virtual influencers are here to take your place!
As social media evolves, it’s not that hard to imagine that people can make a pretty penny from working as influencers online. The global value of influencer marketing has been estimated to be US$9.7 billion in 2021. Today, this field is not limited to “real” people (yes, you read that right!). Over the past few years, virtual influencers have been making waves on social media as well.
Some of you might be familiar with Lil Miquela. When she amassed a million followers on Instagram in 2018, YouTube was flooded with videos of people reacting to her and websites were rushing to write articles about whether she was real or not. Since then, we have all found out that she’s a digital influencer created by an LA-based company called Brud.
Lil Miquela is not the only virtual influencer active today; many have cropped up and garnered a large fan following. To make the most of their fan following, startups and small businesses can hire them for advertising, either through sponsored posts or full-fledged ad campaigns. But before you do that, let’s take a closer look at how virtual influencers work, the benefits of hiring them for your startup and the controversies surrounding their use.
What are virtual influencers?
Virtual influencers are computer-generated characters that are used as a substitute for human influencers for social media marketing. While some closely resemble real people (like Lil Miquela and Bermuda), others are more cartoonish. Some of the popular cartoon-like influencers include Barbie (yes, THE Barbie) and Kizuna AI.
These influencers all have a fairly large fan following. The previously mentioned virtual influencer Lil Miquela is perhaps the most popular influencer of them all. She has 3.1 million followers on Instagram and has worked with big brands, like Prada and Calvin Klein, and makes around US$8,500 per post.
Benefits of working with virtual influencers
Seeing how much money a virtual influencer makes leaves one wondering why a brand would choose to work with them. There are two main benefits of doing so—image control and cost-effectiveness.
Brands need to carefully curate their image. If one of their partnered influencers says something problematic, it can reflect badly on the brand’s image. This becomes a non-issue with virtual influencers.
Brands partnering with virtual influencers can have complete control over what the virtual influencer says. Virtual influencers also don’t have personal histories that can stir up controversy or adversely affect a brand. Besides, brands can use virtual influencers to show their support for social movements. For instance, Lil Miquela supports the Black Lives Matter movement as mentioned in her Instagram bio. Thus, brands can show their support for the movement by working with her.
Cheaper and easier to work with
Let’s say a brand wants to have a photoshoot with one of their partnered influencers. To do so, not only do they have to call the influencers to the physical location of the shoot, but they also need to pay for their time as well as flight tickets and hotel accommodation (if the influencer is coming from somewhere far away). With a virtual influencer, you don’t need to worry about these aspects, making them cheaper to hire.
Since it’s not a real person, there is no need for hairstyling or makeup either, so the production costs are relatively low as well. Unlike real-life influencers, virtual influencers can be at multiple places at a time, and brands don’t have to plan things according to the influencer’s schedule.
While these might seem like great reasons to work with virtual influencers, they are not a completely foolproof alternative to real-life influencers. For instance, the Calvin Klein ad Lil Miquela was featured in was called out for “queer baiting” for showing Lil Miquela caressing model Bella Hadid’s face and kissing her. This clearly shows us that even virtual influencers can be embroiled in controversies.
One of the central arguments against virtual influencers is that they set unrealistic standards for beauty. To this, Lil Miquela (or her voice actress) says, “Can you name one person on Instagram who doesn’t edit their photos?” With editing apps becoming better and better, it has become harder to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. Brud, Lil Miquela’s company, perhaps quashes all criticism when they say that while they “may have made virtual humans real — but you have made them matter.”
Header image courtesy of Lil Miquela’s YouTube Channel