The rise of virtual influencers: Will GenZ stop them in their tracks?
Welcome to the age of influence as a currency. Is it a new concept? No – but is it one we’ve become more aware of in the digital sphere? Well, since the rise of the reality star and the socialite culture of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, influence has become the core of modern commerce.
If you’ve ever spent a Saturday evening watching The American Meme on Netflix or used a popular influencer to market one of your products, you’ll know the power of the attention economy. Someone cool says it’s cool and suddenly you can sell slime to a generation of kids who didn’t even know they wanted a tactile experience. Someone smart says it’s smart, and pseudo intellectuals and the real deals alike are clambering to get at it.
It doesn’t matter what it is, with the right influencer strategy, there’s a way to punt it more effectively, and ethically – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Influence is all around us
So, are we sure that influence is power and power is influence? Let’s take a look at the facts to get a better understanding of the current state of things:
- Popular YouTuber, Joe Sugg (ThatcherJoe) was reportedly worth $2 million in 2018 and had over a million subscribers in just 2 years.
- Halfords enjoyed a 2.7% sales increase and over 2 million impressions, the first time they ever tried an influencer campaign. You can read more about that in their Influencer case study.
- The Make a Wish Foundation in the Netherlands partnered with Dutch gaming vlogger, Yarasky, to host a live telethon. They ended up raising over 10 000 euros for the foundation.
But influence extends far beyond the big, notable campaigns that we read about in case studies or recognise from the internet. It’s a subtle play in every part of global culture and decision making. It lives in peer pressure, word of mouth, marketing, advertising, sponsorships, and celebrity culture. It’s born in schoolyards, workplaces and on sports fields. It’s a powerful part of human dynamics, and so it makes sense that how we influence would evolve over time – as everything does.
But that being said, it also comes with its challenges.
The Influencer Nightmare
We all know about the erratic nature of celebrities and influencers micro-influencers are no different. Yes, some of them are perfectly well behaved angels who treat their work professionally, rock up on time and get things done. But realistically, we have very little control over whatever scandal could plague them next or whether or not they are willing to meet some requirements etc. It’s a very delicate balance. So, the idea of a virtual influencer seems like somewhat of a dream, right? Well, we’ll get into that in a moment. Firstly let’s look at the what.
Enter, the virtual influencer
Imagine a digital model, who’s considered cool, hot and on-trend and can be styled in any way imaginable. She has over 1 million followers on Instagram and uses Fenty lipstick to perfectly compliment her glowing complexion. Is she the perfect canvas for a brand? Can she help cosmetics companies garner attention without the downfalls of working with real-life influencers? Yes, she can, and her name is Shudu Gram.
Shudu is just one of the growing list of virtual influencers making her mark in the social space. She’s not sentient, she doesn’t have a heartbeat – but she is aesthetically pleasing, completely malleable and capable of turning heads.
Similarly, Miquela Sousa or “Lil Miquela” as she’s popularly known, has 1.5 million Instagram followers. She’s positioned as more of a real-life girl and serves as a good example to marketers of how everything can be planned before execution. There’s a lot of secrecy about who invented her, which means it was likely a company or someone with a corporate interest – but this is just speculation.
Either way, these are the new group of influencers that you will come to loathe or love if you’re someone who regularly finds themselves online.
So, the kids are going to love this – right?
After all, anything cool and digital is appealing to the younger generations, if we look at how quickly and widely they adopt technologies in comparison to their parents. But if we look at the data, there is some information that contradicts this theory.
We know that GenZ values authenticity – almost to a fault. They’re all about experiencing the real and being yourself. A number of marketers have come out and spoken up against viewing virtual influence marketing as a long-term strategy like Carousel or Business2Consumer.
They argue that:
- >Reach is different to influence and influence is harder to get if you’re not real.
Followers are often fake. In fact, according to Carousel, Lil Miquela only has a real follower contingent of 60%, making the other 40% completely redundant in real-world terms.
- Creating virtual influencers is an expensive pastime and might not warrant the level of return you’ll get from the exercise.
Each of these points is completely valid but, wait, there’s another spanner in the works.
The irony of authenticity in virtual influencers
What if, you could create a virtual influencer that seems as or more authentic than the standard person you’d see on the street? The freedom of the virtual world allows artists and programmers to create characters that can look and act any way “they please”.
Galaxia, Miquela, Shudu, Blawko, Avalon, Brenn, Donnie Red, Pearl.
Artists are taking a liberal approach to the aesthetics of their creations – showing a wide range of physical attributes. And, while they are all beautiful in some way, they all have a sense of uniqueness. Could this be enough to sate GenZ’s desires to see a less conformist and more diverse society?
The future of virtual influencers is what we make of it
We can speculate all we want to but the initial data shows some sign of potential. GenZ are accepting virtual influencers as both characters in a greater narrative, and as “real-world” influencers. The real question from a business perspective, is: Do the benefits of tapping into this market promise significant enough returns for the effort? For larger companies, the answer might be yes – even in the long-term. But for most brands, the benefits currently don’t outweigh the costs and experimentation aspect.