Humphrey Ho
Apr 20, 2022

Deconstructing the virtual influencer

Contrary to what you may think, virtual influencers are maintained and operated the same way traditional influencers are. But there are a few additional benefits, argues Hylink’s Humphrey Ho.

Southeast Asian virtual influencer Maya who was created to market Puma's Future Rider shoes.
Southeast Asian virtual influencer Maya who was created to market Puma's Future Rider shoes.

Whether you like it or not, influencers run the world. Personal training? Product recommendations? Fashion advice? Look no further than the host of influencers that have become consumers’ be-all and end-all source for anything and everything. They may not be qualified—but does anybody really seem to care? The global influencer marketing industry is expected to grow to approximately US$24.1 billion by 2025 and, evidently, this new wave of social marketing is showing no signs of slowing. With all this power comes opportunity. Enter the virtual influencer, a digital persona that encompasses everything that the traditional influencer is, minus the inevitable scandal and burnout. In other words, a way for brands to have their cake and eat it too.

Managing the virtual influencer from an organisational standpoint

Are cartoons really going to take over the advertising world? In short, no. This is because behind the virtual influencer’s attractive appearance, clever remarks, and winning personality stands an entire team of skilled professionals. The virtual influencer may be a futuristic being, but, like today's music, it requires old-school techniques to render and manage.

Already there are over 150 virtual influencers in existence, with this figure expected to increase as influencer marketing spending for 2022 grows to a forecasted US$15 billion. From an organisational standpoint, the formula is simple and no different from managing a celebrity or politician: production + social media management = virtual influencer.

Virtual influencers should continuously be seen as a production effort, requiring a skilled team of CGI designers, 3D animators, storyboarding artists, copywriters, production and set designers, clothing and wardrobe producers, music producers, photographers, videographers, and—as with every influencer or model in this day and age—a healthy dose of Photoshop. See? Virtual influencers are human too.

Social media management for virtual influencers would be no different than any other branded initiatives, with tasks such as brainstorming relevant topics and social handles, and community management from a quick-strike standpoint on anything that is newsworthy or triggers the personality of the virtual influencer remaining at the forefront of management. In other words, the management of a virtual influencer follows the same classic approach of the traditional influencer.

Many may be wondering—then what’s the point? Besides avoiding scandal and controversy, the virtual influencer behaves on an as-needed basis, unlike a physical influencer which has to produce content almost daily. Rather than sharing every meal they eat in a day, the virtual influencer focuses on content that aligns with their point of view and therefore requires a much lower level of storyboarding, copywriting, and content creation compared to traditional influencers. 

The golden ratio for virtual influencers

Is it a bird, a plane, superman? Close. While it isn’t superman, the virtual influencer is the modern-day superhero for any brand. When we deconstruct the virtual influencer, the concept of its creation becomes far simpler. From the development side, something that will be integral for every brand’s virtual influencer is the creation of a personality. Just as every real-life influencer follows somewhat of an act and establishes a distinct personality through their content and aura, this needs to be accomplished with the virtual influencer.

The million-dollar question is, how can brands skip the trial-and-error period and perfect the virtual influencer from the get-go? Contrary to popular belief, the success of a virtual influencer does not rely on the way it is rendered. The core feature that will define a good or bad virtual influencer is its own definition of self. Who are you? What do you represent? What are your beliefs? Without a well-defined personality and character, the virtual influencers’ appearance—whether it is cartoonish, virtual, or hyper-real—becomes irrelevant.

The second feature of the so-called ‘golden ratio’ for virtual influencers is self-awareness. Like any physical celebrity, virtual influencers can become too fake. For this reason, many are failing. The hyper-real, virtual beings with avant-garde hair and makeup and bizarre behaviours may be capable of garnering gossip, but they have failed to capture an influencer audience that would want to engage with the virtual influencer in a meaningful way. Virtual influencers should be looked at as a long-term investment rather than a trendy fad to succeed. 

Like us, virtual influencers need to constantly level up

We live in the age of technology—while the 20th century had the moon landing, the 21st century has the metaverse. It goes without saying that as technology upgrades, virtual influencers can be upgraded as well. From photo and video quality to producing 3D videos which are currently very expensive for virtual influencers, technological advancements will really only affect the aesthetic appearance of your virtual influencer and their content.

If your virtual influencer is focused on being hyper-real or uber-futuristic, then only time and technology will offer you the ability to heighten this experience. A word of advice? Don’t put all of your eggs in one virtual basket—that is, don’t base the success of your virtual influencer solely on appearance because technology doesn’t evolve as fast as consumer sentiment does. Virtual influencers need to be consistently upgraded to uphold their personalities and worldviews. This is the key to remaining relevant and realistic. Take US virtual influencer Lil Miquela, whose global success and massive Instagram following (3.1 million) is credited to her transformative and ever-changing story and personality.

For brands, rendering a virtual influencer is an opportunity to graduate from the traditional influencer while continuing to wield their global influence. Just like the mobile phone in the 90s, the virtual influencer appears daunting and futuristic. The reality? Just like for any human being, authenticity remains at the core of their success. 

Humphrey Ho is managing director of Hylink USA.

Campaign Asia

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