As interest in the metaverse grows, the rise of virtual influencers (VI) looks increasingly inevitable. From Thailand's Ai-Ailynn to Singapore's Rae and China's Ayayi, virtual influencers—computer generated characters that bear a close resemblance to humans—already boast legions of followers, are winning lucrative brand deals, and are hugely popular with netizens in the region.
In fact, Asia is expected to lead growth in the sector of virtual influencers owing to Gen Zs making up the largest internet group here. Already, there are over 150 virtual influencers in existence. According to IIMedia Research, of the 80% of Chinese netizens following celebrities online, over 60% follow virtual idols—with over half spending at least 500 RMB (US$75) a month on related purchases. Engagement rates with virtual influencers were often found to be three times higher than their real counterparts among young Chinese consumers.
Brands including Prada, Puma, Yoox, Alibaba and Samsung have all created their own virtual influencers to reach young people in the metaverse. The advantages of using virtual influencers over real influencers for brands are seemingly many. Their fully controllable public personas mean they are available whenever needed, they can adapt to all marketing activities and brand strategy, and don’t get caught up in any ‘real-world’ scandal. A marketer's dream? Perhaps. But is all the hype warranted? Are virtual influencers here to stay and are they worth the time, money and labour that goes into creating and maintaining them?
Creating a virtual influencer from scratch
Rumi, Dentsu's very own virtual influencer, was introduced at Spikes Asia in March this year when she participated in a live Q&A. But as Stan Lim, Dentsu Singapore's chief creative officer explains, creating a virtual influencer like Rumi is no overnight process.
"If we are creating a fully custom virtual identity from scratch, the process will likely take between eight to 12 weeks," he says. "That is split between strategy, creative and the CGI process."
According to Lim, the most important starting point for creating a virtual influencer is finding a purposeful virtual identity use case for a brand. For example, this use case could be “challenging identity conventions” or “taking customer experience to new heights”.
"Once we have figured out the purpose behind the virtual influencers identity, we make all the necessary creative decisions that go into defining the VI’s motivations, personality, behaviours, visual style, mannerisms etc,” says Lim. "After we achieve clarity in the concept, the VI gets brought to life by our 3D artists using some of the most advanced gaming engines."
Humphrey Ho, managing director of Hylink USA, helped create Aimee, a virtual influencer who was launched to great success in China. Ho says that one of the lucky parts of creating a virtual influencer is that they get to skip the talent sourcing and go straight into pre-production management.
"It starts out with a very advertising-like creative process during the planning stages and establishes the key traits of the VI," says Ho.
Once the key traits are established, then comes the photoshoot phase of VI creation. "Just like at every photoshoot, there is a certain number of days where we go on-site to shoot live scenes, which is preferred," says Ho. "In the case of using a virtual world, the process can be more time-consuming, it usually two to three weeks to create the virtual world."
Second, the video. Just like a traditional production, a video shoot is longer and more complicated than the photoshoot. However, thanks to commonly available gaming engines, a process that used to take 10-12 weeks can now be shortened to four weeks.
"This includes the creation of meaningful facial motion, arm and leg movements," says Ho. "As well as walking and other ancillary motions that are necessary to complete the production."
Are virtual influencers high maintenance?
While the process of creating a virtual influencer typically takes between six to 12 weeks, the work doesn't end there. Once launched, just like a real-life KOL, they have to maintain a constant social presence. This means constantly planning and producing new content meant to delight their followers. It also means that a virtual influencer has to have a rich tapestry of interests to draw upon.
"The beauty of a virtual influencer is that there’s a lot more they can do that a human influencer can’t," says Christina Chong, CEO at We Are Social Singapore. "But that also means developing more virtual scenarios, environments and visuals of various complexities."
There's the added fact that to maintain them, virtual influencers often require a full technical team.
"From a technical perspective, virtual influencers under our management are constantly getting upgrades. From more realistic skin textures to lighting, new wardrobe and hair styles, the ability to appear in live streams and interact with audiences and automated motion transfer to improve production efficiency, among others," says Dentsu’s Lim. "All these VI capabilities are constantly being brought online to keep the VI interesting and to keep offering new possibilities for brands that they are working with."
Yet, one distinct plus side, is that when virtual influencers are properly maintained, they are far more reliable than their human counterparts.
"It is easier that virtual influencers don't sleep, have off days, fall sick or be unavailable," says Jerry Soer, vice president of partnerships at Collab Asia Inc. "However, as you can imagine, the work of content creation is a lot more laborious and technically challenging. But this could change in the near future with advancing technology."
The unique challenges of virtual influencers
The biggest challenge in creating a virtual influencer is a very human one—to make people care about their existence.
"While virtual beings have a natural starting advantage in having a high novelty value, that will wear out very quickly," says Lim. "That is why relatable character development is extremely challenging and important. How do we design a sense of growth for the audience? How do we tell stories of love and hate? How do VIs represent consistent values yet stay relevant with fast moving culture? Rather than saying we maintain a VI, it can feel more like we are guiding a young adult through life."
Virtual influencers natively appeal to a broad group of users unlike traditional influencers who have narrower, category-specific audiences. But having a broader fanbase can be a challenge too at times.
"Creating content for a broad group of target audiences, especially since a VI might be used on a beauty brand today and a furniture brand tomorrow, can significantly increase the challenges associated with execution or logistics," says Hylink’s Ho.
And nailing a strong and compelling narrative is imperative to cut through the clutter of all other content out there, which can be especially true for virtual influencers. "Defining the right tone of voice and type of content is of equal importance, as virtual influencers can easily run the risk of seeming inauthentic otherwise," adds We Are Social’s Chong.
A passing fad or here to stay?
For Collab Asia’s Soer who manages the social channels of some of the region’s most popular virtual influencers such as virtual Kpop group ETERN!TY and Japanese anime influencer Etra Chan, there's no question that they are more than just a passing fad.
"They’re definitely here to stay. Some of the cutting-edge graphics technology being developed by gaming companies such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 5 is mind-blowing," says Soer. "It seems like we are one or two engine generations away from indistinguishable quality with filmed actors. In five years, it might not be possible to tell the difference between real or virtual influencers."
Of course, virtual influencers are not new and there are already many examples of those who have managed to stay relevant for years. Some of the long-running ones are Lil’Miquela, Imma and Singapore's homegrown Rae.
"Virtual influencers, just like real personalities, can have long careers. Despite their inherent trendiness, they are not just a fad. They are currently receiving engagement rates near or higher than their traditional counterparts in many APEC countries," says Ho. "Another massive benefit of virtual influencers that drives their longevity is the degree of predictability and control granted to brands, effectively lowering the risk of social or brand-level PR crises that traditional influencers are prone to."
If anything, virtual influencers are likely to become more ubiquitous in the near future, says Chong. "One of the reasons is the growing acceptance of digital cultures and the parallel rise of interest in the metaverse,” she says. “The other is that there have never been lower barriers to creation. When combined, these two factors are set to yield a new generation of VIs who will have as much swaying power as they do staying power."
Are virtual influencers truly worth the time and investment?
Determining whether the time involved, work and costs required to create and maintain a virtual influencer is worth it for brands really depends on the strategy says Dentsu's Lim. "For brands who want maximum value in the use of VIs, our recommendation is to partner up with existing VIs for the short-term and go custom VI for the long game,” he says.
Lim explains that creating a fully custom virtual influencer for a single campaign will not be a great use of marketing budget. "The initial cost of investment is way too high," he says. "In these scenarios, it is best to engage virtual influencers who have already established a good fan following as campaign ambassadors."
But if brands are interested in a long-term VI strategy, the ROI from the sheer number of use cases will outweigh the initial cost.
"Organisations gain a consistent human representation of their brand across multiple channels waiting to be deployed during product launches, branded events, on sales or CX channels, across live streams, in virtual worlds wearing digital swag and more," says Lim. "And all these with full creative control, minimised reputational risks and an enduring brand asset."