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Virtual Influencers: Assessing Their True Marketing Impact and Ability to Bond With Followersby@julieplavnik
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Virtual Influencers: Assessing Their True Marketing Impact and Ability to Bond With Followers

by Julie PlavnikJune 14th, 2023
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As of 2023, there are over 150 active virtual influencers across the globe. Avatars that mimic human-like appearances or take the shape of whimsical cartoons. A wide spectrum of audience interaction, from riveting or divisive narratives to captivating collaborations. A knack for raking in serious cash.

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All You Need to Know About Why People Fall for Robots and Buy Their Pitch

Honestly, I don’t like influencers.


The whole idea of strangers trying to steal my attention and manipulate my choices makes me cringe big time.


However, as a marketer, I can’t deny their power to grow fanbases and drive conversions for brands.


Today, we've got a weird kid on the block: virtual influencers - computer-generated fiction pulling huge crowds and bagging brand deals. A perfect fit for today’s AI & Metaverse hype.


The game is big: predictions show the virtual human market could rocket to $440.3B by 2031!


So, here's the million-dollar question:

A̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶e̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶f̶u̶c̶k̶e̶d̶?̶!


Can these robots really turn the hype into hard, real-world conversions? And would your audience welcome it if you add them to your marketing mix?


Stick around as we dive in and reveal the truth.

First, Let’s Explore Some Buzzworthy Virtual Influencers You’ve Likely Heard Of

Sources have it that as of 2023, there are over 150 active virtual influencers across the globe.

Here are the Top 5 who have attracted millions of followers:


Collage created by the author


A quick snapshot of their profiles reveals:


  • Avatars that mimic human-like appearances or take the shape of whimsical cartoons, each armed with their unique selling points and identities.


  • A wide spectrum of audience interaction, from riveting or divisive narratives to captivating collaborations.


  • Behind-the-scenes teams devoted to maintaining a steady stream of content and promotions.


  • Active engagement with followers, building a solid rapport.


  • A knack for raking in serious cash.


However, it's not straightforward to pinpoint a universal secret sauce behind their top-of-the-chart success.


And now, I'm curious - What’s your first reaction when you see them?


For me, it was a definite "WTF?!”


Then I followed them all.


My mind was teeming with questions. Why would real people interact with these virtual folks, knowing they're not real?!


Then, I stumbled upon a possible explanation:

Taken from Lil Miquela's Instagram

Programmed with memories and feelings… 😕😳


Interesting pitch…


While it admittedly treads on the line of manipulating people's emotions, scrolling through the comments was enlightening.


Fans leaped to the defense, insisting that “she's just like us” - relatable, vulnerable, and emotionally capable.


A little later in this article, we'll delve deeper into why people feel compelled to engage with robots. So stay tuned!


Now, let's see them from a marketing perspective.

Virtual Influencers as a Concept Shatter All Major Marketing Dogmas

Traditionally, marketers have preached the indispensable importance of authenticity, realness, and expertise for successful endorsers.


But the reality is changing. Today, being unreal is no longer an issue.


When well-crafted, virtual influencers can make consumers forget the artificiality of the interaction, fostering relationships is just like human influencers.


Don't believe it?


Just scroll through the comments under some virtual celebs’ accounts.


You'll find people sympathizing, offering advice, drawing inspiration, and even consulting with robots on their most intimate life issues.


Sounds a bit shocking, doesn’t it?


So, how should we go about this phenomenon?


Perhaps it's time to reassess some long-standing marketing dogmas through the lens of a new type of parasocial interaction - between humans and robots.


This is exactly what we’re gonna do next.

Sensational Insights Into Human-Robot Parasocial Interactions, According to Studies

During my deep dive into this subject, I stumbled upon a study titled “Let’s Get Virtual.


As of now, it's likely the most meaty resource on the topic.


Its implications are crucial to assess whether virtual influencers can do more than just catch eyeballs and drop jaws.


Specifically, whether they can truly drive sales.


Let's unpack some of the key findings:

1) Consumers Interact With Virtual Influencers Just as They Do With Humans

This echoes our earlier discussion but adds a more granular perspective.


So how exactly do users interact with robots?


They

  • react with empathy: bonding emotionally, connecting over shared values, drawing inspiration, and expressing feelings towards the virtual influencers and their narratives.


  • engage with eWOM (Electronic Word of Mouth) by sharing and endorsing robots’ content. For marketers, this is a game-changer - it shows that consumers are not just open to robotic messages, but they're embracing them.


  • evaluate endorsements from robots much like they would from human endorsers: discover, explore, purchase, and repeat. Yes, the good old buyer’s journey.


What's the bottom line?


The effectiveness of endorsements from virtual influencers might just be measured in the same way as with human endorsers.


Therefore, there's no need for a new marketing science when you're hiring a robot to promote your brand.

2) Brand Fit Is Not a MUST

Conventional marketing wisdom maintains that a brand and its endorser must share aligned values and meanings.


Yet, virtual influencers flip this dogma on its head.


According to the study, even when there's a mismatch between a brand and its virtual endorser, the effectiveness of the endorsement isn't compromised.


This could be because virtual influencers can adapt to a wide range of brand narratives and messages, acting as a dynamic canvas rather than a fixed image.


Unlike their human counterparts, virtual influencers aren't necessarily expected to have permanent values or adhere strictly to a specific persona.


Take Lil Miquela for example. She is a master of many trades.


She effortlessly jumps from one industry to another, maintaining  her credibility and influence across a variety of sectors:


fashion, politics, social activism (Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ), and music.


Tomorrow, she could turn into a spiritual guru or therapist. And her followers would likely be completely okay with that.


In sum, followers don't mind if their favorite robot takes on a multitude of roles and engages in cross-industry campaigns, regardless of their established positioning.


Interestingly, this anti-niche approach is also gaining popularity among human influencers.


And why actually not? Following someone rigidly fixed in their expertise is such a boring hell.

3) Credibility May Not Be as Crucial

People might perceive virtual influencers as credible, but this credibility isn't necessarily a decisive factor in their endorsement success.


In contrast to traditional endorsers, a robot's credibility doesn't significantly influence purchasing decisions. It seems that consumers weigh other aspects when mulling over an endorsed product.


For instance, if a marketing campaign aims to boost purchase intention, marketers should connect the virtual influencer to their target audience through an engaging storyline, promoting emotional interactions.


Putting all efforts into bolstering a robot's credibility might not yield optimal results.


Primarily, virtual influencers are entertainment personas, showcasing a lifestyle through snapshots of live events, trendy outfits, and the latest product usage. As consumers emotionally connect and identify with them, they might be influenced to make purchases.


It's the appeal of partaking in this promoted lifestyle, not the credibility cues, that likely drives their purchasing decisions.


With all this in mind, it's time to tackle another important question: How effectively do virtual stars convert their buzz into sales?

Can Virtual Influencers Really Help Brands Sell Like Crazy?

This is a tricky question.


Expectedly, there is currently little research on whether significant advertising goals are being met with the use of virtual influencers.


Consider this: if we see Prada partnering with Lil Miquela, it doesn't directly imply that Prada's revenues soared or that the brand tightened its bond with customers, right?


Similarly, an abundance of comments on a virtual influencer's Instagram post doesn't necessarily mean increased sales.


Without tangible conversion data at our disposal, it's challenging to make an objective judgment on the true effectiveness of virtual influencers as endorsers.


And let's be honest, no major brand will openly confess if their big bet on virtual influencers, in hopes of riding the hype, yielded a poor ROI, would they?


However, there's one statistic that annoyingly keeps popping up in the context of virtual influencer marketing…

Stats Point to 3X Engagement Rate

This statistic is the one from HyperAudit.


It’s quoted in nearly every article on the subject.


  • Virtual Influencers have almost three times the engagement rate of real influencers. (HyperAudit)


Let’s make a quick check on this 3X mysterious claim.


I'll compare Lil Miquela with her real-life counterpart of a similar following -  Brittany Xavier (@brittanyxavier).


Like Lil, Brittany is a fashion and lifestyle influencer, boasting a similar follower count and high-profile brand collaborations.


Now, let's see what the Analisa tool reveals about their engagement:


Well, compared to Brittany Xavier's engagement rate of 68,791, Lil Miquela's looks depressing…

3X ER - is that what they're saying??


How they calculated these numbers is quite puzzling.


And honestly, I'd strongly suggest any brand tread carefully before taking this '3X' claim as a guiding light when incorporating virtual influencers into their marketing mix.


The effectiveness of a virtual influencer relies heavily on an array of variables and nuances. There's a good chance these numbers are more about muddying the waters than providing clear insight.


Since we don’t have any firm stats and conversion data to lean on, let’s attempt to gauge a robot’s conversion potential by delving into the mindset of its followers. For this, I'll once again turn to the studies.

Responsiveness: More Personal Than Human Influencers…

Top virtual influencers are available round-the-clock.


They tend to post and, what’s more important, to comment back way more frequently than their human counterparts.


As a result, followers feel more appreciated and recognizable.


This breeds strong bonds.


Imagine this: You leave a comment under a robot’s post, and all of a sudden get a response like this:


“Oh, honey it’s you again. How’ve been you so far? I remember, 3 months ago you mentioned you’ve been passing through hard times with your partner. Hope, you two are still together.”


Alright, this is a joke.


I’ve never got responses like this yet.


BUT! Programming a robot to remember and recognize its most loyal fans and cater to them with personalized responses is entirely achievable.


Once that’s in place, would it boost a robot’s trustworthiness and sales potential?


Abso-f*ckin-lutely!

Relatability

As in the case of Lil Miquela, a human-like appearance and communication style - emojis, likes, friendly narratives, and vulnerable stories shared - all blur the boundary between the real and artificial.


When a robot looks and talks like a human, people can relate.


Now, add 24/7 responsiveness and the absence of moodiness or toxicity into the mix.


What a powerful combo!

Trustworthiness

Simply put, followers don't find virtual influencers any less genuine than human ones.


And this makes sense.


After all, human influencers, whether they're dudes with Lambos and trophy girls selling 'success' stories, or women sharing fabricated tales of overcoming health issues (like Belle Gibson did) to promote their unique solutions, are also crafting a reality.


So if both human and virtual influencers portray a constructed reality, why not trust a robot in the same way you can trust a person?

Unique Novelty

It's simply fascinating to understand how simulated persons operate.

Diverse Talents and Content

Virtual influencers captivate attention by demonstrating a range of abilities, such as singing, dancing, and fashion knowledge, positioning them as go-to resources on a variety of topics.


These insights sync well with data from the Influencer Marketing Factory’s Survey below.

Taken from The Influencer Marketing Factory


Now, let's delve deeper into who these people are.


According to the same Factory’s survey:

  • Nearly 45% of the virtual influencer audience are women aged between 18 and 34.


  • There's a significant representation of young people, with roughly 15% falling within the 13 to 17 age range.


Interestingly, those between 35 and 44 years old resonate most with virtual influencers, rating them as highly relatable (6.2 out of 10) and trustworthy (6.5 out of 10).


Moreover, the survey found that:


  • Over half of the respondents follow at least one virtual influencer.


  • About 35% have even purchased a product endorsed by digital influencers, primarily those aged between 18 and 44.


In summary, well-executed virtual influencers can carve out their niche by delivering engaging content to a relevant audience.


They are capable of establishing trustworthy relationships with followers and driving conversions. Furthermore, the cited studies suggest that ads featuring the right virtual influencer can even generate more positive reactions and sales than those without.


However, it's important to remember that success isn't guaranteed - there have also been some notable failures.


More on them below.

Virtual Influencers Are Not Everyone’s Jam

There's no denying that the wave of virtual influencers offers a novel perspective on digital marketing.


Yet, it's far from a guaranteed recipe for success.


In fact, some high-profile experiments have resulted in more backlash than brand engagement. Let’s briefly walk through some miserable examples:


Collage created by the author


Mira - A Misstep for Marks & Spencer

M&S, eager to resonate with a younger demographic, launched Mira, a virtual model. Ironically, the initiative faced harsh criticism from consumers who argued the brand should champion real women, not virtual creations.

Venere Italia - Italy's Failed Attempt to Modernize Tourism

The Italian government poured €9 million into refashioning Botticelli's Venus as a stylish, contemporary virtual influencer to invigorate tourism. The campaign, however, missed the mark and faced backlash for seeming to trivialize Italy's cultural richness.


The cringest tourist campaign, as many people call it. A case study in the pitfalls of over-modernization, perhaps.

Shudu & Fenty Beauty - A Lesson in Cultural Sensitivity

Shudu Gram, the brainchild of a photographer, was thrust into the spotlight when Fenty Beauty featured her donning their lipstick.


The move, however, ignited controversy, with critics accusing the brand of exploiting black culture for profit by using a virtual black model rather than real black models.


The examples don't stop there.


However, these negative reactions don't necessarily stem from the virtuality of the influencers themselves.


The real issue often lies in the execution: subpar storytelling, poor communication, misaligned content, misdirected targeting, and vague messaging.


Navigating revolutionary new marketing tools is akin to mastering an art form.


In fact, it's less about the tool itself and more about the skilled hands that wield it.

The Verdict On Virtual Influencer Marketing Mojo

With virtuality posing no hindrance to a certain audience segment's engagement, and considering their superior responsiveness and entertainment value, virtual influencers can indeed be a potent force in marketing, when leveraged correctly.


True, not all niche audiences are ready for this digital revolution today.


However, perspectives shift with time.


Think about cryptocurrencies - greeted with skepticism a decade ago, now they're part and parcel of our financial reality.


The same paradigm shift could well be on the horizon for virtual influencers. Given the rising prominence of the metaverse, AI, and other digital trends, influential robots might just become our new marketing normal.


The impact of virtual influencers can be two-fold - they can either skyrocket your brand's appeal or lead to its downfall.


To ensure they function effectively, tons of factors need to be taken into account: targeting the right audience, crafting compelling content, delivering on entertainment, balanced promotion, etc.

Once all necessary boxes are checked, their potential is significant.


The identity of the influencer may become secondary if they offer genuine value.


After all, if a virtual human can provide enriching insights, does it really matter whether they're real or not?


So let me ask you one more question here: Do you care who influences your life, as long as they add value to it?


Drop in the comments your IMOs.


Interested in Cutting-Edge Digital Marketing Trends?

Let's connect on LinkedIn or Twitter and learn from each other.

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