Virtual influencers have almost three times more engagement rate than real influencers, according to HypeAuditor’s report of the most popular virtual influencers. That finding may produce an eyebrow-raising or two considering the fact that half a million active human influencers are operating on Instagram—compared to just a few hundred virtual influencers on the same platform.
With full reign to make them look real, act however they want and promote any product or message, brands could find virtual influencers more appealing than their human counterparts. Brands like KFC, Yoox, Calvin Klein and Balmain have already gone against the grain to work with designers and start-ups to create digital influencers via computer-generated imagery (CGI) for themselves.
“That’s why brands like working with avatars—they don’t have to do 100 takes. Social media, to date, has largely been the domain of real humans being fake. But avatars are a future of storytelling,” Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, told The New York Times.
On the top spot of HypeAuditor’s roundup, a majority of which are from the US is “Lil Miquela,” the CGI-born beauty and lifestyle influencer who boasts 1.8 million followers and a 1.97 percent engagement rate. In 2016, media studio Brud debuted Miquela, who calls herself a “robot” in her Instagram bio and has since turned her into a popular YouTuber and musician. Her first music video on YouTube amassed 2.6 million views, and her song, “Automatic” is also available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud. She landed the cover of Elle Mexico and even teamed with Samsung to promote the company’s Galaxy S10 phone in a sponsored Instagram post, among various other brands including Prada and Calvin Klein.
In 2018, Balmain introduced three digital models for the fashion label’s pre-fall 2018 collection campaign. Photographer Cameron-James Wilson helped Olivier Rousteing, the brand’s founder, bring the models to life on screen. A “virtual army” of ambassadors aligns with Rousteing’s goal to bridge the gap between fashion and technology. Last year, Rousteing created a virtual reality experience and headset called “My City of Lights,” to showcase his creative process.
Virtual influencers are starting to find their way into the strategies of quick-service restaurants too. In April, KFC launched a campaign featuring Colonel Sanders as a CGI influencer. From April 8-22, virtual Sanders took over KFC’s Instagram through a variety of posts that highlighted his lifestyle including sponsored posts promoting brand partners such as Dr. Pepper, Casper and TurboTax. A spoof on the modern-day influencer, the CGI Sanders was the brand’s opportunity to “poke a little fun at the advertising world.”
It may take a while before a majority of marketers get on board with pixelated influencers given consumers crave authenticity, the one quality virtual influencers inherently lack. Eighty-two percent of those in the US trust recommendations from people they know and 58 percent of consumers said being authentic is a very important trait for influencers to have. The question then arises: if a majority of the data out there supports human connections as powerful marketing tools, where’s the value in utilizing a manufactured figure to form connections with consumers?
The short answer is millennials and Gen Z. Virtual influencers present brands an opportunity to reach these younger, digital-savvy audiences as 32 percent of virtual influencers’ core audience are women 18-24 years old, and 11 percent include those between 13 and 17 years old. Additionally, some brands are seeing a boost in social media presence thanks to their virtual influencer of choice. For example, Yoox created a CGI influencer of its own and named her Daisy. Since Daisy’s takeover of the Yoox Instagram account, the online fashion retailer has seen an “incredible upsurge” in the number of followers and its engagement rate.