Miquela, Shudu and Noonoouri

Influencers with millions of followers and likes who don’t exist: Here’s who the virtual influencers are

Virtual influencers are becoming more and more popular and brands are investing a lot in them. But why do they do that? How are they different from real influencers? The engagement rate is clear: virtual influencers ensure great performances.

The human being is a social animal who needs to know other people’s opinion and, above all, to have the approval of his peers. Initially, we were relying on very few “Opinion Leaders” (a term invented by scholars Katz and Lazarsfeld in 1955), who, over time, have increased and appropriated modern dynamics, becoming what today are known as influencers: young, fashionable people with an extraordinary engagement rate on social media, so much so that brands compete to have the opportunity to collaborate with them and the press dedicates more and more pages to them. However, the evolution and development of technology are showing no signs of slowing down, so the next generation of influencers could be made up of avatars.

Most people follow social media influencers: from the biggest and most influential, with millions of followers, to micro- and nano-influencers, each with a different level of affection and interest. Sometimes, however, it may happen that these influencers are not real people, but digital simulations.

These are the virtual influencers – characters made in computer graphics (CGI – Computer Generated Imagery) who have physiognomic and behavioural characteristics very similar to those of real people. Artificial intelligence allows these avatars to interact with a natural language and the excellent graphic design does not allow you to immediately understand that you are in front of a fictional character.

How virtual influencers are made

Virtual avatars are usually created using artificial intelligence systems such as So.Min, which map millions of faces from different sources, thus rendering different versions of the face. Subsequently, three-dimensional models, that can be used on a wide range of substrates, are developed. As the whole programming process is very expensive, sometimes only the head of the avatar is made, and it is then added to the body of a real person. Over time, however, this whole process should become faster and more convenient.

It has to be said that the concept that gravitates around virtual influencers is not entirely new. Since some years, there have already been apps that allow you to create three-dimensional avatars of yourself and modify their physical and aesthetic aspects as you wish. For example, the Italian company Yoox has created Daisy, a virtual model with an Instagram profile who wears the clothes that are chosen by customers on the website.

Virtual influencers: who they are

The first virtual influencer who achieved online success was Miquela Sousa (@lilmiquela) back in 2016. The young 19-year-old musician lives in Los Angeles, has Spanish and Brazilian origins, is passionate about fashion, has more than 3 million followers on Instagram and her YouTube videos reach 15 million views. She also releases songs on Spotify, where she records thousands of monthly plays. For this reason, it is not surprising to discover that she has collaborated with important international brands such as Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Calvin Klein and Diesel. What is indeed surprising is the fact that, according to her followers, Miquela is perceived as more real than other influencers in the flesh, as she behaves just the same way: she takes countless selfies, loves fashion and makeup and spends her days having fun with friends (virtual influencers themselves). She even had a real boyfriend (@nickillian), with whom she unfortunately broke up and consequently showed the typical frailties of a girl her age, which reveal an articulated and complex personality.

Instagram post by the Virtual Influencer Miquela Sousa
Miquela Sousa.

Another virtual influencer, with less followers than Miquela but still successful, is Imma.gram, a pink-haired Asian girl who is interested in Japanese culture, film and art. Thanks to her over 300,000 followers, she has worked together with fashion magazines and clothing brands. She is also very active in the social field and participated in an online meeting with Mike Shinoda, famous DJ and musician from Linkin Park.

There aren’t just girls in the world of virtual influencers. The group of graphic designers responsible for the creation of Miquela has also created Blawko (@blawko22), the classic bad-boy from Los Angeles: tattooed, shaved and with an unmistakable streetwear style, Blawko has even collaborated with Versace. In addition to generic influencers, the virtual world is also populated by models: this is the case of (@shudu.gram),  created in 2017 by artist Cameron-James Wilson. According to her bio, Shudu is a “digital supermodel” and, in fact, she has also collaborated with Fenty Beauty, a cosmetics company founded by the singer Rihanna.

However, not all virtual influencers seem like real people in all respects. Created by Joerg Zuber in 2017, Noonoouri has a more childlike and cartoonish style that was particularly ideal for the advertising campaigns of Vogue China, which controls her activities, image and commercial management. It seems that the Chinese market is particularly suitable for virtual influencers: in fact, it was where Gucci carried out the first advertising campaign with a non-human model. With nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram, also Noonoouri, who is described by her creator as “a digital character with a human soul”, has worked with various fashion brands, including Marc Jacobs and Dior. The influencer is also part of the Imgmodels agency, to whom brands can turn to if they want to hire her. Finally, a curiosity about Noonoouri: she is officially enrolled in the Digital Art Direction Master’s at Istituto Marangoni of Milan.

Noonoouri
Noonoouri.

Some brands, taking advantage of the sudden popularity of these trends, have decided to digitally recreate their historic mascots. This is the case of KFC and Colonel Sanders that, on the brand’s Instagram profile, shows his everyday life and interacts with the followers. However, it is not just a simple branded content operation (i.e., the production of content by a brand to establish a more lasting relationship with its audience), since the colonel has also collaborated with external brands as Dr. Pepper, just like a real influencer would do.

Giving the floor to data: do virtual influencers perform better?

Virtual influencers that, according to Wired, can be defined as “computer-generated intelligence influencer”, are a recent phenomenon (although 5 years, within the digital world, bring infinite evolutions and changes). These digital influencers only came under the spotlight in 2019-2020, when a research published by Hype showed how virtual influencers can reach an engagement rate three times higher than the one of their human colleagues, with a target audience mainly formed by girls belonging to the Y and Z generations.

Chart showing the engagement
Chart created by HypeAuditor that shows the levels of engagement divided by number of followers.

The audience of Virtual Influencers is composed mainly by young women between 18 and 34 years old (45%), while 14.47% belongs to the 13-17 age group. Most of them come from the United States and Brazil, while European countries such as Italy only account for 2%.

Chart showing the audience of virtual influencers
Subdivision of the virtual influencer audience by gender and age group. Source: HypeAuditor

According to data collected by HypeAuditor, real influencers have to make an average of four times as many posts to reach the same number of followers as virtual influencers. However, the production of new content is very expensive: as a matter of fact, almost half of the latter did not publish anything in the month considered by the research. It is therefore not surprising that 48% of virtual influencers have a negative growth curve.
Another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration, however, is the transmedia one: virtual influencers are not only present on Instagram (which is still the main social network) but have also accounts on the other main platforms, as well. According to the data provided by HypeAuditor, at the end of 2020, 31% of them were, for example, also on TikTok (even if the production of video content is much more expensive than the photos published on Mark Zuckerberg’s social networks). Lu do Magalu, who has reached 5.3 million followers on Instagram, has almost 3 million followers on the Chinese social network; to these, you need to add 14 million from Facebook.

The approach towards social issues

Even virtual influencers have a heart (or rather, the people behind their accounts). A lot of profiles have indeed expressed their support for social causes and minorities. For example, Miquela and Imma have created posts specifically supporting “Black Lives Matter” campaigns, collecting donations from their followers. In addition to the undeniable positive contribution of these campaigns, dedicating themselves to social issues allows influencers (virtual or otherwise) to also obtain very positive feedbacks from their followers. In a Nielsen Global Media research reported by Buzzoole, it emerges that 83% of followers trust and believe the influencers who take a stand on social issues – this trust is also reflected on the promotion of products and services (77%).

Chart showing the trust score
Report by Buzzoole.

The advantages of turning to virtual influencers…

It is therefore clear that virtual influencers represent a new, mostly unexplored, frontier of communication that currently knows no apparent bounds. Due to the constant flow of information that users are subjected to, it is difficult for companies to penetrate deeply into the hearts and minds of their audiences. Virtual influencers, with their unique and stable characteristics, make it possible to overcome this obstacle. Their advantages are many:

– Contrary to what happens with the typical influencer marketing, there is no risk that influencers cause reputational damage to the brand by carrying out unprofessional actions that are not coordinated with the values they should represent. Brands in the luxury & fashion sector appear to be particularly attracted to virtual Influencers, thanks to the high malleability of their content.
– Data mentioned above confirms that digital influencers have a much higher engagement rate and can also engage with Gen. Z, otherwise very elusive.
– In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly changed the relationship with spaces and travels. Virtual influencers make it possible to overcome this problem, as it happened during London Fashion Week Spring / Summer 2021, which took place entirely online with the participation of Noonoouri.
– In order to hire a real influencer, it is necessary to provide clothing, manage logistics, pay for transport and accommodation, but with virtual ones you simply need to pay a fee to the company that owns the rights, thus reducing the costs of the entire marketing campaign.
– The Asian market (especially the Chinese one) appears to be very suitable for traditional advertising campaigns that employ virtual influencers. The eastern population appears to be less bothered by sponsored content than its western counterpart. Furthermore, Chinese companies, unable to invest in advertisements on the main social media, are more likely to rely on influencer marketing.

… And the possible disadvantages

Like any new invention and all media, the phenomenon of virtual influencers as well hides possible disadvantages that companies should take into account:

– Although at the moment it seems that they are very popular, there is still the risk that sooner or later users will become less interested in totally fictitious avatars, who do not feel real emotions and have no empathic connection with their followers.
– Regarding the previous point, virtual influencers have only commercial purposes that, in the long run, could reduce followers’ trust in them.
– The legal aspect should not be underestimated: the legislation regarding social platforms is constantly changing, and virtual influencers could soon end up in a difficult position if they violate the regulations on advertising activities or ethical codes.
– Although, as listed in the advantages, the cost of hiring a virtual influencer is lower than the one for the real colleagues, the in-house production and management of these avatars is very expensive and requires a long time.

Finally, it is necessary to take into account the exposure effect: the fame of virtual Influencers could be mainly due to their collaborations with famous brands and not to the level of trust they inspire in their followers, and by the fact that they were initially advertised by the media with countless of articles and posts that raised awareness around them. In the future, once their innovative appeal disappears, their success could decline.

Controversies and future challenges

It is well-known that the boundary between reality and fiction is often blurred and this combination, for the younger generations who already live in close contact with the digital world, tends to feel less and less like a dichotomy and more like a peaceful coexistence which favours unprecedented and often fascinating experiences.

However, there might be something to worry about: Internet Matters, an online safety campaign, argues that companies could “easily manipulate” the most impressionable young people and threaten their psycho-physical well-being. Many virtual influencers are represented with an extremely idealized appearance and promote beauty standards that are difficult to reach. There is therefore the risk that they could perpetrate a completely unrealistic idea of the female body. Unfortunately, many young people report anxiety, depression and loneliness while interacting on social media. This is partly caused by influencers and celebrities promoting an overly idealized lifestyle. Virtual influencers make the situation even worse, describing a perfect lifestyle that is, as a matter of fact, not real.

Finally, one of the major issues is linked to transparency and accountability. Nevill-Spencer has tried to overcome it by establishing an ethical code for the people managing virtual human beings that requires the addition of a unique distinctive sign to make it clear which contents are to be intended for commercial purposes and which are for pure entertainment.

Conclusion

Brands around the world, especially within the fashion industry (Calvin Klein, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Dior), have been pushing towards increasingly immersive virtual experiences and augmented reality for years. At the moment, only big companies have relied on virtual influencers, but it cannot be excluded that these marketing activities could also be used by smaller firms: everything will depend on their characteristics and needs.

Fans don’t really care about virtual influencers not being real, but are interested in their personalities, dreams and desires instead. However, a careful planning around the communication strategies adopted remains necessary, in order to avoid generating posts that may be perceived as not very authentic. An example is when Miquela wore a mask to protect herself against Covid-19, which has aroused criticism, as some users perceived it as excessively ironic towards the pandemic.

It is still too early to understand whether virtual influencers are a trend that will grow or disappear soon, but at the moment they are a great way to boost real purchases. It still remains a very fascinating phenomenon and it is useful to keep an eye on it, in order to better understand new forms of aesthetics and their technological uses.

Do you think that virtual influencers will have a future and surpass their human colleagues or do you believe that their engagement will drop soon? Would you rely on them for a marketing campaign? Tell us your opinion in the comments section and contact us to learn more about our digital marketing consulting services.

Published by

Gabriele

Marketing enthusiast, bachelor’s in linguistic sciences for media and communication at Catholic University in Milan and then MSc Media Management at University of Stirling. Thanks to my academic background, I am now working my dream job: I manage communication and marketing strategies for EOS and the ipcm® magazines. In my free time I play basketball and watch lots of films. Favourite team: Milwaukee Bucks. Favourite director: David Lynch.

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