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Social Media Marketing 9 min read

The Rise of Virtual Influencers and What It Means for Your Brand

Sarah Edwards photo

Written by Sarah Edwards

Content Writer @ Galactic Fed

Dallin Porter photo

Expert reviewed by Dallin Porter

Marketing Director @ Galactic Fed

Published 12 Oct 2023

Social media influencers have become a popular way for companies to amplify their voices. When TikTok superstar Charli D’Amelio joined the marketing campaign for Dunkin’, the company saw a 57% increase in downloads of its mobile app. And now, you can tap into the power of virtual influencers — computer programs that emulate the authenticity and connectivity of their human counterparts.

Just how successful are virtual influencers? And can these digitized celebrities enhance your next marketing campaign? 

What Are Virtual Influencers?

Led lights in the shape of hashtag or number sign

A virtual influencer is a fictional, computer-generated character designed to resemble anything from a cartoon to a human being. These characters can be used in social media marketing. 

Creators can completely tailor the virtual influencer to mirror the lifestyle, fashion, or even the values of the influencer’s target audience. 

Like their human counterparts, virtual influencers promote products and services to their networks of social media followers. As a result, virtual influencers can offer peer-to-peer recommendations while always maintaining a camera-ready appearance.

The Rise of Virtual Influencers

Hand holding a smartphone showing Instagram feed

The very idea of a virtual influencer might sound like something from a science fiction series. But the concept itself is not that new. After all, the American landscape has long been home to a colorful cast of corporate mascots, including a burger-selling clown and a talking peanut sporting a monocle. 

Modern digital avatars simply go one step further, creating a celebrity out of pixels to endorse a company’s products.

In a 2022 survey, 58% of respondents admitted that they follow at least one virtual influencer on social media, and 35% indicated that they had purchased a product that had been promoted by a virtual influencer.

Examples of Virtual Influencers in Online Social Media

Smartphone showing the TikTok logo

There’s a good chance that you’ve already run across these virtual influencers. Instagram alone is home to an estimated 150 virtual influencers, though that number is growing. 

Common examples include Lil Miquela, a fictional Brazilian-American model with 3 million Instagram followers. Lil Miquela has worked with top brands such as Calvin Klein, Prada, and Dior. In 2017, she released her first single, “Not Mine.” She later debuted a music video at Lollapallooza’s 2020 online festival.

Not all virtual influencers are designed to replicate human beings. Barbie, for example, is a prominent virtual influencer who made waves in 2020 by going on YouTube in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Companies can collaborate with these digital creations, tapping into their extensive network of followers to endorse their products. But while Lil Miquela may charge $10,000 per Instagram post, technology is making it easier to collaborate with virtual influencers to reach new audiences.

Advantages of Virtual Influencers

3D icon render of a group of people standing in a circle

Why are companies so eager to partner with virtual influencers? These colorful characters offer distinct advantages over their human counterparts. Here are just some of the reasons virtual influencers in online social media can benefit a company.

Preexisting Networks

They’re not called “influencers” for nothing. These digital characters may not be real, but their networks of followers certainly are. Collaborating with virtual influencers enables companies to reach wider audiences than they could through traditional marketing strategies.

That’s especially true for virtual influencers who operate across multiple social media channels. An endorsement from a virtual influencer on TikTok can easily be shared across other social networks, such as Facebook or Instagram, increasing your exposure to diverse audiences and markets.

Adaptable Personas

Marketers already create different marketing personas — the ideal type of customer that they’re aiming to reach. A persona might include demographic details such as the customer’s age, gender, values, and lifestyle considerations.

Virtual influencers allow you to reach these personas on a more direct level. You might seek out virtual influencers who already connect with your target audience, or you might consider developing your own virtual influencer to target certain marketing personas. 

The advantage of this approach is that you can fine-tune the influencer to match the values and lifestyle of your target audience.

Connections With Hard-to-Reach Audiences

A virtual character can offer a deeper connection than just a logo can. The character may be able to connect more deeply and directly with your target audience than any branded content. 

For that matter, brands might use virtual influencers to forge connections with new markets, such as younger audiences who are more likely to remain active on TikTok or Instagram.

Lower Costs

Celebrity endorsements don’t come cheaply. The price tag tends to rise and fall with the celebrity’s popularity. Evan Morgenstein of CelebExperts explains that if you pursue a “reality TV contestant,” you might “expect fees to start at $5,000 while a celebrity from Iron Chef America may command $100,000 or more for the same marketing program.”

Virtual influencers don’t come with such steep price tags. While you’ll pay more for virtual characters who wield the most influence, you’ll pay much less for smaller digital celebrities who might also help you reach your target market.

Total Control

When a company creates its own virtual influencer, it gains greater control over the influencer’s content, personality, and appearance. Also, the digital character can create and share content 24/7 without the need to draft a single contract.

And unlike human beings, a digital influencer will never go rogue by endorsing a competitor’s product or become embroiled in a scandal. Remember Jared from Subway? After his arrest, the company had to work hard to rise above its tainted reputation. Virtual influencers avoid this risk and keep company leaders in charge of their message.

How to Leverage Virtual Influencers for Your Brand

A hand writing the word "audience" on a whiteboard, with arrows

If you plan to use virtual influencers for your brand, you’ll face a decision: Is it better to collaborate with existing influencers or to create an influencer of your own? Before you decide, consider the following questions.

What Is Your Goal?

First, think about your immediate goals. If your goal is to promote a single product or service, the simplest option may be to seek out a preexisting influencer for a product endorsement.

Similarly, if you want to tap into an existing customer network, your best option is to partner with an existing influencer rather than create one from scratch.

However, suppose that you want your audience to more closely associate the influencer with your brand. In that case, you can consult a digital marketing agency to create your own virtual influencer. While you won’t gain the benefit of a preexisting social network, you’ll have greater control over your content and message.

What Is Your Target Audience?

Do you have an ideal customer persona? The more closely you can pinpoint the characteristics of your target audience, the more you can learn to connect with them. Consider such things as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Education level
  • Income level
  • Personal values
  • Spending habits
  • Preferred social media platforms

Once you’ve developed a customer persona (or more than one), you can search for virtual influencers who match these characteristics. If none can be found, you might consider crafting your own.

Consider which social media platforms your ideal customer persona uses before choosing to work with virtual influencers. Instagram users tend to be between the ages of 18 and 24, so companies seeking to reach younger audiences might seek out influencers who dominate these platforms.

What Is Your Budget?

Your budget will also influence your engagement with virtual influencers. If your budget is relatively small ($10,000 or so), you may consider partnering with an existing influencer for select posts.

If you have a larger budget, consider creating your own influencer — but think about your exact goals. Static images can be created much more easily than video characters, but both can be important strategies for engaging your core audience.

The Future of Virtual Influencers

Virtual influencers are becoming more common. Followers have countless opportunities to engage with these digital characters more directly, thanks to the world of social media. 

Companies can use this trend to better connect with their markets or to connect with entirely new markets. You may be surprised to discover that an influencer like Lil Miquela or even Minnie Mouse wields more influence than your brand currently does.  

You could even forge a new path by creating virtual influencers of your own. What better way to connect with your core demographics and build your brand?

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Sarah Edwards photo

Sarah Edwards

Content Writer @ Galactic Fed