Virtual influencers have been around for some time now, and continue to intrigue those who stumble across them. From CGI influencers, VTubers and our obsession with creating our own digital avatars, technology that develops a digital persona is something that is fascinating and a developing trend across social media and influencer marketing. In fact, even existing influencers are experimenting with CGI. Beauty influencer, Nikita Dragun announced the launch of her beauty brand, ‘Dragun Beauty’ with a launch video featuring a CGI render of herself, whilst YouTuber PewDiePie experimented as a VTuber – but more on that later.
What is a CGI Influencer?
CGI stands for ‘computer-generated imagery’ which is technology being adapted to virtual social media influencers, who operate as robots/ artificial intelligence. Your first experience with CGI influencers was probably Lil Miquela, who caused quite a stir when people first saw her Instagram account, dividing opinions on if she was real or not.
When and How Did CGI Influencers First Come About?
A simple search of the phrase, ‘the first CGI influencer’ will undoubtedly take you to an article referencing Lil Miquela as the original. But what is the story behind Miquela? Well, that starts with a company based in Los Angeles named Brud. Brud is essentially a transmedia studio, specialising in creating complex digital characters, founded in 2014 by Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou. Lil Miquela was later created in 2016 as a CGI social experiment which resulted in a huge social following and brand deals with the likes of Chanel, Burberry and Fendi. In 2018, Brud landed $6 million in venture capital funding as a response to the success of Lil Miquela. Some key investors included Sequoia Capital and BoxGroup, whilst other venture-backed companies in the CGI space were also popping up such as SuperPlastic and Toonstar.
Did Brud Really Create The First Virtual Influencer?
Brud truly changed the game in terms of virtual influencers on social. However, the concept of the virtual influencer is not something that is altogether new. Remember the virtual band Gorillaz? Damon Albarn, previous frontman of the band Blur and comic creator Jamie Hewlett are the co-creators of the virtual band, who really pioneered the movement of using virtual characters to humanise digital experiences. But hey, perhaps there are even earlier examples of virtual influencers, if you look hard enough maybe the concept has been around even longer than you think!
How The Market of CGI Influencers Has Evolved
So we’ve mentioned Lil Miquela, but who or what came after? Well, of course, Brud didn’t just stop with Lil Miquela. The company also created Bermuda and Blawko, with the trio all having a backstory and inter-relationship that established a digital universe where they all co-exist. Bermuda was the second creation and was essentially to act as a rival to Lil Miquela, but they eventually became best friends. Blawko on the other hand was the male addition who established a presence on Instagram and YouTube – with Instagram later becoming the main channel of focus. Interestingly, Blawko also plays the role of Bermuda’s ex and close friend to Lil Miquela – which sounds like the drama storyline of any reality TV show ever created!
Outside of the Brud universe, we also have players such as Shudu – dubbed the world’s first digital supermodel. Shudu was created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson in 2017, and has since been integrated into the marketing of huge brands such as Balmain and Fenty Beauty.
Next, we have Lu do Magalu, who is actually the most followed virtual influencer, and technically came before Lil Miquela. Lu’s first appearance can be traced back to 2009 where she was used to promote iBlogTv on behalf of Magazine Luiza on YouTube. Since then, Lu has amassed a huge following across Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok – but you’ve probably never heard of her since her following is often limited to Brazil.
Now we mentioned the company Superplastic earlier, and like Brud they created their own virtual influencer named, Guggimon. Superplastic is a creator of animated synthetic celebrities, apparel and designer toys and in 2019 they created the horror and music-obsessed rabbit, Guggimon. This rabbit even joined Steve Aooki on his ‘Color of Noise Tour’.
In the interest of not making this article the length of my dissertation, let’s round this list off with Imma. She originates from Tokyo and has the crown of the first virtual model in Japan, appearing first in 2018. She has gained a following across both Instagram and TikTok and has worked with the likes of Burberry and Adidas. Like Lil Miquela, Imma very much blurs the boundaries of reality and digital fantasy, as at first glance she truly appears to be a real person!
What is a VTuber?
From exploring the world of the CGI influencer, we’ve already come across some virtual influencers who also have a presence across YouTube. The VTuber is essentially a subcategory of the virtual influencer who specialises in video content on YouTube.
The Development of the VTuber Landscape?
One of the most popular and earlier VTubers is perhaps Kizuna Ai, who began creating content in 2016. The virtual YouTuber is now close to 3 million subscribers and has a secondary channel, A.i.Games that has over 1 million subscribers, focused purely on gaming content. Kizuna Ai has also appeared on TV shows and commercials, showing the relevance of virtual YouTuber on traditional media channels in Japan. Similar to the aspirations of Lil Miquela, Kizuna Ai also is looking to make an impact in the music space, which makes a lot of sense when considering the popularity of the band Gorillaz.
Other VTubers to mention include Nekomiya Hinata, who typically falls into the gaming category, Ami Yamato who creates vlog-style content and CodeMiko who creates content on YouTube and live streams on Twitch.
With the earlier forms of VTubers, an actor would stand in a studio covered with a motion tracker. After movements were recorded, these actions would help reference and build an animated character. A voice actor would also create dialogue for the virtual character to really bring the VTuber to life. However, technology now can allow this all to be done from a creator’s own home.
Certainly, the VTuber landscape has developed as AR & VR technologies continue to advance, reducing the barrier to entry of the everyday creator in experimenting as a virtual YouTuber. CodeMiko is a great example of how far technology can take it, with the latest body tracking technology making this digital avatar appear in real time at the same quality of characters we see in the latest video games.
To reference how relevant this type of virtual influencer is in Japan, there are specific talent agencies that cater to virtual avatars, connecting brands to such virtual influencers to generate revenue streams.
Some notable creators who have experimented with VTubeing include Ethan Klein on the H3 Podcast, where his whole crew appeared live on stream with their own avatars. Twitch streamer and YouTuber, Pokimane also experimented with her avatar along with PewDiePie.
Avatars and Social Media
Exploring the rise in customisable avatars on social is another indicator that shows why virtual influencers are here to stay. One of the earliest memories I personally have with avatars and social was IMVU. This is an online metaverse and social networking site founded in 2004. IMVU members essentially become 3D avatars to meet new people on the platform to chat, create and play.
As we go beyond 2020, the use of avatars on social is pretty much a norm for most social media platforms in some shape or form. Snapchat has an AR filter that alters the appearance of users in both photo and video form, along with TikTok and Instagram. According to Snapchat, 170 million users engage with AR daily – nearly 30 times a day, showing a hunger for this content format from its users. Snapchat is a clear leader in integrating avatars within the in-app experiences with Bitmoji.
Bitmoji is essentially a secondary social media app that enables users to create a cartoon version of themselves, which then can be used on their various social media accounts. The app was first developed by Bitstrips, who were later taken over by Snapchat, who then ran Bitmoji as a sole division. While Snapchat owns Bitmoji, you can still use Bitmoji on a variety of platforms that include Facebook, Slack and iMessage. Alongside Bitmoji, the market of avatar apps has quickly developed with players such as FaceQ, Supermii, Androidify and VTag to name a few.
We also can see the popularity of customising in-game characters, showing an interest in cultivating virtual personas whilst playing our favourite games. Developers have created in-game stores to purchase clothing and accessories as a means of creating personalised and unique characters, that reflects who we want to be in a specific game. This is also a profitable revenue stream for developers, for example, Fortnite sold 5 million Battle Passes in 2018 within the first day of season 3. These Battle Passes ensured that every level up the player would receive an item to further customise characters in-game.
Evaluating The Virtual Influencer Within Influencer Marketing
So let’s explore the pros and cons of virtual influencers within influencer marketing. The first argument that comes to mind against virtual influencers is perhaps the perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards. Often virtual influencers are aesthetic crafts or perfected female/male beauty. However, over the past few years, we are seeing a shift away from the unrealistic body standards, so do we really need virtual influencers continuing to promote falsehoods of what is considered beautiful? But, to counter this, with the photo editing software available to the masses, a lot of influencers are already crafting perceptions online that are fake and unrealistic.
There is also the level of deception that we often fall for, many virtual influencers are so popular because of how ambiguous they are, often making us question if that is in fact a real person. Furthermore, if a virtual influencer was to promote a beauty product, the appearance of that product would be completely digitally generated on to the influencer. Therefore, can the product be truthfully marketed through virtual influencers? Take for example the mascara adverts we see on TV, often models wear fake lashes to accentuate the effect of the product, the brand often will state as much in small text overlays on that ad. If a virtual influencer was to promote mascara, what stops that influencer from enhancing the product appearance, and how would we know this or not?
However, there are some pros of virtual influencers, including the control marketers can have on how the product is being promoted and the risk aversion factor. A virtual influencer isn’t going to be tweeting something controversial that can impact brand partnerships… well that could also depend on who is behind the virtual influencer!
Furthermore, virtual influencers are a great way to engage a younger audience. For example, the majority of Lil Miquela’s audience on Instagram is under the age of 25, coupled with a relatively high engagement rate compared to following size – it is clear the virtual influencer has a great platform that brands can benefit from partnering with.
But let’s not downplay the role of great influencers, virtual influencers are not the best route for every brand. Authenticity is always key, and that can be a limitation to virtual influencers who do not represent real life and a real person. At the end of the day, we purchase something from the recommendations of someone we know and trust – particularly for products that keep consumers in the consideration phase longer. Unlike virtual influencers, real people, real influencers have the ability to resonate with their community, and for that reason, a brand selling a product to a specific target audience, will need the right influencer who represents a particular niche to effectively persuade their followers that a product is a must-have.
That being said, virtual influencers are here to stay, and particularly for fashion brands, this type of influencer is an interesting route for marketing the latest products. There is also a lot to be said for avatars and AR being used to assist in pushing consumers further down the marketing funnel with virtual try-on technology.
It will be interesting to see what the virtual influencer landscape will be in the years to come, especially as more creators dabble in VTubing and we as social media users get more accustomed to virtual influencers on our feeds.