The Future of Influencers
A couple months ago, we wrote about influencer marketing as a marketing channel for gaming. Today, we want to discuss the rise of virtual influencers, a niche that we believe will see increasing interest as more and more brands begin to explore their metaverse identities.
First, what is a virtual influencer? A virtual influencer is a digital character that is given a personality defined by a first-person view of the world, and made accessible on media platforms for the sake of influence (VirtualHumans.org).
The most popular examples of virtual influencers in gaming is the digital K-pop group K/DA, created by Riot Games (League of Legends). The group was initially born from Riot’s desire to explore musical content, promote the League World Championship, and to sell in-game K/DA skins for the characters Evelynn, Kai’Sa, Ahri, and Akali. However, since their debut at the 2018 LoL World Championships, the group has hit a far wider reach than many anticipated, with their music video topping Billboard's World Digital Song Sales chart and surpassing 100m views on YouTube within the first month (472m at the time of writing). The group has also “collaborated” with Louis Vuitton, which subsequently was tied to in-game sales of Louis Vuitton skins for their matching playable characters (Nylon).
Why use virtual influencers?: In our piece on influencer marketing, we pointed out three key considerations when crafting an influencer marketing strategy: choosing the right format and channel, choosing the right influencers to tie the brand to, and defining your strategy and how you measure success. Virtual influencers mitigate many of the potential pitfalls we highlighted:
- Virtual influencers are transmedia: Virtual influencers, and their storylines and experiences, are digitally native and therefore can be accessed through different mediums. While traditional influencers are limited to 1-2 main media channels (Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc) while deprioritizing others, virtual influencers and their translatable content can move across all channels with significantly less time committed and cost incurred. Additionally, virtual influencers are not limited by time or location, meaning that this online personna can be adaptable across geographies (for example, a virtual influencer can be “travelling” from Japan to London to Milan without any true capital expenditure on travel).
- Controllable brand image: When a real person is the face of a brand, their actions (and consequences) are in many circumstances associated with the brand themselves. While brands are at the mercy of the personal actions of their human ambassadors, they have complete control of virtual influencers they own.
- Ability to strengthen IP by deepening history/lore: Virtual influencers are not subject to “life changes” such as moving to a new city, getting a new job, starting a family, or even aging. As a result, they are able to stay in the same role for longer periods of time which gives brands the opportunity to deepen their narrative and the subsequent tie to the brand.
- Cost: All real-life influencers cost money and celebrity brand ambassadors are particularly expensive. Virtual influencers do not command a salary outside of the marketing team responsible for managing their image.
Additionally, virtual influencers that are associated with a specific brand have the ability to bring new life to the brand’s image as they bring in a new following of consumers. Geico, one of the older users of a digital-native identity, has been using their Geico Gecko since 2000 and is one of the most recognizable digital personas (USA Today). Mattel’s Barbie has also adopted a digital “Vtuber” personna to stay connected with fans through sharing tips on makeup, cooking, DIY, tutorials, fashion, and other topics (Prestige). The YouTube channel now has almost 11m subscribers (YouTube).
On the other hand, these types of influences have unique pitfalls that are specific to this form of media:
- Popularizing perfect lifestyles and aesthetics: Social media today is already filled with influencers promoting unrealistic beauty and body standards through Photoshop, plastic surgery, heavy make up, and more. Virtual influencers take this a step further as every “physical body” is designed and can be modified down to a freckle. The more these types of influencers are “humanized” to the point where people forget they are robots, the more likely their audience is to compare themselves to these unrealistic, unattainable levels of perfection.
- Reflecting biases of their creators: Behind every virtual influencer is a person, or a team of people, that is responsible for engineering their persona. Similar to AI, the digital identity then is subject to the same biases as their creators.
- Lack of authenticity: Traditional influencer marketing succeeds when it focuses on authenticity and transparency; however, virtual influencers are entirely fabricated personas that are perfectly crafted based on what their creators assume their audience is interested in. Depending on the community and their trust in and adoption of what is essentially a conceived character, this can backfire and cause consumer distrust in the brand.
Takeaway: Virtual influencers can be very powerful and scalable for gaming companies to use and we have seen evidence (through games like LoL and gaming-specific Vtubers) that gaming consumers are receptive to this type of marketing; games are after all filled with imagined characters and made up worlds. We believe that in addition to IP extensions, the use of virtual influencers can be extended to other areas of the gaming industry such as esports and game discovery. However, it is critical to highlight the importance of authenticity and transparency with your player base in crafting each influencer’s daily interactions and personal history.