“Influencer” should be a word familiar to anyone who is venturing into the world of social media and, by extension, YouTube (don’t worry if it’s not, we’re going to explain it in a little more detail below).
But something that could less familiar to many is the term “virtual influencer”.
What are virtual influencers? – Virtual influencers are people that use digital avatars to represent themselves online. This means they don’t have to physically show their face or in some cases even exist. They can then make money with brand deals, merchandise or even traditional marketing using this persona.
A recent influx of “virtual” characters on platforms like YouTube and Instagram have created a whole new arena for creators, and that arena is producing plenty of influencers of its own. Virtual YouTubers are a new breed of YouTuber that are essentially digital beings controlled by regular flesh-and-bone people, often in much the same way that Jim Henson’s muppets are made to act as though they are real by their puppeteers.
Virtual influencers, of course, are virtual characters that have reached influencer status.
What is an Influencer?
Let’s start with the basics. We’re assuming that most people reading this post know what an influencer is, but in the interests of providing a comprehensive answer to the question posed here, we’re going to give a brief explanation for those that don’t.
An influencer is exactly what you might think from the name; a person who influences other people. In the context of the Internet and social media, it is an almost crass term, as it relates primarily to a person’s ability to influence the purchasing decisions of a significant number of people. This, in turn, corresponds to the financial opportunities that that person can leverage. In other words, people who are influencers will have more opportunity to get paid to use their influencing power to promote things.
Influencers typically have spheres of influence. For example, immensely popular YouTuber, Zoella, has a lot of influence in the realm of beauty products. The fact that she has so much influence in that sphere means she is likely to be able to command a very high asking price for her services, but the focus of her sphere means she is unlikely to be approached to promote, say, a video game, or mechanic’s tools. The people she influences simply aren’t interested in those things.
The nature of successful advertising is one of accurate targeting. Advertisers like to be able to direct their advertisements at the most receptive audiences possible. This is why there are often diminishing returns on audience size when it comes to how much your influence is worth.
Take PewDiePie, for example. If we take a simplistic approach to audience size and just count YouTube subscribers, PewDiePie has somewhere in the region of ten times the audience size of Zoella. Of course, he makes a handsome amount of money from this audience, but you don’t tend to get an audience that size without it becoming unfocused and more diverse. While advertisers can be relatively confident that the people watching Zoella are interested in fashion and beauty products, they can’t have the same confidence with PewDiePie because his content is more varied. This is why an influencer can be someone with as little as a few tens of thousands of subscribers or followers; it is more about the market impact they can command than the raw number of subscribers or followers.
There are also side roads into influencer status, such as people who themselves may not have a big following, but appear on podcasts or YouTube channels that have a big audience.
What Are Virtual YouTubers?
So, we know what the “influencer” part means, but what about the “virtual” part? We touched on this above, but for those who are still unclear, we thought we’d best dig a little deeper. Incidentally, if you would like a more in-depth look at what virtual YouTubers are, check out this post.
Virtual YouTubers are YouTubers that run their channel from behind the guise of a digital avatar. For the vast majority of virtual YouTube channels, this digital avatar will be in the form of a Japanese anime character, though more and more alternative styles are creeping in as the channel type becomes increasingly popular.
A variety of techniques are used to bring the virtual avatar to life, but the basic premise is usually one of live motion capture where, using one of a few techniques, the YouTuber’s motions are captured and translated to the digital avatar. This allows the YouTuber to record a video as though they were recording a regular video, but the result would be of their digital avatar rather than themselves.
What are Virtual Influencers?
Being a primarily YouTube-orientated blog and channel, we have mainly focused on virtual YouTubers around here, but the premise is essentially the same whether it be on YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, or any other video platform. And there is often a lot of crossovers, with virtual YouTubers quite often streaming on Twitch, and almost anyone with a remotely high profile having an Instagram account.
Virtual influencers are influencers in the sense we discussed above who also happen to be virtual characters like the virtual YouTubers we described, though not limited to the YouTube platform. These influencers will usually present themselves as real beings in much the same way that any other fictional character would. To continue with the example of the Muppets mentioned above, you don’t see Kermit acknowledging that he is a felt puppet with a human controlling him; he acts as though he is a real frog. Virtual influencers do the same. They may present themselves as a self-aware computer program, a real girl who just happens to be animated, or they may not even reference the fact that they are digital at all, and present their content as though it were just like any other video. In any case, it is rare for virtual influencers to break the fourth wall, as it were.
There are many advantages to being a virtual influencer. For one thing, it can be very freeing to play a character, rather than yourself.
Many actors are notoriously shy and reserved in their everyday life but have no problem getting on a stage in front of hundreds of people; it is one of the quirks of human nature.
Another reason to go virtual is that it removes a lot of restrictions on what is possible. Your avatar is not limited to things like the laws of physics, or your location in the world. If you want them to fly around, you can do that. If you want them to present a video from the surface of the Moon, you can do that. The only limitations on what you can do with a virtual avatar are those of your own ability or resources. Which is to say, if you don’t know how to do something yourself; there will always be someone you can pay to do it for you.
What’s in it for Brands?
A natural follow-up question in this topic—especially if you are thinking about the financial future of your potential virtual influencer career—is what might be in it for brands. Specifically, does being virtual give you any kind of edge over the conventional way of doing things? Could it harm your chances of getting a lucrative brand deal?
Unfortunately, there are no real advantages from a marketing perspective. That is, none that are universal. For example, a virtual YouTuber might be an especially good fit for a particular niche, such as gaming, but that is more down to the specifics of that niche than the fact the YouTuber is virtual. Being virtual would not help them with other niches.
The good news is that there are no real disadvantages to being a virtual influencer when it comes to getting brand deals. Brands care about your audience and whether they consider your content appropriate for them. Whether or not you are virtual is unlikely to factor into this.
Though not necessarily much use to an aspiring YouTuber or general Internet influencer, some brands are starting to see the advantages of using virtual avatars rather than real people in their promotional material.
This isn’t new, of course; mascots have been around for centuries. Probably longer. But the advent of virtual avatars gives brands a much easier way to create a public face that can be easily managed and stay in rotation for as long as they need.
As a brand, you don’t need to worry about a virtual avatar having an off-day, getting older, dramatically changing their look, being convicted of a crime, or any number of other things that would be a nuisance at best or a PR nightmare at worst for a brand. They can also be managed by different people, meaning the brand is not beholden to a single actor or voice actor. If your current digital avatar’s voice actor quits, you can simply hire a new one with a similar sounding voice, and things carry on as normal.
As we said, this isn’t much use to your average Internet influencer—unless they are planning land a career as the person behind a brand’s virtual mascot—but it helps to understand the full landscape of virtual influencers when first venturing into this new facet of online influencing.
How to Become a Virtual Influencer
We’d love to say there are some unique tips for succeeding on your path to becoming a virtual influencer, but the truth is that things work almost identically to how they are for regular influencers, and if there was some secret sauce to that, everybody would be an influencer. There are certain tips you can follow that will at least keep you on the right path.
Pick Your Niche
As we mentioned above, it is much easier to become an influencer in a focused niche than it is with a broad audience, so you will increase your chances of reaching influencer status if you grow to prominence in a particular area. That way, brands whose primary audience is in that same niche will see you as a more compelling option when looking for influencers to work with.
Be Mindful of Your Own “Brand”
An influencer who is not working with brands to promote things and get paid is just someone who is popular, so we’re going to assume that if you are reading a post on influencers, you are interested in the money-making side of things. With that in mind, you will need to be careful with your own brand because it will affect what other brands will be prepared to work for you.
Of course, you can choose what kind of brand you want to be; there are plenty of different types of company out there, so you can certainly pick your lane, so to speak. The important part is to be consistent with that lane. As many celebrities, YouTubers, and influencers have found, even one “off-brand” slip up can be costly in terms of deals with other brands.
To give a fictional example, say you build yourself up as an influencer in the vegan niche. Even a single tweet about enjoying a beef burger from years ago could be enough to stop you getting brand deals with vegan companies.
Don’t Rush It
It can be tempting to take shortcuts—things like buying subscribers—but resist this temptation.
The nature of your audience will have a big impact on the future of your audience, and things like bought subscribers will dramatically reduce the quality of your audience. People (and certainly brands) will spot this kind of dishonesty, which will reduce the rate at which your influence can grow, if not stop it altogether.
Being a virtual influencer may not be much different from being a regular influencer from the influencing side of things, though the process of being virtual is a little different.
Overall, the advantages of being virtual tend to benefit the brands that adopt them more than they benefit the influencers who are them. This is not to say you shouldn’t do it if the virtual influencer life appeals to you, but make this decision on its own merits—decide if being a virtual character is right for you without the external branding side of things—since you are not likely to be much better off as a virtual influencer than you are as a regular one.