Key Opinion Leaders or KOL is the term used in China to describe social media influencers. Like in the west, they influence the public perception of brands on social media platforms through their content. But influencers like we all know them are no longer the only option when it comes to collaborations on social platforms in China. For a while now, virtual characters have been giving real people some serious competition. Brands are now partnering with CGI/AI-generated influencers to advertise their products – from Tesla to the world's largest fashion and skincare brands, such as Dior and Bulgari. So let's talk about that!
China's virtual KOL, are digitally generated characters and have become real game changers. Bloomberg estimates that the virtual influencer market has increased 70% since 2017 and reached a worth of $960 million in 2021. Their audience, which is primarily made up of Gen Z and millennials, has grown to about 390 million people.
Virtual KOL "work" on the same platforms as real content creators and connect with their fans through social media, using multiple platforms at the same time. They can be found on Weibo, Bilibili, and Douyin (China's equivalents of Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok) as well as other platforms such as Xiaohongshu and Taobao. These mostly e-commerce-driven platforms, which are not accessible in western markets, offer virtual KOLs - and the real companies behind them - a variety of ways to monetize their characters. So it's no surprise that many brands are now also wondering how they can profit from the buzz.
Brands can work with hyper-realistic human-like figures, virtual idols (also known as digital performers or vocaloids), famous characters from established franchises, or design their own characters that fit their brand perfectly. There are various types of virtual KOL that can represent a brand. But what to look for when choosing the right collaboration partner? Here is our advice:
• Just as with human influencers, with virtual influencers, you first have to find the right one and choose carefully. You have to consider whether they fit your brand image and if their followers are the right target audience for you.
• Once this decision has been made, the choice of platforms is important. They should select the most suitable and promising platforms with you to promote the creations for your brand.
• On the brand side, it should also be considered that not every product is a good fit for every influencer and that the specific products should be chosen carefully. This is a particularly important issue for any kind of collaboration in the Chinese market.
Do you lack a bit of imagination about what these influencers look like? Here are three names worth looking at to understand how these virtual characters look and act and how different they can be.
Ayayi, China's most famous "meta-human," is a hyper-realistic digital person. You should look her up to get a sense of the great modern aesthetics she offers her audience.
Luo Tianyi, an anime character with a beautiful voice, is another important figure. She has millions of followers on Weibo, broadcasts Taobao shopping live streams, is the face of several commercial campaigns, has played multiple virtual concerts on Bilibili, and has a large enough fan base to perform in multiple actual shows.
It is most definitely also worth taking a look at an influencer created specifically for a brand: L’Oréal’s Mr. Ou is a character invented by the company functioning as an in-house virtual idol. He is a French-Chinese, 24-year-old beauty entrepreneur who is also interested and invested in the trending topic of sustainability.
There is a multitude of reasons why we are sure that virtual influencers are a phenomenon that will be with us for a long time to come. You could even say, the rise of virtual influencers is inevitable. Our lives and interests are becoming more digital. Virtual influencers should be seen in the same light as 5G, AI, blockchain and NFTs, which will have a significant impact on shaping our future. And from a marketing point of view, virtual influencers make a lot of sense because they can meet the very specific needs of brands.
Aside from their flawless appearances, virtual influencers have some advantages over their human predecessors that make them more reliable collaboration partners to plan with for a longer time. Here are some major selling points:
• Risk: Virtual influencers have a favorable public image and are considered low-risk. A human is more likely to become involved in a scandal, lowering their value as an influencer.
• Time: Successful human influencers are bound to strict schedules, whereas virtual ones have greater flexibility.
• Fans: Virtual influencers catch the interest of young people. They excel in forming relationships with followers and making strong connections, gaining a large number of devoted followers.
Virtual idols are not yet able to fully replace real internet celebrities but they have a lot of attractive sides to them. The collection of data and ability to interact with every fan as well as being able to take on far more tasks than humans are remarkable and economically very promising points. The initial technology is quite expensive now but the cost will ultimately pay off. Existing virtual KOL will become more popular and specially created ones can be used in many different areas for different tasks. In the future, we may, for example, also see virtual KOL operating virtual customer service or hosting 24-hour live broadcasts. We should expect additional opportunities to develop soon, as most businesses are beginning to explore the potential of China's virtual influencer market. We believe that brands should seek consultation and should define a clear strategy with experts for capitalizing on the new digital marketing channel. It will be worthwhile.