Just when you thought that augmented and virtual reality couldn’t make social media any more futuristic, there exists an entire category of virtual social media users. These CGI influencers are not merely social experiments – they are actually building live, engaged audiences and promoting products.
What are CGI influencers?
CGI, or computer-generated imagery, allows movie producers to integrate animation with real life. Movie directors like James Cameron have brought CGI to the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Avatar and Star Wars.
Today, CGI has moved beyond movies and into social media.
CGI influencers are computer-generated characters that have a social media account and nurture connections with online audiences. Most CGI influencers are built by teams of developers and graphic designers.
Many marketers are skeptical when they first learn about CGI influencers. But the reality is that these virtual personalities earn a decent volume of consumer interest.
“Their existence is fake, but their influence is real.”– USA Today
In fact, a recent study by Fullscreen confirmed that CGI influencers have a positive impact on consumer buyer behavior.
Leveraging non-human personalities to promote your brand on social media is somewhat out of the ordinary. But social media marketers are finding that these CGI influencers come with some significant advantages.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Using CGI Influencers
With CGI influencers, brands have complete control over their influencer. Influencers IRL (in real life) might go off-message or express a social value that alienates audience segments.
For example, in Takumi’s recent industry report, Into the Mainstream: Influencer Marketing in Society, it’s clear that influencers are becoming more bold in their political and social views. In general, followers feel empowered by this, thereby increasing demand for politically-charged influencer posts. But for brands, this trend feels unnecessarily polarizing.
“However, over half (55%) of marketers surveyed across the UK, US and Germany indicated they would be anxious about working with an influencer who is vocal about social and political causes.”– Takumi
With CGI influencers, brands don’t have to worry about politically-charged influencer posts. Furthermore, marketers aren’t concerned that virtual influencers will become the subject in a public scandal. Developers program their avatar to perform exactly as the brand intended.
But not only do you control the virtual influencer, you can also manipulate the environment in which the influencer interacts. For example, CGI influencers can pose with products anywhere in the world without having to actually go there. For this reason, some experts believe that CGI influencers could be especially valuable for tourism brands.
Do you need to showcase a certain color scheme? Programmers can add those colors virtually. The same is also true for outfits, cosmetics, buildings, scenery, co-branded campaigns (CGI influencers posing with celebrities, other virtual influencers, etc.), and more.
There’s no question that the world of CGI social media personalities opens up enormous creative opportunities.
The glaring disadvantage of CGI influencers has probably been on the front of your mind since you started reading this blog – these influencers aren’t real.
The consumer trust factor continues to be the main reason why brands prefer to partner with influencers. These social media power users function as top consumers and demonstrate expertise – human expertise – within a particular industry or lifestyle. Influencer marketing is currently the leading source of positive user-generated content and customer advocacy initiatives.
But what happens when an influencer campaign features a non-human without the ability to actually taste, touch, feel, etc.? Studies show that CGI influencers do have some influence, but experts are skeptical that virtual influencers have the ability to replicate human influencer performance.
Combining CGI Influencers and Real Influencers
Some brands have found a sweet spot when combining CGI influencers with real influencers. These co-branded campaigns are fun for fans, brands, and influencers and can increase the campaign’s reach and appeal.
What are the challenges of working with CGI influencers?
An ongoing challenge when it comes to CGI influencers is designing and programming them. Developers work hard to make their characters relatable and life-like. The leading CGI influencers are byproducts not of individuals, but of entire creative teams.
Design challenges increase when the CGI influencers are supposed to showcase a brand’s products or services.
Should you contact the CGI creator or build your own virtual influencer?
If you’ve decided that your brand needs a CGI influencer for an upcoming campaign, you’ll have to figure out if you plan to partner with an existing virtual influencer or if your organization has the creative power to build one in-house.
If you’re creating your own avatar, you’ll need to factor in the time it takes to create the CGI. Additionally, you’ll need a social media team to help your CGI character build an online audience. This is the more tedious route, but if you plan to make your CGI influencer a critical part of your marketing strategy, then you will lower your costs in the long run.
To partner with an existing CGI influencer, you have to get in touch with the developers. Often, contacting developers means reaching out to an agency like Brud. These agencies may cost you more per campaign than creating a CGI character in-house, but they’ve already done the work of creating a lifelike character and nurturing an engaged online audience.
How much do CGI influencers cost?
If you’re using your own teams to create a CGI influencer, the cost is the amount of labor it takes to build your avatar and online audience. Depending on how talented your team is, this could take more or less time than you originally planned.
There is a certain amount of mystery around CGI influencer marketing budgets. Partnerships between CGI developers and brands are new. As such, there’s no set budget for these influencers.
It’s unlikely that brands will be able to lower their campaign costs with techniques like product seeding. But some agencies may accept influencer commissions.
How do you maintain brand transparency while partnering with CGI influencers?
Perhaps your biggest challenge when working with CGI influencers is being transparent with your audience. Audiences that feel duped don’t typically remain loyal to the brand that they feel deceived them.
So it’s critical that you are clear with fans that your campaign does not feature a real person. Taking this into account, it may be difficult to create a compelling product review campaign under the circumstances. However, CGI influencers can enhance your brand in surprising ways, and as already mentioned, you maintain full control over your virtual influencer.
How do you work with CGI influencers?
In most brand-influencer partnerships, there are a lot of moving parts. That’s because a non-branded third party is typically a real-life consumer with a large social network.
But with CGI influencers, you’re working with CGI designers and programmers. Many marketing steps resemble any other type of campaign. However, the main difference is that you are not working with a live human to promote your brand. Instead, you’re crafting a strategy around a lifelike animated character.
1. Define your campaign goals.
It’s likely that you’ve chosen a CGI influencer in the first place because you have some very specific objectives. For example, CGI influencers are generally more popular with niche audiences, such as young people, anime fans, or special effects enthusiasts.
Make sure that you are clear with your team and the CGI designers what your desired campaigns outcomes are. From your goals, you can assign KPIs based on forecasted performance metrics.
2. Create buyer personas.
Before taking a look at CGI characters on social media, it’s a good idea to create a marketing avatar representing your key marketing segments. Hubspot’s buyer persona templates are free and a great place to start.
Buyer personas are especially helpful when either selecting or creating your CGI influencer. You want your virtual personality to be relatable to your target audience. And buyer personas are often an essential part of identifying the key attributes in a CGI influencer.
3. Identify or create your ideal CGI influencer.
While there are a growing number of CGI social media profiles, there are not too many to choose from that have audiences in excess of 10,000 followers. In fact, your most difficult task might be finding a CGI influencer in the first place. We’ve included a list below to help you get started on your CGI influencer search.
When establishing a relationship with a CGI developer for the first time, you will want to reach out by email to start the conversation. If any of your active influencers have experience with CGI influencers, you could leverage those relationships, as well.
Creating a CGI influencer from scratch will take time. Not only do your designers need time to develop the character, but your social media team can’t build a sizable audience overnight.
4. Work with programmers closely.
With CGI influencers, you’re most likely collaborating with a team of programmers and designers. Make sure that you have a solid point of contact with the development team so that your promotional posts work properly with the CGI character.
5. Track performance.
Once you’ve launched your CGI influencer campaign, it’s time to compare live results with your marketing KPIs.
Engagements are your first batch of key performance indicators. You can calculate your engagement rate by using the following formula:
# of Engagements [i.e., likes, comments, shares, etc.] / # of Followers
Conversions track the number of times that a consumer accepted your call to action (CTA). These metrics include, but are not limited to:
- Link clicks
- Click-thru Rate (CTR)
You can track these metrics manually using spreadsheets. As your influencer program grows, you will want to invest in an influencer marketing platform like GRIN to lower your costs and streamline your program.
Top 5 CGI Influencers
Developer: Cameron-James Wilson
Social channel: Instagram
Posts: 100 (as of February 2022)
Shudu is the “world’s first digital supermodel,” and she hails from Africa. Her character is elegant and ethnic. Shudu partners with a number of luxury fashion brands, including Salvatore Ferragamo, GQ, and Christian Louboutin.
Social channel: Instagram
Followers: 3.1 million
Posts: 1,174 (as of February 2022)
Lil Miquela is without a doubt the most popular CGI influencer on social media. Her character occupies a spot on TIME’s list of “The 25 Most Influential People on the Internet.”
Forever 19 years old, Miquela loves fashion, and she is an outspoken advocate for Black Lives Matter and teen romance.
Developer: ModelingCafe Inc.
Social channel: Instagram
Posts: 621 (as of February 2022)
Shudu’s Japanese counterpart might be Imma, fashion model and world traveler. Among Imma’s endearing features is her relationship with her dog, Cotton-Candy-Stein. She is also an ambassador for Amazon’s The Drop.
Social channel: Instagram
Posts: 162 (as of February 2022)
Developer: Sasaki Wataru (Crypton Future Media, Inc)
Followers: 1.48 million
Hatsune Miku is arguably the first CGI influencer. Her most active social channel is YouTube, and she loves music. Songwriters have used Hatsune as a virtual vocalist to sing original music on-demand. Since her debut in 2007, she’s been featured in professional music videos, as well as several corporate sponsorships.
Conclusion: The Future of CGI Influencers
The CGI influencer movement is in its early stages. As such, it’s difficult to determine whether CGI has a long-term future in social media and influencer marketing. Some experts see CGI influencers as a type of digital mascot, similar to the Geico Gecko.
However, a long-standing value in the world of programming is that vision precludes reality, not the other way around. In other words, CGI influencers could be the beginning of a new era of marketing and product development. We see this reality virtually at first, and before long, creator imaginations move beyond the screen and further enhance the consumer experience.
Either way, open-mindedness and experimentation can open up new ROI opportunities. So far, CGI influencers are delivering an impressive early performance.
Updated: May 2022
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