“Shop City” illustrates one of the two ways that brands can activate virtual influencers: By partnering with one that already exists or, alternatively, by creating their own.
“When you partner with the existing virtual influencer, you have a higher chance of coming across as more ‘authentic,’” said Kelsey Chickering, principal analyst at Forrester.
“Shop City’s” metaverse fashion consultant is neither a creation of Forever 21 nor a third-party studio, but rather a Gen-Z player that has grown an organic following on the platform. Users in nascent metaverse worlds are more likely, it seems, to accept and engage with advertising that does not feel invasive to their communities. This is especially pertinent as those worlds begin to populate with more brands and players.
Partnering with existing virtual influencers could also be a major step toward transitioning the space away from publicity stunts and into more mainstream components of marketing strategies, said Chickering.
As augmented and virtual reality see greater adoption from consumers, virtual influencing will become increasingly more accessible, creating more partnership opportunities for brands.
For example, Zepeto is a mobile app that allows users to create a virtual avatar from a selfie and share it across social media in photos and videos. The technology mirrors the avatar feature that TikTok is currently testing. Users play mini-games in order to win currency to upgrade their avatars and furnish their homes, and can also interact with other avatars on the platform.
It is conceivable to see how brands could collaborate with popular avatars on Zepeto and engage with a community that is already familiar with an in-game currency system.
AR and VR capabilities, like those of Zepeto, are the tools that bring virtual influencers to life, said Offbeat Media’s Ogden. In particular, he mentioned the increasing user-friendliness in categories like retail. Snapchat, Pinterest and TikTok are all platforms that pair AR with e-commerce efforts, allowing for features like 3D makeup tutorials and the ability to digitally try on clothing.
IP as influencers
In contrast to partnering with pre-existing creators, some brands have built-in intellectual property that they can leverage into creating their own virtual influencers.
Barbie, for example, went from a fashion doll into an influencer when, in 2015, she began hosting a YouTube vlog. Her creator presence has since been extended to other platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, and could very well land in the metaverse next.
“The unique thing with Barbie is that she's a brand but she also is a character, and she always has been,” said Nathan Baynard, VP of global brand marketing at Barbie. “It's just about finding a way to bring her to life on these different channels … and then giving her appropriate topics that feel authentic and resonate and relevant to the platform.”