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Virtual Influencers: Your Key To Reaching Gen Z

Written by
Published on
April 6, 2023
Last updated
January 18, 2024

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TikTok trends are famously unpredictable.

From lip-syncing battles, to dressing your middle aged mother as yourself, to superimposing eyes onto inanimate objects: one thing is clear. No one knows what this platform is going to soar to stardom next.

This week, however, a darker subject took the stage. Death. TikTok is officially in mourning – because John Pork is dead.

If this is your first time hearing this statement, you might want to read on: because (and we promise it’s not as dark as you might think) John Pork’s death represents the birth of a newer phenomenon.

John Pork: Gen Z's newest favourite virtual influencer

Before we get confused, let’s circle back to who John Pork actually is. 

John Pork is a virtual influencer. However, he has a slight twist, appearing as a human with a computer-generated pig head.

First materialising on Instagram back in 2018, he refers to himself as a ‘fashion model’, often sharing videos of himself dancing or posing in enviable attire.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by John Pork (@john.pork)

The bizarre yet compelling account has seen John Pork attaining viral status amongst Gen Z, with #JohnPork holding over 181 million views on TikTok.

Recently, the computer-generated pig took the web by storm after #JohnPorkIsDead started trending online. This story progression seems to have been birthed by TikTok users themselves, with the actual creator of the John Pork account confirming no such thing.

With the internet in uproar, we take a look at the wider influence movement John Pork is part of – namely, virtual influencers.

What are virtual influencers?

Virtual influencers are fictional, computer generated entities who have the same characteristics, features and personalities as humans.

Social media, as part of the online world, has been a landscape where human to robot interactions are evolving at a rapid pace.

Specifically, the influencer marketing industry is seeing virtual influencers emerging on social media platforms Instagram and TikTok quicker than ever – and brands are already getting involved to work with this futuristic form of marketing.

How do virtual influencers work?

Spoiler alert: virtual influencers aren’t real.

They don’t actually exist in the human world, but are rather the product of clever creators who remain faceless. These creators are responsible for growing the virtual influencers’ platform and moulding them into internationally recognised figures.

Because these figures aren’t real, they’re open to any kind of creator interpretation.

The creator can choose the way the virtual influencer acts, dresses and looks. As shared by Andrew Dawson from Brandwatch during his session at YMS New York, virtual influencers “might just be the future” – brands can personify them in a way they can’t with human influencers.

Why are virtual influencers an appealing choice?

Firstly, they give brands absolute control; including on the creative process, which is usually dependent on the brand and creator/influencer.

Equally, brands don’t have to worry about securing the loyalty of a virtual influencer – no sick days, no pre-existing commitments – they can always be relied on.

Virtual influencers don’t have any capabilities to cause scandal or embarrassment for brands (as we’ve seen many a time with real life influencers!). Finally, many virtual influencers, are an appealing choice for brands because they’re exciting.

Gen Z are driving the virtual influencer space

Virtual influencers allow brands to connect to Gen Z audiences. Gen Z has grown up in the technological world, and are far more familiar with the use of avatars than other generations.

In fact, according to Roblox, 42% of digital world users have said they can express themselves more in the digital world than in real life.

Asia is leading the way here, with 60% of Chinese netizens following virtual idols. Engagement rates with virtual influencers are often found to be three times higher than their real counterparts among Chinese consumers.

How are brands getting involved?

Brands are using virtual influencers as part of their digital strategy.

Balmain

Balmain’s virtual influencer campaign dates back to 2018, showcasing three digital women as a "virtual army" of digital models. Through 3D imaging, these three models came together for a photoshoot. Reactions were varied, with most drawn in by the ultra-realism of the images. Others claimed the images were "never going to be as good as real people".

Marks and Spencer

Across the pond, M&S was the first UK retailer to introduce a virtual influencer with their own Instagram account. ‘Mira’ now counts over 5,000 followers, and she has been featured in campaigns to promote the retailer’s clothing. This comes as part of M&S' strategy to reach a younger audience and build community amongst those who are interested in this new form of social media marketing technology.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Mira (@marksandspencer_mira)

The World Health Organisation

The World Health Organisation has even got involved, partnering with CGI influencer Knox Frost in 2020 to promote healthy practices amongst the COVID19 pandemic. Again, just like M&S, the WHO mobilised this popular virtual influencer to amplify their message to Gen Z demographics.

Who are the most popular virtual influencers?

Aside from our fav John Pork, which virtual influencers are leading the way online?

Lil Miquela

Lil Miquela first mystified the internet back in 2016. She quickly became virtual influencer royalty, dubbed as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by TIME and collaborating with the likes of Bella Hadid.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuTowFf6B9I

Livi

Livi is the virtual ambassador for LVMH. First unveiled during the LVMH Innovation Award ceremony, Livi has been modelled in 3D and dressed (of course) by the LVMH fashion and jewellery maisons.

JANKY

Janky is the brainchild of Superplastic. Hailing from L.A., this cartoon stunt-man first created and made an appearance back in 2018. He’s worked with brands like Tinder, Prada and Red Bull, and boasts over a million followers on Instagram.

Final takeaways

Digital first. Young consumers are driven by technology – and as technology becomes even more advanced, virtual influencers offer a fun and exciting way to reach them.

Creative control. Virtual influencers also offer brands the chance to maintain complete creative control over their projects.

Risk adverse. Finally, virtual influencers limit the risk exposure for brands – they aren't going to be weighed down by any scandals and can't tarnish your brands reputation (unless you want them to!).

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