Akshit Pushkarna

Are virtual influencers a fad in India?

Social media today hosts tons of influential personalities, who drive mass opinion with their every move. That has been traditionally the case, even before the advent of the World Wide Web. However, gaining a following and influencing decisions, are something that you won’t expect from a non-living thing.

That’s exactly what the creators of Lil’ Miquela Sousa set out to change, when it first created a profile of the virtual character on Instagram in 2016. Six years down the line, the character, which has about three million followers, has collaborated with many personalities and brands. What the character also did, was trigger a new trend in the industry – that of virtual influencers.

Recently, India got its first virtual influencer, when Himanshu Goel, business head, TopSocial India, initiated the development of Kyra.

"When parsing through the trends and innovations in the social media marketing industry, we realised that almost every country has a major virtual influencer, with a decent following. We thought it would be huge in India, because we have a large population and traction for something like this here, seemed promising. In 2021, we started to work on this. Currently, our plan is to shift into a virtual influencer business with a new company,” Goel tells afaqs!.

TopSocial brought Kyra to life in January 2022. It has about 200 human characteristics, likes/dislikes, interests and hobbies that form her personality. Although the project is still in a nascent stage, Kyra has close to two lakh followers on Instagram.

Although Kyra is the first of its kind in the Indian market, it may trigger more of its kind in future. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 30% of influencer marketing budgets will be allocated to virtual influencers globally.

While virtual influencers have been able to gain prominence more quickly in the western markets, there isn’t similar traction in India till now, according to industry experts. They are unsure about them making a dent in the Indian market, as of now.

“The idea is new for the Indian market at the moment. Right now, it’s more in the stage of something that’s available, rather than something that’s accepted. The whole idea of an influencer is that you follow a certain person, because you resonate with their personality and interest. It works because there is a connection that is developed largely due to the fact that the audience relates to the influencer,” says Ramya Ramachandran, Founder and CEO, Whoppl.

“Right now, this authenticity is something that is lacking for virtual influencers. There is no story behind them and, hence, no specific category of influence.”

Ramachandran expresses concern over the lack of appeal of a virtual influencer for the Indian audiences, Neel Gogia, co-founder, IPLIX media, feels the concept is more gimmicky, rather than a viable marketing strategy for a brand.

“Brands don’t see a major value to it because it’s a sort of a gimmick right now. Virtual influencers need to be able to develop an organic following, the key factor that governs their success. However, I still feel that they won’t be able to give authentic brands much of a competition.”

Gogia ponders over the question as to why someone would want to watch the content of a virtual personality, rather than influencers, who already have a name and face value.

Goel believes that the key to success here would be to gradually build a community following Kyra. He shares that the company has been cautious about its collaborations with brands and is looking for quality collaborations.

Kyra has had only one brand collaboration so far - an ad for boAt. The creative liberty that the brand has with the design of an ad and the final product, is the USP for a virtual influencer, Goel asserts.

“There is a creative aspect to marketing with a virtual influencer, where there are no limits to what we can do. We’re looking to do what normal influencers can’t do and that’s what makes it a lucrative option for a brand.”

What does the future hold for virtual influencers in India? Why are other agencies lukewarm towards the idea? Ramachandran believes that a large part of the audience isn’t even exposed to the concept, at the moment.

“People may just give it a look, out of curiosity about the content, but not from the perspective of recommendations.”

Both Ramachandran and Gogia aren’t looking to add virtual influencers to their roster at the moment, simply because of the lack of connect with the Indian audiences.

But, according to Mrunali Dedhia, director-brand solutions, Chtrbox, the concept will soon gain traction in India as well.

“Virtual influencers get strong engagement - people are interested in them. Today, in this always-on content world, if you have the audience’s attention, you will also have the brands’. Much like creators, who decide which brands they want to associate their content with and vice versa, virtual influencers also need to maintain an identity and personality that audiences resonate with.”

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