On October 30, Halloween, a beauty influencer, Liu Yexi (柳夜熙) became famous overnight after launching her first short video on Douyin. This video got over 3 million likes, while this account quickly gaining over 1.5 million followers within two days. The related topic #LiuYexiImitationMakeup got 270 million views.
Different from other beauty influencers, she introduced herself as “a virtual makeup influencer that can hunt ghosts,” implying that she is a virtual character rather than a real person in life.
Her first video amazed millions of viewers by using impressive visual effects and mysterious storytelling. Also, keywords related to this video, such as GhostHunt, Metaverse, and Makeup, helped it go viral quickly.
At the beginning of this two-minute video, Liu was putting on her makeup. A boy asked her: “Are you human?” Later, Liu helps this boy put on eye makeup. Then the boy could see the ghosts around him and Liu, while others could not see. In the end, Liu hunted all ghosts, and the video showed “To Be Continued.” It seems that this video is more like a trailer of a fantastic magic world created by Liu Yexi.
Liu Yexi is not the first virtual character on the Internet.
Famous female singer Luo Tianyi is a virtual character created by Vsinger. She is famous and even has attended many concerts and cooperated with human musicians and singers many times.
Luo Tianyi on Bilibili Gala
However, in terms of her appearance and design style, Luo Tianyi is more like a cartoon character. Later, high-fidelity real-time digital humans were created to be virtual idols. Compared to Luo Tianyi, they are more like real humans. AYAYI is the first real-time digital human in China. When she was launched online on May 20, 2021, people were impressed by how vivid and beautiful she was. On Little Red Book, an emerging social media platform, her first post got over 90,000 likes. Later, Tmall invited her as its brand ambassador.
AYAYI’s Red account
AYAYI as Tmall’s brand ambassador
Another successful case to learn is an American virtual influencer Lil Miquela. She is set as a 19-year-old mixed-race girl with cute freckles. Living in Los Angeles, Lil Miquela works as a virtual model and musician. People can see from the posts on her social media that she has wonderful work and life, attending social activities, filming, and even having a boyfriend. It’s even not easy for people even to realize that she is a virtual character who doesn’t exist in real life. Her business interest is even higher than some real-human influencers. It is estimated that her revenue in 2019 was approximately 76 million yuan. 1
Lil Miquela and her boy friend
Apart from independent virtual idols/influencers, there are also some virtual influencers created by big consumer brands to be their own virtual brand ambassadors. Watsons has Wilson (屈晨曦). KFC also launched a fresh new KFC Colonel character.
Wilson: Watsons’ ambassador
How Virtual Characters Work?
If a virtual character wants to achieve success and gain continuous attention, he/she needs rich background stories, unique personalities, and active interaction with followers. Most virtual characters are just images on the posters, so they got attention for a moment and then disappeared on the Internet.
Will Liu Yexi be successful? It seems that the company behind this virtual influencer has great determination. It has built a stable middle-stage system to make videos of Liu. Every video of Liu will take one month.
After the first video release, many companies have contacted Liu Yexi’s company for cooperation, including beauty, food, and tech companies. At present, people are waiting to see which product will be the first one endorsed by Liu Yexi.
Challenges for Virtual Influencer Industry
Although more and more virtual idols/influencers emerge, the Chinese virtual idol industry is still in an early stage. Companies are facing challenges:
On the one hand, the cost of producing and operating a virtual idol/influencer is high. Companies are required to have a high budget for upstream production capability and downstream commercial performance activities. iiMedia Consulting data shows that the cost of producing a single song for a virtual idol is as high as 2 million yuan. Some original IP virtual idols do not have many followers initially, so the marketing costs are extremely high.
On the other hand, there are still limited chances in China for virtual idols to make money. They cannot organize live concerts or attend TV reality shows. Most time, they can only be active on social media rather than offline activities. Therefore, many brands have doubts about virtual idols’ business values. Although many new virtual idols are emerging, they don’t have continuous exposure channels as real idols do, such as performing on galas and joining TV shows. People’s awareness of virtual idols is generally low, so it takes a long time to form a huge fan group most time (Liu Yexi is an exception, which is why she is a promising virtual influencer and shocks many players).
In conclusion, the cost to create a virtual idol/influencer is high, and the ability of a virtual idol to make money remains unknown, so it is difficult to create a complete and stable commercial closed-loop, which are challenges that virtual idol companies are eager to overcome. For other consumer brands who are interested in the virtual idol industry, it is important to monitor the market closely and decide if to follow this trend, since it can be the next marketing growth point.