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Personality Over Looks: The Impact of Virtual Influencer Design on Brand Engagement and Purchase Decisions

Dr. Carolin Kaiser, Dr. Vladimir Manewitsch, Rene Schallner, Emma Fenne

Nürnberg Institut für Marktentscheidungen



Virtual influencers are a new trend in influencer marketing and crucial to a brand’s social media strategy. Popular virtual influencers, like Miquela and Noonoouri, are attracting millions of followers and partnering with major brands. In contrast to human influencers, there are no physical limitations to the character and the portrayed life of computer-generated virtual influencers. However, the advantage of unlimited degrees of creative freedom comes with the burden of choosing a design that perfectly fits a brand's needs. Many brands tend to choose human-like virtual influencers as they are believed to allow followers to create a stronger bond of trust with the power to influence purchase decisions. However, there is no proof for this assumption. Conflicting theories exist in science about the impact of human-likeness on consumer behavior. This research aims to shed light on the impact of human-likeness of virtual influencers on consumer reactions and purchase behavior.

Research Design

In a randomized online experiment with 2,000 US participants, we investigated how an influencer's design and human likeness affected consumer interaction, perceptions, and purchase behavior. The appearance of a female influencer was experimentally altered in a between-subjects design to compare a virtual human-like character with a virtual cartoon character of similar appearance. Participants were immersed in a travel preparation setting in which they could view and interact with the influencer's social media page. In a subsequent online shopping environment, the respondents indicated their purchase preferences for a product in each of the three categories (chocolate bar, travel mug, and music song), which included an item promoted by the influencer in every category. In addition, the study surveyed the characteristics of the participants, their perceptions of the influencer and their shopping experience.


The comparison between the two experimental groups showed that the design of the influencer significantly impacted her perception, interaction with her profile page, purchase preference for the promoted products, and evaluation of the purchase journey. The cartoon character led to a closer parasocial relationship, a better perception of the storytelling, more likes on the profile page, higher purchase likelihood of the promoted product, and higher overall satisfaction and recommendation. Notably, these positive effects were not associated with the perceived visual human likeness or realism of the figure but were mediated through perceptions of mental human likeness (personality, emotionalism, cognition).


This research shows that people can develop relationships with virtual influencers, highlighting their potential in influencing purchase decisions. The success of a virtual influencer in engaging audiences and driving sales hinges significantly on the right design choices, underscoring the importance of design in the development of virtual influencers. Interestingly, mental attributes of human likeness, such as personality and emotional capacity, play a more critical role than visual human likeness in fostering these connections. This suggests that the effectiveness of virtual influencers in marketing and social interaction is less about how human they look and more about how human they feel, pointing towards a strategic focus on developing virtual influencers with relatable and rich personalities.