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‘Like family’: Japan’s virtual YouTubers make millions from fans



'Like family': Japan's virtual YouTubers make millions from fans

The videos are designed to make fans feel they are interacting directly with their favourite animated idols. — © AFP

Tomohiro OSAKI

Mayu Iizuka sheds her soft-spoken personality and starts cackling, screaming and waving wildly in a makeshift studio in Tokyo as her avatar appears on a livestream before hundreds of fans.

Virtual YouTubers like Iizuka, who voices and animates a character called Yume Kotobuki, have transformed a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry where top accounts can rake in more than a million dollars a year.

The videos are designed to make fans feel they are interacting directly with their favourite animated idols — with viewers sometimes paying hundreds of dollars to have a single comment highlighted on a livestream.

“When I’m playing video games on my channel and succeed at something, my fans congratulate me” and pay tips “as a way to show their support and appreciation”, Iizuka told AFP.

Virtual YouTubers have transformed a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry

Virtual YouTubers have transformed a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry – Copyright AFP Charly TRIBALLEAU


The 26-year-old uses a laptop, webcam and a motion sensor worn around her neck to appear on screen as Yume, whose facial expressions are controlled by a producer.

With her squeaky voice, short skirt and huge purple eyes, Iizuka’s avatar follows a popular model for “VTuber” characters, which often resemble the hyper-feminine heroines of Japanese anime.

Since emerging about five years ago, the VTuber world has grown quickly, with about 16,000 active streamers globally, according to data firm User Local, and growing fanbases on other platforms like TikTok and gaming site Twitch.

Regional governments in Japan have used them for promotion, and “The Batman” stars Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz even gave a recent interview to a top Japanese VTuber.

– Super Chat –

VTubers generate money in ways similar to traditional livestreamers, including through YouTube’s “Super Chat” system, where the more a fan shells out, the more attention is drawn to their comments.

In fact, the world’s nine top-earning YouTube accounts for “Super Chat” last year were all VTubers.

All nine are affiliated with one Tokyo-based talent agency, and each earned between $700,000 and $1.7 million from the cash gifts, according to data analysis site Playboard.


VTuber fan Kazumi has adorned his tiny apartment near Tokyo with posters, framed pictures and keyrings featuring his favourite character, Mio Ookami. — © AFP

Most fans spend only a few hundred yen ($1) per comment, but the most dedicated sometimes splurge 50,000 yen ($400) to post impassioned missives to their virtual idols.

Kazuma Murakami, a 30-year-old car parts inspector, has been known to spend 10,000 yen to get his comments highlighted in red and seen by his favourite VTuber.

“I really want her to notice I’m here again, visiting her channel,” Murakami told AFP.

Another VTuber fan, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Kazumi, has adorned his tiny one-room apartment near Tokyo with posters, framed pictures and keyrings featuring his favourite character, Mio Ookami.

The 30-year-old computer engineer spends time after work and on weekends immersing himself in Mio’s videos and crafting digital illustrations of the black-haired “wolf girl”.

“I dedicate five, or maybe 10 hours to thinking just about her,” he said.

“She is like family to me.”


Kazumi spends time after work and on weekends immersing himself in Mio’s videos and crafting digital illustrations of her. — © AFP

That devotion, and the willingness of fans to pay big money, is linked to the way other fan subcultures function in Japan, said Noriyuki Nagamatsu, a digital business specialist at advertising firm D.A. Consortium.

“Super Chat is essentially an extension of a longstanding culture where idol and anime fans try to support their ‘oshi’, or favourite, by splurging on their merchandise,” he told AFP.

“It’s also a way of winning attention from their beloved and feeling superior to fellow fans.”

– Human ‘soul’ –

VTubers usually keep the person behind the character — often referred to as their “soul” — out of the picture, and like many fans, Kazumi says his love is directed towards Mio the avatar, not whoever plays her.

The world’s nine top-earning YouTube accounts for ‘Super Chat’ last year were all VTubers. — ©˙ AFP

But the line between virtual and real can become blurred.


A Japanese court recently ruled in favour of a VTuber actor who argued that online slander against her character amounted to an attack on her.

Virtual YouTubers can “transcend gender, age or physique… but what’s important is that there’s a real person there who is speaking and reads the comments in real life,” said Kazuhito Ozawa, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

For Iizuka, a professional voice actress, making the rare decision to reveal her identity after four years of making videos as Yume was nerve-wracking.

“Part of me was afraid that fans of Yume, who has these big, shiny eyes and a perfect belly, might be disappointed to find out what the ‘real’ person inside looks like,” she said.

But “so far the response from fans has been very kind”.

And the more outspoken, vivacious personality of Yume’s virtual self is even gradually rubbing off on Iizuka, she said.

“I used to baulk at speaking publicly, but Yume is such an experienced livestreamer that my identity as her has been helping me speak more confidently.”


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The future of commerce is social. 5 brands getting it right.



The future of commerce is social. 5 brands getting it right.

Social commerce is the future of online retail. By 2025, Accenture estimates social commerce to more than double to a $1.2 trillion market worldwide. Following the onset of COVID-19, consumers adopted social commerce behaviors, such as discovering, purchasing, and finding support directly on social media apps, at an accelerated rate. Now, brands are embracing these tools to deliver a personalized customer experience on whatever platform customers prefer. 

Live shopping, for example, is a powerful way for brands to educate, engage with, and sell to customers in an interactive live stream event featuring brand representatives or influencers. The audience can comment live, ask questions, and even make purchases from links in the live stream. In 2021, the number of people who purchased products in a live stream event increased by 76% globally. 

Social media platforms are innovating to meet this growing demand for social commerce. Twitter announced a new Twitter Shops feature that allows brands to showcase up to 50 products on their profiles. Similarly, TikTok is testing shopping features to help brands manage their e-commerce within a second TikTok app. Moving forward, e-commerce brands will have more tools at their disposal to sell directly on social media and provide increasingly seamless customer experiences. 

Brands Leading in Social Commerce

As the popularity and accessibility of social commerce grows, these brands have jumped in with both feet to connect with customers where they are:

  1. Charlotte Tilbury

    Charlotte Tilbury provides engaging, personalized interactions for its customers on several channels using the latest live stream and meta verse technologies. The cosmetics brand was one of the first to create a digital storefront using virtual reality (VR). In November 2020, the brand launched a 3D digital store where shoppers can explore, shop, and receive personalized recommendations from virtual store associates. Charlotte Tilbury also hosts live events including makeup and skincare tutorials within the digital store. 

    A new feature, “Shop with Friends,” allows customers to invite friends and family to join a video call and navigate the virtual store together. The technology, similar to that in multiplayer video games, mimics the in-person shopping experience. While in the VR store, customers can also play a game where they navigate the store to find and collect hidden keys. 

    In addition to this social shopping experience, Charlotte Tilbury holds live shopping events on TikTok. During these events, the brand partners with influencers to showcase and demonstrate its products and even offers exclusive discounts for those who purchase directly on TikTok UK. 


  2. Petco

    Petco uses live streaming, influencer marketing, and social shops to provide innovative experiences for its customers. The brand partners with Facebook to engage pet lovers and pet parents in shoppable live stream events. Its first live shopping event combined a pet fashion show with a dog adoption drive hosted by actress and model Arielle Vandenberg. Petco and its charitable foundation donated $100,000 to the dog rescue organization that participated, while also building awareness of its pet apparel brands. The event was highly successful, reaching more than 900,000 people and increasing sales by double the cost of the event. 

    Following that initial success, Petco partnered with more influencers, including Olympian Gabby Douglas, to hold more live stream events. During its live shopping events, Petco dedicated a team to interact with audience members in real time and promote relevant products on the screen. Remote and on-site employees work together to provide shoppable and engaging events. 

    The brand has also worked with Facebook and Instagram to establish social shops directly on the social media platforms. Additionally, Petco leveraged its existing influencer partnerships to launch a TikTok campaign that reached over 28 million impressions for its pet apparel brand. 

  3. KitKat Australia

    KitKat introduced the first Facebook Live shopping experience in Australia, “Live from the KitKat Chocolatory,” during the 2020 holiday shopping season. The event featured its chocolatiers demonstrating new products, interacting with special guests, and providing exclusive offers to the audience. 

    The innovative experience included a shopping feature for live stream viewers to purchase products by simply typing keywords. A viewer could type a prescribed keyword into the comment box, triggering a Messenger notification including a link to purchase the product online. Technologies like this keyword artificial intelligence (AI) tool are becoming more pervasive as social media companies experiment with new ways to purchase products directly on their platforms. 

  4. Zimba

    Zimba, a global teeth-whitening brand, quickly adopted the Facebook Shops platform to bring its products directly to its customers on the social media platform. With Facebook Shops, Zimba created a digital storefront where customers can discover and purchase products without leaving the app. 

    To provide seamless customer care, Zimba also enables its customers to contact the brand directly on Messenger and Instagram Direct Message (DM). Customers can ask product questions, get support, and track deliveries before, during, and after they make a purchase on social media. As a result, Zimba realized a 6.7% increase in average order value from buyers on social media compared to buyers on its website. 

  5. H&M

    H&M was one of the first apparel brands to invest in closing the gap between social media and online shopping. The brand created its own mobile sites that would list apparel and accessories from images in its Tweets that linked directly to purchase the products online. Today, the brand uses Instagram Shopping to promote its latest styles directly on the mobile app and link to products featured in every post.


    The brand’s next step is to launch “Shop Live” at its H&M HOME Concept store in Kuwait’s largest shopping mall, The Avenues. With technology powered by Go Instore, customers can access instant live consultations with staff in the store while browsing online. The new tool provides personalized experiences regardless of whether customers choose to shop in person or at home. 

Stepping into Social Commerce

Consumer demand has forced businesses to pivot online and social commerce has emerged as the sine qua non for brands looking to not only engage with consumers on social media, but convert them into customers. By leveraging the power of live shopping, digital storefronts, shoppable ads, and social shops brands are able to better meet customer expectations. However, according to a Forrester study, fewer than 30% of social commerce leaders are prioritizing customer engagement, failing to cultivate and nurture customer relationships throughout the social purchase journey, and putting their long-term social commerce growth at risk. One thing’s for sure, brands that don’t adopt social commerce now will fall far behind the competition, while the brands that embrace innovation will reach consumers eager for personalized and engaging experiences. 

Finding the right social commerce solution to help you do this can be overwhelming. Download the Buyer’s Guide to Social Commerce Solutions to help guide you in finding the right fit for your brand.

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