Inside the fledgling cottage industry helping influencers make money.
Monique Black, a 27-year-old fashion influencer from Detroit, likely wouldn’t have a clue how much to charge brands if it weren’t for Twitter. She’d gone viral several times on Instagram and Reels for her fun, trendy, plus-size outfit styling videos and wanted to figure out how to turn her 100,000 TikTok followers into a career while the pandemic stalled her work as an esthetician. She stumbled upon a career mentorship program for women of color, and was later matched with a British talent manager who taught her the unofficial guide to Influencing 101.
For a skyrocketing industry, there are very few places where aspiring content creators can speak publicly about the finer details of their work. It’s a delicate balance, performing your life for the consumption of others, then calculating your value in the public marketplace of attention. While most influencers have multiple streams of revenue — sharing affiliate links, making money from creator funds, launching their own businesses, or starting a subscription service — by far the most popular is brand sponsorships, in which a company pays an influencer to promote or incorporate their product.
When they first start out, fledgling influencers typically have no frame of reference for how much they should be paid for such services: a 30-second TikTok video, an Instagram story, a series of three posts in two months, whatever it might be. And in an industry predicated on aspiration and envy, things can get messy: If Nike sends you free sneakers, do you still post the shoes in the hope that the company might pay you in the future? What do you do if you find out another influencer is being paid significantly more for the same work? If a brand takes six months to pay you but you’ve signed an NDA, where do you go?
In recent years, a cottage industry has formed around the problem of calculating the worth of influencers, who have been estimated to number more than 50 million globally. Some have come in the form of call-out Instagram accounts that function like whisper networks for creators, such as the now-dormant @influencerpaygap and @brands_behaving_badly. Dozens of “creator marketplaces” have arisen in attempts to connect influencers with brands that might hire them, with names like Upfluence or CreatorIQ. Even influencer unions have sprung up: the American Influencer Council in the US and The Creator’s Union in the UK, while SAG-AFTRA now allows creators to join. As of the past year, two platforms are competing to become the “Glassdoor for influencers”: F*** You Pay Me, founded by a content creator and a Facebook data scientist, and now Clara, founded by Christen Nino de Guzman, who has previously worked in creator partnerships at Instagram, Pinterest, and most recently TikTok.
Nino de Guzman, 31, launched Clara on January 14 as a Glassdoor-meets-LinkedIn service where creators can share how much they were paid by certain brands, whether those payments were on time, and what the experience of working with them was like. Reviews are anonymous, but influencers can also build public profiles that act as media kits to show to brands.
“There’s this new class of creators who have been propelled to stardom overnight, and they’re the ones who tend to suffer the most because they’re not knowledgeable of the industry at all,” explains Nino de Guzman. There are now more people calling themselves content creators than ever, partly due to the pandemic and the subsequent “great resignation” of disillusioned employees, and partly because of the rise of apps like TikTok where an otherwise normal person can see an explosion of followers extremely quickly. They’re the ones who you’ll often see promoting junk products (ocean galaxy lights, questionable teeth-whitening solutions) from shady-seeming brands that offer them a few hundred bucks to shill to their audiences, or selling an NFT of their viral post in an attempt to cash out fast.
“Everybody is basically their own contract employees and setting their own rates. I had no idea what to price anything,” says Ashley Hosmer, a 34-year-old lifestyle creator in Los Angeles. After losing her job early in the pandemic, she began posting reviews of scented candles on Instagram and got so many eager replies that she leaned into it further. She’s now known on TikTok as the creator with the most detailed candle review spreadsheet in history.
Hosmer learned about the financial side of being an influencer by discussing with fellow creators who had similar-sized followings of around 20,000 on Instagram and 30,000 on TikTok. “That’s the whole point of social media: finding your community,” she says. Still, like nearly every influencer I’ve spoken with over the years, she doesn’t discuss her rates publicly. “So much can change. Once you put your rate up, it could deter brands from connecting with you if they think it’s too high. Or you might get all these people messaging you saying it should have been more.”
There tend to be two responses influencers fear that prevent them from discussing how much money they make. “People don’t want to share because then their followers are going to be like, ‘I’m not going to support you because how do you make that much money for what you do?” says Black. “Most people still have zero respect for how much work goes into it.” The other fear is its inverse: That they’ll be publicly embarrassed about charging brands too little.
It’s the judgment from followers that hits Hosmer the hardest. She’s a natural sharer, and says she’d be posting about her life on Instagram whether or not she was making money from it, but sometimes it can come at a cost. One follower, for instance, criticized her for buying a “boring brown table” after she’d expressed interest in saving money. On the flip side, there are common assumptions about people with large Instagram followings that don’t always hold up. “People have this image of influencers, whether they have 10,000 or 100,000 followers, that they’re making so much money. But it’s not like that for a lot of people, so I try to demystify it.”
Hosmer is primarily a lifestyle influencer: She shares photos of her colorful, tasteful Los Angeles home, her collection of floral maxi dresses, her husband, and their dog. Part of the appeal of following her is to lust over interior decor and pretty photos, to imagine that her life is nothing but charmed and cozy. The question of how much she gets paid for this is a fraught one: These questions don’t take into account the circumstances of her life, like the fact that she has a husband with a well-paying job with good health insurance. And sharing the details of her bank account, thereby opening her life up further to the judgment of others, could paradoxically make it less valuable.
“You have to build yourself up before you can ruin the mystique as an influencer,” explains Black. “You have to get people to be like, ‘I want to be you,’ and then you can be like, ‘Well, yeah, my dad pays for my apartment.’ You have to reel them in before you can be honest, which is unfortunate.”
The pay gap between the highest echelon of influencers who have become household names and the vast majority of people monetizing their content reflects similar gaps in the wider economy, and shares similar prejudices. Black has watched many brands, in an effort to make themselves appear to support greater diversity, send free products to creators of color and plus-size creators, but pay white, straight-sized creators actual money to feature the same products. “My skinny friends will post on their private Story saying that such-and-such brand paid them $3,000 for their last post, and then that company will reach out to me and tell me they don’t have a budget, they just want to give me products,” she says. “I’ve had luxury brands tell me they don’t have a budget and I’m like, you literally sell $1,000 purses.”
Creators are discouraged from speaking about those rates, however, often via nondisclosure agreements that explicitly prevent them from doing so. But the framing of “evil corporations versus poor disenfranchised influencers” doesn’t quite tell the whole story. “It’s not necessarily like the brands have malicious intent,” says Nino de Guzman. “It’s that neither side really understands how to price this work because the rates are so all over the place. They’re given a budget and ask creators, ‘What do you want to be paid?’” Within 72 hours of launching Clara, Nino de Guzman says thousands of creators signed up, many of them Black and Latinx and hungry for information on what to charge.
Demystifying influencer finance has proved a lucrative business. Calveiro launched Influence with Impact in December of 2018 after spending her career leading creator marketing efforts at ad agencies like Havas and Ogilvy. In 2019, the company pulled in around $60,000; in 2021, Calveiro says they made $450,000. Startups that aim to educate creators and brands seem only likely to grow.
Influencing is still a dream job for many people, but it isn’t something you can apply for. Babies can be influencers. So can dogs. Nobody tells you how to do it; you don’t have a boss. Influencers are, ultimately, digital islands competing for our attention, many of them without guidance from someone who might know better.
That’s what Monique Black wants brands to understand. “These are young girls who may not have financial literacy, and may not know their worth,” she says. “And if you’re a 28-year-old social media manager and you know you can offer them that extra $300? Just do it. Because it literally doesn’t hurt you.”
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