Black influencers are treated differently, paid less, and seen as less serious than their white counterparts. This is a problem that has persisted in the influencer marketing industry, even with the increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in marketing. Black influencers face significant challenges, such as pay inequity and a lack of brand partnerships, that make it difficult for them to succeed in the industry.
The issue of pay inequity is partly caused by a lack of transparency in payment structures. Payment structures depend on where a deal comes from, be it a PR firm, agency, manager, or the brand directly. Additionally, payment transparency can be difficult to achieve due to the complex nature of payment structures.
Efforts to address pay inequality are still in their early stages. However, the increasing number of POC-owned influencer management agencies has been encouraging, especially those that work with a primarily POC roster. These agencies can help creators secure deals and negotiate better rates.
To address the gap in pay for Black influencers, education is necessary. The Influencer League is working to educate Black creators on setting rates, negotiating, and reading contracts. By educating Black creators, they can learn how to secure better deals and negotiate rates more effectively.
Furthermore, brands must remain invested in deals with diverse creators and give them time. The power of intersectionality is the ability to work with multiple creators of multiple backgrounds and ethnicities, genders, and races. Brands should aim to create campaigns that focus on diversity and embrace different cultures and communities.
It is essential to note that diversity efforts should not be limited to the influencer level but should extend to hiring practices. Brands must embrace diversity and hire more Black people to work on their campaigns. Hiring Black employees allows for better representation and ensures that Black voices are heard.
However, it is not just pay inequity that Black influencers face. So much of online culture takes from Black creators and influencers, and they get back very little in return, whether that’s in credit, followers, or payment. Instead, they often have to contend with harassment in comments and discrimination from social media platforms.
One of the first places this shows up is in follower count. Influencers and creators accumulate followers by appearing in discovery functions on platforms, like Instagram’s Explore Page and TikTok’s For You Page. Top Instagram influencers have built up followings in the millions while most of their Black counterparts are far from the threshold of a million.
The discrepancy in followers is in part because of the algorithms that the platforms run on. While Instagram, TikTok, and other social media sites had long been suspected of suppressing Black voices on their platforms, Instagram has admitted that its algorithms and policies are at fault.
In June 2020, as a wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri posted a note on Facebook saying, “[W]e’re also hearing concern about whether we suppress Black voices and whether our products and policies treat everyone equally.” As for TikTok, an AI researcher found that the platform seemed to suggest creators based on skin color and other visual characteristics.
The chasms in audience size that are created are not about ego or eyeballs. They directly translate into how much creators can earn from their content. In a report by PR network MSL Group called “Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap,” Black influencers not having parity when it comes to follower count can have a significant impact on their earning potential. Seventy-seven percent of Black influencers fall into the nano- and micro-influencer tiers, where they can expect to be paid $27,000 per year in brand deals. Only 23% of Black influencers are macro-influencers who can earn upwards of $100,000 in brand deals. Meanwhile, 59% of white influencers are macro-influencers.
Jessiara Marriott, a fashion and lifestyle influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers, has spoken out about being offered as little as £20 for a long list of content by some of the biggest brands. Marriott’s experience is far from unique; Black influencers across the industry have reported being lowballed, exploited, and even unpaid. In late 2020, influencer marketing agency SevenSix surveyed influencers and found that 56% of Black respondents believed their ethnicity negatively impacted the amount they earn. Studies affirm this belief, with the racial pay gap between white and BIPOC influencers currently standing at 29%, rising to 35% for Black influencers.
Adesuwa Ajayi founded the @influencerpaygap Instagram account in June 2020 to monitor racial discrimination in the influencer industry. The account immediately received submissions from Black influencers who reported being undervalued and requests for advice from creators unsure how to do business with brands. The UK government has recently recognised the problem and recommended an investigation into the standards of the industry, as there are concerns about inconsistent pay rates and evidence of a racial pay gap. The digital, culture, media and sport committee have also stated that social media platforms are not appropriately and consistently rewarding influencers for their work, and that payment from brands “varies wildly”.
Jacqueline Smith, a fashion influencer with a focus on tall women, has also experienced brands offering her meagre fees. Smith has had several situations where she knew that other people working on similar campaigns were being paid more than her. She says there was a lot of tokenism, and she was often the only Black creator or Black model on a campaign. Atim Ojera, a fashion influencer, was also offered a potential collaboration in exchange for gifting, with the brand insisting that paying her properly for her work was “impossible”.
To address the issue of follower count and visibility, social media platforms need to make changes to their algorithms and policies to ensure that Black voices are not suppressed. Brands also need to be aware of the impact that follower count has on Black influencers’ earning potential and take steps to work with diverse creators at all levels.
The influencer marketing industry has a long way to go in terms of equity and inclusion. Black influencers face significant challenges, including pay inequity, a lack of brand partnerships, and discrimination from social media platforms. Brands and platforms need to take responsibility for their role in perpetuating these issues and work towards a more equitable future. Additionally, education and support for Black creators can help them navigate the industry and secure better deals. By taking action and centering diverse voices, we can create a more inclusive influencer marketing industry that benefits everyone.