For those who pay attention, a racial pay gap isn’t novel — nor is the conversation about earnings discrepancies among influencers based on race. But now that public relations and influencer marketing agency MSL has quantified the problem in new findings as an outsize 35 percent pay gap, the “enormity” of the issue, according to the agency, should serve as a wake-up call for fashion and beauty.
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“The number is bigger than we expected,” MSL U.S. chief executive officer Diana Littman told WWD, addressing the results of the study released Monday. “If you look at benchmarks across other industries, this is worse.”
For comparison’s sake, the study, titled “Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap,” drew on Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data to point out that pay disparities between Black and white employees in business and finance is 16 percent; in media, sports and entertainment, it’s also 16 percent, and in education, it’s 8 percent. Even the national average pay gap between Black and white workers across industries is still lower than the influencer gap, at 25 percent.
And faced with systemic realities and other odds that aren’t stacked in their favor, what begins as an unequal playing field for influencers of color, according to the report, can become an “unbridgeable opportunity gap.”
“We want this to be a wake-up call in the industry. This is not just an impetus for us to do differently and for our clients to do differently,” Littman said. “[This] can help create change and make people aware of everything systemically within this industry that is having a negative impact on diverse influencers.”
At present, among the 412 U.S.-based influencers surveyed in MSL’s research (led by the company’s chief strategy officer Shreya Mukherjee and influencer strategist D’Anthony Jackson and in partnership with influencer and founder of The Influencer League Brittany Bright), white influencers earn roughly $67,032 in annual income, compared with Black influencers’ average of $43,756. Looking at the entirety of influencers identifying as people of color, the income rises a bit to $47,509, pointing to particular disadvantage for Black creators.
Seventy-seven percent of Black influencers fell into the microinfluencer tier (fewer than 50,000 followers) where the median income was less than $28,000, compared to 59 percent of white influencers who fit within this tier. Within the microinfluencer category, half of Black creators fell into the lowest income tier ($0 to $10,000) compared to just 27 percent of white creators. When it comes to macroinfluencers, or those with more than 50,000 followers, only 23 percent of Black influencers count themselves in this category where the median income is nearly $109,000, whereas 41 percent of white influencers are of the macro kind.
Stories of undervaluing Black female influencers in particular, according to Bright — who counts herself among them, alongside her role leading The Influencer League in its mission to educate influencers about the industry and help them “master monetization” — are too numerous to count.
But one in particular stood out.
“[I was] working with a Black woman influencer and we’re negotiating for a brand campaign and she said to me she knew about this white woman who had done the campaign a year before her and what she was able to secure, which was about $30,000 for the campaign,” Bright said. “They reached out to her in 2021 to do the same campaign, same deliverables but they were only offering her $9,000.”
After counter offers and negotiations, that influencer was ultimately able to get her rate up to $20,000 for the campaign under Bright’s management and with some pay transparency for the campaign that she wouldn’t have otherwise had. But it’s a staggering gap to have had to bridge considering her credentials were comparable to her white counterpart’s.
“I know from year to year, whether you’re running the same type of campaign or not, budgets change, things change but when it’s the same brand, through the same platform — because they were using an influencer platform — and you have the same deliverables, why is the price so drastically different?” she posed. “That’s why we’re doing this. That’s why this pay parity study is so incredibly important.”
Black influencers, much like Black employees in the wider workforce, are getting boxed into low-earning tiers at times because of low follower counts, and because the playing field is already unlevel in an industry that favors affluence. And social media algorithms that reward the already rewarded aren’t doing creators of color any favors.
“I think that this is an industry where affluence matters maybe, in some ways, more than other industries because you’re your own boss and you’re your own driver of your income, so you need to be able to have fertile ground underneath you and the ability to take the leap into this space,” Littman explained. “To me, there’s a lot of advantages that you can have if you’re starting out as an influencer, even equipment for video production, friends and family who are in the legal field who can help you think about contracting, so I think the lack of affluence can be a big disadvantage for people.”
But how to combat a problem that’s global and systemic?
Littman debunked the oft-resurfaced refrain that the influencer is over; on the contrary, they’ll very likely evolve into the metaverse as with everything else. So it’s about setting some standards and bringing some pay transparency into the space.
MSL has committed, among other things, to develop an Influencer Pay Index that would track all influencer pay through its Fluency platform with the aim of becoming “the benchmark for industry principles.”
“It will allow us to have very transparent conversations again both with clients and influencers,” Littman said. “We’re going to publish our data and do that on a regular basis so that there is transparency there.”
Brands, in working to back up their social impact claims and Black Lives Matter hashtag posts, are also just going to have to be more fair — and those who aren’t will eventually be exposed for it.
“I think the next step, and what we need to see taken, is how brands really intelligently engage in conversation and create real meaningful relationships with their loyalists, with audiences and potential audiences and even part-time audiences,” Littman said.
Bright believes that is the key way forward to bring some equity to the financials in the influencer space.
“We have publications like Business Insider that is consistently sharing updates on what creators are getting paid on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, but the final aspect is the brand side — how transparent are they with sharing what they’re paying their creators?” she said. “And then, in addition to that, are they being flexible as much as possible with budgets as well as the parameters they set? I know different agencies and platforms have different ways of pricing their influencers but having that type of transparency from their side is going to be a lot more beneficial for other creators as well as having a standard pay scale across the entire industry.”
Can these goals be achieved in an industry that’s a microcosm of a global industry filled with brands that still do not offer pay transparency and parity among genders? That will remain to be seen, though Bright can attest to the benefit for those that can let their old habits die hard.
“It’s going to be really difficult to get a lot of agencies on board when they’re trying to drive that ROI, but I think that’s the bottom line: if they value their creators, if they value the relationships they have with their creators, and they’re putting more time, effort and resources into finding and paying the right creators, they’re going to see that ROI regardless — and a good one at that,” she said.
Certainly, it’s a multistep process that stretches beyond just publishing pay rates. It’s also about abandoning inequities in how the industry values people and their contributions. As the report noted, “in the young and unregulated influencer industry, those inequities are amplified by orders of magnitude.”
“There’s a whole system that needs to be behind this change,” Littman said.