June 2020 promised to be a watershed moment—at least, according to promises made by countless retailers and companies on June 2nd, a day that would come to be known as #BlackoutTuesday. But even while social media timelines were peppered with black boxes and DE&I-friendly mission statements, there were insidious and systemic disparities occurring on those same platforms within the ranks of the influencers leveraged by those same companies. Succinctly, as reported by Women’s Wear Daily (WWD): “When a white influencer gets paid $135, a Black influencer, on average, gets paid $100. And oftentimes less.”
That finding is the result of a new, first-of-its-kind research study published Monday by global public relations firm MSL U.S., in partnership with influencer advocacy and marketing agency The Influencer League. Titled “Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap,” the report found that on average, there is a 29 percent racial pay gap between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous & People of Color) influencers. However, when the focus is solely narrowed to Black and white influencers, the comparative gap widens to 35 percent. In fact, 49 percent of Black influencers reported “their race contributed to an offer below market value,” according to a release on PR newswire Cision.
More from the release:
The data shows that the forces driving the racial pay gap are similar to the drivers of pay gaps in other industries, where historic socioeconomic inequities create an unequal playing field, trapping a disproportionate number of Black workers in the lowest paying jobs with little chance of upward mobility. However, in the young and unregulated influencer industry where affluence and connections play an outsized role and with social platform algorithms perpetuating inequity, those forces are amplified by orders of magnitude. A remarkable 77% of Black influencers reported follower counts in the lowest pay tiers, where compensation from brands averaged just $27,727.90 (versus 59% of white influencers). Conversely, only 23% of Black influencers made it into the highest tiers where earnings averaged $108,713.54 (versus 41% of white Influencers). The result is that in this industry in particular an unequal playing field becomes a nearly unbridgeable opportunity gap.
While we are well aware of the persistent racial—and gender—pay gaps, the influencer pay gap is unbelievably even wider than other industries, eclipsing the national average 25 percent pay gap between Black and white workers.
“There have been rumors of a racial pay gap for years, but no one in our industry has quantified it until now,” said MSL Digital and Influencer Strategist D’Anthony Jackson, who co-led the study. Referencing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, he added: “These are stark numbers by any measure. Just compare the 35% gap between white and Black influencers to the pay gaps in other industries—education 8%, business and financial 16%, construction 19%, media sports and entertainment 16%. The gap this study uncovered in influencer marketing vastly overshadows the gaps in any other industry.”
“The number is bigger than we expected,” added MSL U.S. Chief Executive Officer Diana Littman in a statement to WWD. “If you look at benchmarks across other industries, this is worse.”
Researchers point to both lack of opportunity and lack of pay transparency in perpetuating the influencer industry’s disparities. “If I could solve one thing in this industry that hurts BIPOC influencers, it would be pay transparency,” said Brittany Bright, founder of The Influencer League and co-leader of the study, in a statement. “The absence of a pay standard disadvantages BIPOC influencers at every turn.”
But compounding the issue is that, even after a so-called “racial reckoning” that made waves throughout social media, of the 412 influencers surveyed, 59 percent of Black influencers (and 49 percent of BIPOC influencers) felt inhibited when it came to posting on issues of race. Specifically, they “reported that they felt negatively impacted financially when they posted on issues of race versus 14% of white influencers,” according to the release.
Bright, a Black influencer herself—further points out how Black female influencers are even further undercompensated, a trend that not only reflects but exacerbates the average intersectional gender wage gap that places Black women’s earnings at $.63 for every dollar made by their white male counterparts.
As Bright shared with WWD:
“[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...They reached out to her in 2021 to do the same campaign, same deliverables but they were only offering her $9,000.”
While Bright was able to help the influencer in question negotiate a higher—and fairer—rate, she now says: “That’s why we’re doing this. That’s why this pay parity study is so incredibly important.”
“We want this to be a wake-up call in the industry,” Littman added (via WWD). “This is not just an impetus for us to do differently and for our clients to do differently.”
What should they do differently? MSL has made a series of commitments, including sustained work with The Influencer League “to further an industry-leading curriculum covering best practices, content creation, pricing and negotiation,” according to the release. Additional initiatives will include a scholarship fund for BIPOC influencers and Influencer League training for others “with high potential but low engagement and follower counts.”
Perhaps most importantly, MSL hopes to create a “benchmark for industry principles” by developing an Influencer Pay Index which will both d”etermine and track all influencer pay” through its Fluency platform. The firm also plans to use the platform to track diversity and pay parity and “convene a summit of agencies, brands and influencers to arrive at universal pay principles that can inform an industry pay standard.”
“It will allow us to have very transparent conversations again both with clients and influencers,” Littman told WWD. “We’re going to publish our data and do that on a regular basis so that there is transparency there.”
While she admits converting longstanding agency attitudes and biases will be a challenge, Littman maintains that “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...and a good one at that.”
“There’s a whole system that needs to be behind this change,” she added.
You can read more details on “Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap” on Cision.