BIPOC influencers are paid less and here’s what’s causing it

Black female influencer livestreaming on the internet

Pay transparency and lack of a standard pay index are some of the biggest reasons.

The industry pay gap is a controversy as old as commerce. For decades, studies across industries have shown stark wage differences by gender and race in levels from intern to CEO. 

Not immune is perhaps the buzziest career path of recent years: influencer.

A study published this week by MSL and influencer education organization The Influencer League suggests the concerns first vocalized by influencers of color are true: there is a pay disparity between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) influencers. 

According to the report, titled Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap, the racial pay disparity between white and BIPOC influencers is 29%. When focused specifically on the gap between white and Black influencers, it widens to 35%.

The study surveyed more than 400 U.S. influencers and evaluated issues such as annual income, follower count and payment received from brands between February and September. 

The results show that compared to other industries, such as business (16%), education (8%), construction (19%) and even total workers nationally (25%), influencer marketing has a bigger pay gap. 

It's an issue that creates suspicion and mistrust “even when things are okay,” says Shreya Muckherjee, chief strategy officer at MSL, who also led research, noting that solving for pay transparency is a priority. 

But influencer marketing and PR pros say there are a number of factors that contribute to the gap and allow it to persist. 

Colleen O’Hara, VP of digital at Zeno Group, says a major issue is the lack of a unified pricing model.

“The industry has tried to put a formula against influencer fees but nothing has really stuck because [campaign] goals can be incredibly subjective,” she says. “[Some clients] consider content quality as a selling point for an influencer versus the engagement rate, [for instance]. It never is apples to apples with each campaign.” 

Ashley Hurst, group SVP at Day One Agency, echoes the sentiment, noting that pay transparency is another contributing factor, with many influencers lacking a proper understanding of how their peers are paid or insight into a brand’s marketing budget. 

“Transparency is a big issue. Some [influencers] don't have managers on their behalf or they don't have advice and counsel,” she says. “It's our responsibility to help educate.” 

At both Zeno and Day One, agency influencer teams have counseled creators who price their services too low and provided insight on campaign budgets to arrive at an equitable agreement. 

O’Hara says that at Zeno, the firm has also attempted to develop a rate standard for influencers, though without success. 

Day One, on the other hand, launched an initiative called The Ones to Know to identify and connect underrepresented voices with brands. Influencers who partner with agency clients bid on a project but are offered additional compensation to bring rates up to equitable standards when budgets allow. 

In general, O’Hara and Hurst agree that pricing is largely subjective and some influencers inflate their value while others deflate.  Both assert that pay also differs across categories such as gaming versus beauty or health. Factors like exclusivity, follower count, engagement or content quality are typically weighed differently depending on campaign objectives. 

But there’s no shortage of cash in the influencer space. Estimated to be worth $1.7 billion in 2016, influencer marketing today is worth an estimated $13.8 billion, and is expected to grow $15 billion in 2022. Fifty-nine percent of brands now reserve a standalone budget for influencer marketing, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. 

Still, according to the MSL report, nearly half (49%) of Black influencers say that their race contributed to an offer below market value from brands. Of the widened BIPOC influencer sample size, 36% reported the same.

Forty-five percent of Black influencers also cite “managing the financial process” as their most challenging pain point of working with brands, compared to 27% of white influencers. 

For the study, respondents were asked to write-in a single factor that could eliminate the racial pay gap, and 92% of all influencer responses involved pay transparency. 

“While [pay transparency] is an issue across almost every industry, it's huge in influencer marketing because it's a fairly new industry and there's no standard when it comes to pay rates,” says D’Anthony Jackson, associate director of digital and influencer strategist at MSL, who led the study. 

Brittany Bright, founder of The Influencer League, says her organization has launched several initiatives to help influencers navigate issues of pay. This year, The Influencer League granted 1,000 Black and BIPOC influencers scholarships to take a six-week training course with the league, in partnership with MSL, where creators were mentored on branding, social media growth, monetization and negotiating rates. 

But in order to close the gap, Bright says it will take the effort of the entire industry. 

“Having advocates on a team also looks like having a diverse team,” she says. “It includes [having] that Black person on the team [that when] Black or brown influencers come to them and undercharge, they [have] access to the budget and can pull them aside and say, [we have more] for you.” 

For its part, MSL has made commitments to helping to bridge the opportunity gap, solving pay transparency and advocating for BIPOC influencers. 

The PR firm has committed to advance curriculum to “bolster the business acumen of BIPOC influencers,” create a scholarship fund for BIPOC influencers and provide 1,000 BIPOC influencers with Influencer League training. It also wants to expand The Influencer League to sponsor additional influencers by expanding the existing scholarship fund to other brands and agencies.

It also said it will develop an influencer pay index, track and annually publish diversity and pay parity within all influencer marketing campaigns, convene a summit of agencies, brands and influencers to arrive at universal pay principles that can inform an industry standard. Also in its plans, is recommending influencer marketing campaigns to target and recruit influencers in proportion to the demographic makeup of the target audience.

Finally, it has called BIPOC influencers to self-identify with the hashtag #diversecreator. 

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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