According to a decade-long study by a professor at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, 96.5 percent of YouTubers don’t make enough annual ad revenue to reach the U.S. federal poverty line. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all but a handful of YouTubers live under highway overpasses and film themselves showing off their morning dumpster haul, but it does mean that for every Zoella, there are around 27.57 other vloggers and video-makers who don’t reach $12,140 a year from ads. To put that into perspective, if you flip burgers at McDonald’s, you can expect to make $5,000 more per year if you’re working full time. And don’t forget to like and share that stat.
As juicy as this nugget of information seems, it’s also a little deceptive. Although only the top three percent of the most-viewed YouTube channels bring in more than $16,800 a year in advertising revenue, social media ads aren’t the only source of income open to YouTubers — or all other digital influencers, for that matter. You might be tickled by the idea of poverty-stricken influencers living lives of squalor, but it’s not really one with much basis in reality. It does, however, raise some interesting questions about the profitability of influence.
So how much do influencers really earn and how do they make their money? It’s a bit like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” because it depends on the influencer, the size of their influence, their general savviness, and myriad other factors. According to the Financial Times, “an influencer with 100,000 followers on Instagram can charge around £2,000 per picture (approximately $2,700), while celebrity influencers with between four million and 20 million followers can charge £5,000-£13,000 ($6,700-$17,500).” But of course this all varies.
“Jake Paul has gone on record that he is going to be a billionaire,” says Brendan Gahan, founder of Epic Signal, a New York-based social media marketing agency. “I doubt he’ll be a billionaire, although he’s already extremely wealthy. Undoubtedly some influencer at some point will become a billionaire.”
Nailing down precise earning figures is near enough impossible for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the social media age is barely a decade old, so there isn’t a whole lot of data to work with. Secondly, it’s in an influencer’s interest to project an aspirational image at all times, even if it doesn’t really match their everyday reality. In the fashion sphere especially, influencers’ entire personas are dependent on a glamor that still feels attainable and relatable, yet is distant enough to hold followers’ fascination. So it’s only logical that an influencer would lie to cover up their true worth while maintaining a glamorous facade.
This is certainly true of Gaby Dunn, an influencer turned actress and author who, in a blog post titled “Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame,” wrote, “My Instagram account has 340,000 followers, but I’ve never made $340,000 in my life collectively.
“The high highs and low lows leave me reeling. One week, I was stopped for photos six times while perusing comic books in Downtown LA. The next week, I sat faceless in a room of 40 people vying for a menial courier job. I’ve walked a red carpet with $80 in my bank account.”
It’s sometimes hard to avoid the impression that there’s a heavy dose of con artistry to the influencer industry. I reached out to a handful of influencers to research this article, but their initial enthusiasm gave way to evasiveness when I started asking about their earnings. Do these people have something to hide or is discussing money just plain vulgar? I suppose we’ll never know. But what we do know is that there definitely are influencers out there making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by monetizing their influence.
In 2016, the Financial Times profiled NYC-based fashion and lifestyle influencers, Amra and Elma Beganovich, who, at the time of the FT's report, had 658,000 and 617,000 followers on Instagram respectively (that figure has now risen to 857,000 and 705,000). According to the people employed by the Beganovich sisters, the pair earned around $714,000 each in 2015.
“We factored in medians and averages to better represent the monthly variation,” said the Beganovich employee quoted by FT. “Blog earnings: $30,000, average per month $2,500; Instagram posts: $480,000, median per month $5,000 per post, with eight posts per month on average; Twitter posts: $60,000, median per month $2,500 per tweet, with two posts per month on average; event attendance: $144,000, median per event $6,000, with two events per month.”
The thought that people are making nearly three-quarters of a million dollars annually from social media sounds utterly ridiculous but this isn’t even close to the upper limit of influence-based earnings. One influencer marketing expert who agreed to speak off the record said that they’ve heard “through reputable sources” that one particular YouTuber earned “$40 million last year” and that “the really well-known folks are definitely making seven figures.”
“Mid-six-figure brand deals are not uncommon for that top-tier talent,” the source adds.
This doesn’t all come from social media ad revenue, though. According to The Outline, YouTube pays monetized channels, which require a minimum of 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time over the last 12 months, between 35¢ and $5 for every 1,000 views. This is only really lucrative for the most gargantuan channels, which is why 96.5 percent of YouTubers generate below-the-poverty-line earnings. Influencers would probably be better off focusing on selling merchandise rather than relying on ad revenue from content, which is what a lot of them have started to do.
According to The Daily Beast, viral merch site Fanjoy sold more than 800,000 items last year. The site, which produces gift boxes for celebrities and influencers that are then hustled off to adoring fans, raked in $1.2 million in earnings in 2016. How much this works out per influencer on average is unknown, but it’s safe to assume that a $20 phone case or a $25 T-shirt is likely to offer greater profit margins than 1,000 YouTube views. And getting those views isn’t easy work, it has to be said. Taking a selfie might look like the easiest thing in the world, but building a fan base and making content varied enough to enable you to quit your day job is as challenging as making it in most professional fields.
“Oftentimes, people think that influencers have an easy job or that they were an overnight success. I’ve never found that to be the case,” Gahan says. “Instead most creators are dedicated to creating content, learning, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and showing up day in, day out and grinding it out.”
How an influencer monetizes their following depends on the market they cater to. A fashion influencer is likely to sell brands via sponsored posts. Beauty blogger Sazan Hendrix has her own subscription box service, “Bless Box,” which mails out boxes full of makeup, skincare, accessories, and other knickknacks to paying followers. Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, built up his following by posting workout routines on his YouTube channel and healthy recipes on Instagram. He offers users personalized workout programs for a price and has authored a million-selling cookbook series, Lean in 15, making Wicks considerably wealthier than the average personal trainer.
Counterintuitively, income doesn’t always directly correlate with the number of followers an influencer has. Gahan says he has friends “who have been hit up for brand deals after getting a few thousand or so subscribers or Instagram followers,” which really isn’t many. But if a popular influencer isn’t particularly marketable, it’s natural that they’ll earn less than social media users who project the sort of image brands are looking for, even if they have fewer followers. “Some creators are just so far from being brand-friendly that they can’t get brand deals,” Gahan continues.
This might sound disheartening to any budding social media darlings out there, but there are means beyond brand sponsorships for influencers to turn followers into cash.
“I’ve written about this a little bit on my own blog,” Gahan elaborates. “Outside of direct platform ad revenue, some common ways [influencers] generate money is from appearances and tours, merchandise, [subscription platform] Patreon, affiliate links and sales, writing books, making movies, lots of direct-to-consumer ones, also major motion pictures, developing apps.”
To answer the question posed by this article — How much money do influencers make? — the answer, then, is quite a lot. Potentially. The numbers vary from influencer to influencer. They can become millionaires or find themselves relying on social media to supplement their income while working another job. But influencers have higher earning potential than a commercial model, which is the profession they have most in common with.
According to Bizfluent, commercial models (the type that appear in brochures and ads, not runway models) can expect to make “in the range of $75 to $150 per hour or $400 to $950 per day in a small- to medium-size market.” But that figure can rise to $250 per hour in larger cities such as San Francisco, where jobs across all industries tend to pay better. But unlike influencers, the average catalog model is unlikely to snag a book deal, Patreon funding, or find anyone willing to buy their gift boxes.
What this reveals is how social media has helped to corporatize the individual. Models are fundamentally just workers, exchanging their particular form of labor and talent for a wage. Influencers, meanwhile, are more like companies than employees. The savviest of influencers have multifaceted business models that draw profit from a multitude of different sources. So while their YouTube ad revenues are less than the federal minimum wage, it’s unlikely that all 96.5 percent outside the influencer elite are living in poverty.