“This year, I’m projected to make seven figures. But let’s see if Forbes is going to put that on there.”
There’s a reason why content creator and influencer Drea Okeke singled out Forbes while disclosing how much she earns during our Zoom interview. At the top of the year, the publication released a report on TikTok’s top-earning creators, explaining that its top-five ranking process was based on “what the TikTokers earned from January 1, 2021, through December 31, 2021,” and required its creators to have “a minimum of $4.75 million in earnings.” It came as a surprise that not even one Black TikTok influencer had been included. No Khaby Lame, the Senegalese-born influencer who is now the most followed person on the platform, surpassing Charli D’Amelio, a white influencer who ranked at no. 1 on Forbes’ list. And no Jalaiah Harmon, the teenage dancer and content creator behind the viral “Renegade” dance that was co-opted by influencers on Forbes’ list including D’Amelio and no. 3 top earner Addison Rae, a white dancer who faced controversy when she performed TikTok dances on The Tonight Show without crediting its creators (many of whom are Black).
Before sharing how much she makes as an influencer, Okeke offered her opinion on how someone like Lame wouldn’t be included on Forbes’ list, pointing the blame on journalists who aren’t doing the research of finding the creators who aren’t already being highlighted in the mainstream media. (At the time of being published, Lame was the second-most followed person on TikTok.) Whether Okeke is wrong or right, the list brought up past grievances Black creators on TikTok have expressed, which culminated in the “strike” that many participated in last year to draw attention to how essential Black creators are to the platform. But it also highlights the disparity between Black and white TikTok influencers, with many of them not receiving the same earnings (and access to the opportunities that could lead to those earnings) as their counterparts.
Last year, public relations firm MSL (along with digital platform The Influencer League) released a study that revealed just how troubling the pay gap is in influencer marketing between Black and white influencers — 35 percent. The study also included other notable findings, from 49 percent of Black influencers feeling that their race contributed to an offer below market value to only 23 percent of Black influencers being a part of the highest pay tiers where earnings averaged $108,713.54 (compared to 41 percent of white influencers).
D’Anthony Jackson, MSL’s Digital and Influencer Strategist, explained how the study was broken down into two tiers: micro (any influencer that has less then 50,000 followers) and macro (any influencer that has more than 50,000 followers) influencers. Only 23 percent of Black influencers are macro, earning upwards of $100,000 annually. The remaining 77 percent are micro, earning $27,000 annually.
Jackson said that the Forbes list “put icing on our numbers,” while also wondering why someone like Lame wasn’t accounted for in the list’s top five to begin with.
“Where is that money coming from and why is there such a gap and why aren’t any Black or BIPOC influencers on the list… knowing that they carry the platform when it comes to culture and virality?” Jackson said.
According to MSL, pay transparency is the biggest problem Black influencers face (followed by a lack of education and resources), and figuring out how to fix that is an ongoing discussion between MSL and its clients, as well as agencies and industry experts.
“We don’t have a solid sort of answer to it yet… it’s just looking beyond reach to be that sort of priority judgment to the value of an influencer, and looking into other things that make sense when it comes to working with brands and content creation,” Jackson said. “So, looking at engagement, quality of content, what’re you bringing to the specific partnership, and what that looks like holistically as a standard. I think we have some time until we get there… moving away from solely being based on reach to moving toward engagement.”
“We’ve heard from friends and others in the industry that this study has caused some waves and forced everyone to look more closely at their practices, and that was really the goal,” Natasha Vuppuluri, MSL’s SVP and Head of Marketing and Business Development, added. “We can’t do it all — it’s gonna require everyone. So, instigating those conversations was really important.”
Influencers can earn their money in a number of ways: brand partnerships; attending events; creating communities and having fans/followers pay for access to more content/closer proximity; starting brands and selling merchandise; direct deals with platforms where they pay influencers to post; and ad revenue generated by videos they post.
What an influencer does also plays a part in their profitability, and although one might assume that dancing content is the most profitable on TikTok — because of how beneficial dancing has been to the social media platform — that’s not necessarily the case.
Okeke has amassed 5.5 million followers on TikTok since joining the social media platform in 2018. Originally rising to prominence on Vine for her comedy sketches inspired by her Nigerian upbringing, Okeke has become a successful influencer making comedy and lifestyle content on TikTok, resulting in collaborations with brands like Amazon, Chipotle and HBO, as well as celebrities like Mariah Carey.
This is the first year Okeke is projected to earn seven figures for her content, her annual salary usually six figures. But that wasn’t always the case. When she first started out, she faced the same problems that other up-and-coming Black creators and influencers — and creators and influencers in general — do, particularly pay transparency. Coming from a corporate background (Okeke was an engineer before becoming a content creator), Okeke highlighted how salaries for corporate roles are usually made available through websites like Glassdoor, while salaries in the influencer industry — and the creative industry at large — aren’t as well-known.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for brands to take advantage of this, often low-balling or even offering to compensate an influencer (especially those first starting out) in exposure, options that they may accept not just because they have to provide for themselves, but also because they feel they have to.
Okeke herself has been there, sharing how she’s had past experiences of either getting underpaid or compensated in exposure for her work. Even now, she said she wouldn’t know if she’s being fairly compensated because a lot of creators don’t disclose what they’re being paid. (Okeke said within her circle of friends they do share what they get paid, as well as advise each other on what to charge when a brand reaches out to one of them that another may have already worked with.)
“If we’re not talking about these things we’re just never going to know. We’re going to be accepting $1,000 for a post because we’re going to believe this is the most anyone can make,” Okeke said. “I’ve been doing this for a very long time so I know what my payments should be, minimum, that I’m going to be happy creating the video for. I know my worth and I will never ever — to my knowledge — let a company underpay me again, because I’m putting a lot of work into my content.”
The pay disparity issue in the influencer industry also stems from another problem — “disparity in resources/business acumen,” as Ogo Akamelu, the founder and head of partnerships for influencer marketing group Thirteenth, explained in an email.
“…it’s up to the people paying to recognize that and try to make up for that difference,” he said. “If you’re talking to one side who’s a teenager with parents who work in business, they have a family lawyer, and some proximity to how these negotiations work, it’s looking way different than just talking to another teenager who’s doing it alone and is too worried that negotiating might forfeit them the opportunity for being seen as ‘difficult.'”
Akamelu’s Thirteenth (along with Whalar, also an influencer marketing group) manages and organizes The Crib Around The Corner (TCATC), Los Angeles’ first all-Black influencer house. (Influencer houses are literal houses where influencers and creators come together and collaborate.) Launched February last year — in March, AT&T TV became sponsors for the house — TCATC has become known for its comedy content, with most of their videos in the hundred thousand to million views range. Although Akamelu said he personally hasn’t faced challenges in advocating for TCATC’s influencers or other Black influencers he’s worked with, he is aware of the disparities that exist in the influencer industry.
“I definitely have heard of many people being low-balled in comparison to people with similar numbers than them… If two influencers at the same level say ‘I charge $10,000’ and the other ‘I charge $2,000,’ it’s not often that a brand person will say, ‘Dang, they’re really underselling themselves — let’s give them the extra $8,000 anyway,'” he said. “There’s a few times we’ve been able to do that on our end, just from a point of trying to look out — but it’s not always possible. I don’t know if it’s fair for me to say everybody should do that, because every situation is so different, but I definitely think it should be considered/talked about, and there’s a responsibility to pay attention to such disparities.”
These disparities played a part in last year’s TikTok strike, where Black influencers and creators refused to create a viral dance trend centered around Megan Thee Stallion’s “Thot Shit,” to address how their contributions often go overlooked and uncredited on the app, as well as larger issues pertaining to compensation and race in digital spaces. Since then, TikTok has made efforts to be more supportive of its Black creators; it has held meetings with creators where they’ve been able to voice their frustrations and negative experiences using the platform, and has awarded grants to creators to help propel their content.
The platform has also enlisted the help of notable influencers to teach workshops to Black creators and influencers on the business acumen Akamelu spoke to — like Okeke.
“It was basically me teaching them how to find brands, how to pitch yourself to brands, what to look for in contracts when you’re negotiating, and how to negotiate a rate that you’re comfortable and happy with,” Okeke said. “I know to look to negotiate more if they want you to be exclusive for longer. I know different tips and tricks that’s going to help me come out triumphant in a negotiation, but it’s so crazy because there’s a lot of up-and-coming creators who don’t know these little things.”
Amid the strike, as well as George Floyd’s death and the wave of support against racial injustice that came with it, brands and companies have also improved their efforts in supporting Black creators too, according to some members of the influencer industry. Keith Dorsey, the founder of one of the first all-Black influencer houses, the Collab Crib, shared how he’s noticed a rise in departments and programs specifically created for brands and companies to foster better relationships with Black creators, and helping out of touch higher-ups understand what these creators can bring to them. Such was the case when a representative for Monster Energy helped get the energy drink brand to work with Collab Crib, resulting in the company being one of the influencer house’s main sponsors, and allowing them to have activations in LA for this year’s Super Bowl and Miami for last year’s Rolling Loud — programs that Monster had never done like this with influencers before.
“…when you have people in place to understand the culture, now you can put together really good activations that will work with the brand instead of something that’s very generic, that’s not going to work,” Dorsey said over Zoom. “That’s been a big deal. And a lot of them are very sensitive to the fact when they’re working with these creators.”
Dorsey’s Collab Crib has made a name for itself not just because of the influencers a part of it, but where its home base is, Atlanta. Rather than set up in Los Angeles (where most influencer houses reside), Dorsey planted Collab Crib in Atlanta to make a statement: that this city has played a vital role in the viral moments and trends that platforms like TikTok rely on, and that it’s not white TikTok influencers and creators behind this, but young Black people.
Starting Collab Crib was a challenge. Dorsey couldn’t just turn to a family member for what he needed: “…we don’t come from families and homes where we could say, ‘Hey, I need a small loan of $350,000.’…we didn’t come from families that have million dollar homes sitting around,” he said. Fortunately, thanks to Dorsey’s friend Robert Dean III (who helped launched Collab Crib and is also a member of the house under his influencer name Robiiiworld), he connected with a support manager who used to be at Instagram and Facebook, and was able to secure some support from the platforms in exchange for getting his influencers to support their Reels feature. Dorsey used that support to move into the house, believing that once Collab Crib was up and running, he’d get the opportunities and support necessary to sustain it. The risk paid off — the house received a great look from the New York Times in 2020; since then, they’ve partnered with Monster Energy, Amazon, Walmart, NASCAR, and LIFEWTR (among others).
In his work with Collab Crib, Dorsey has personally experienced the disparities that exist in the influencer industry. He shared how once, there was a company that initially offered one of his clients a low pay for the amount of work he had to do.
“They didn’t only just want him to post, but they actually wanted the company to film him and use that marketing material for their own good,” he said, adding that the company wanted to pay the client $1,500 for his work. After a back-and-forth with the company, Dorsey got them to bump it up to $6,000.
For Dorsey, advocating for his clients isn’t only to help them understand their worth, but to see their work lead to more sustainable opportunities beyond being a social media star. And he believes that people in power both providing more opportunities for Black influencers, as well as giving them the knowledge needed to sustain themselves, will help level the playing field in the influencer industry.
“…it creates a new threshold for others to come in a system that they can say, ‘OK, cool, creators can go from being on social media to having a mainstream career, to having a huge global business,'” he said. “It’s more than just you getting paid. It’s actually opening doors for other creators to see that. Once they see that, they can believe that they can do something like this.”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
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