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Creator economy: How influencers get paid

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Jeff Jenkins left his teaching job four years ago with one goal in mind: to create content that could help plus-size people travel the world.

Jenkins created profiles on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube to promote his business, Chubby Diaries. He initially took out a small-business loan and worked for a couple years as an Uber and DoorDash driver while building up his social media presence, all in the hopes that eventually, he would be able to make a living off social media platforms.

But he said it wasn’t the money from YouTube ads, Instagram tips or other monetizing features on the platforms that helped him make a steady income. In fact, it barely had anything to do with the sites at all. Jenkins’ accounts took off at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, when more brands began reaching out to Black creators. “That actually helped propel me to where I’m at today,” Jenkins said.

Social media platforms are trying to attract creators with a slew of new money-making tools, including dedicated funds and subscriptions. Meta recently released Reels, its short-form video platform, globally, and with it, more ways for users to make money, like overlay ads. Mark Zuckerberg said he wants Reels to be a place where creators can build a following and “make a living.”

But creators who make a living from social media told Protocol that unless their videos are consistently going viral, they can’t rely on these funds alone to sustain themselves. Instead, their money comes from external sources such as brand deals or merchandise sales.

“It took almost two and a half years before I really started making some kind of money,” Jenkins said. “And that involved me getting more consulting and speaking gigs at the beginning. It’s continued to evolve … Now I have brands that reached out to me.”

Jeff Jenkins’ accounts took off at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, when more brands began reaching out to Black creators. Photo: Jeff Jenkins

How much money platforms offer

Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have all made dedicated funds for creators.

YouTube set aside $100 million for its YouTube Shorts Fund, which rewards creators anywhere from $100 to $10,000 each month based on viewership and engagement. In addition to the Shorts fund, the platform offers nine other ways for creators to monetize through a mix of ad revenue and tipping features for followers. Most recently, the platform began encouraging podcasters to make video versions of their podcast episodes with grants of up to $300,000, sources told Bloomberg.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been working to build a multifaceted business that helps YouTube creators grow and diversify their revenue,” a YouTube spokesperson told Protocol.

Pinterest and Snap incentivize users with cash, too. Pinterest launched a Creator Rewards program that pays eligible users based on engagement, and Snap pays creators through a mix of gifting and rewards for top-performing short-form videos.

Meta dedicated $1 billion to creators in the form of bonuses, which will pay eligible creators on Instagram and Facebook for hitting certain milestones. Part of that investment includes a Reels bonus program, where creators can make up to $35,000 a month based on views.

More broadly, Instagram and Facebook creators can also make money through paid online events and other tools that incentivize followers to chip in. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to monetization, so across Meta we’re focused on building a suite of monetization products that can support the different business needs of creators in the long term,” a Meta spokesperson said.

TikTok, on the other hand, introduced a $200 million creator fund in July 2020, which gives money to creators who reach at least 100,000 authentic views within a 30-day span. TikTok plans to grow that fund to $1 billion by 2023.

Instagram, TikTok and YouTube did not share how many eligible creators are taking advantage of these funds. But at least on TikTok, the fund is attracting more and more people: Hank Green, who has over 6 million followers on the platform, said at one point he made 5 cents per 1,000 views. Now, he makes about 2.5 cents per 1,000 views after the number of creators eligible for the fund increased.

Money-making features aren’t always enough

Kira West said making money off platforms alone is like working in a restaurant: You might make a lot of money one night and very little the next. And “unless you’re getting a million views on Reels, you’re not really making enough to pay rent and other expenses,” West said.

Alex Hall saw this issue on TikTok. They’ve amassed 100,000 followers on the platform, which qualifies them to make money from the platform’s tipping feature, where users can tip at most $100 per transaction and $500 per day. Hall is also part of the TikTok Creator Fund.

But Hall said they don’t make much money from the TikTok Creator Fund. They have posted about 60 videos and racked up over 700,000 likes since launching the account last summer, but they’ve only pocketed about $140 from the fund. And while they bring in some cash from followers through TikTok’s tipping feature, it’s not a reliable source of income.

Instead, Hall said they work with two full-time clients on branded content and take on paid sponsorships on a case-by-case basis, which helps bring in a steady, reliable income. “Branded content is still king,” Hall said. “Doing partnerships with companies that really want you to stay authentic to yourself while promoting their own things is still paying off more than any other [tools] at the moment.”

Kira West, Alex Hall, Vivian Tu

Kira West, Alex Hall and Vivian Tu say that money they make through platform funds are a “bonus.”Photos: Kira West, Alex Hall, Vivian Tu

Creator Ashleigh Reddy has had a similar experience on Instagram, where she’s been making money through paid sponsorships since 2016.

When Instagram introduced a bonus program for Reels, Reddy was offered a maximum of $500 to $800 per month if she got enough views over a 30-day period, but she doesn’t depend on those funds as a source of livable income. “You would have to post every day or maybe multiple times a day, then hope that at least a few go viral,” Reddy said.

“It’s a little bonus, like lunch money,” Reddy said.

Where people are finding cash

Brand partnerships are where the money’s at. But those depend as much on the creators as they do the brands: People often don’t know how much to charge for their work. And while Instagram, TikTok and YouTube all introduced features to help match people with brands, those resources only make the connection. They don’t help set rates.

Chayse Byrd, who has amassed almost 1 million followers on TikTok, didn’t know she was undercharging for posts until she connected with other creators. She was first charging brands $200 per post — the amount someone with a following of 5,000 should charge. Now, her rate sits around $6,000. “I wasn’t charging that rate because I lacked knowledge in that area,” Byrd said.

“Once I realized I was selling myself short, I experienced a wave of initial frustration and anger, but at the end of the day, I’m glad I found out this way,” she added. “Yes, I was being underpaid for a while, but each time I posted, I was happy with the product I created, and I was just as happy to be a part of something that I knew would benefit others.”

Zoe Peterson runs an outdoor travel account on Instagram called The Adventure Addicts alongside her partner, and said they’ll work with brands here and there in exchange for a product. They’ve started taking those deals less often, though, because it wasn’t worth the amount of time it took to create content.

Peterson, whose account has over 20,000 followers, said she’s unsure how big her platform needs to be to be able to ask for money instead of products. “Some companies are so excited about working with us and want to pay us, and some companies are like, ‘Oh, no, we only do gifted things,’” she said. “Honestly, I have no idea [how big we need to be]. We pitch to brands and try to get paid deals. And sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

All agreed that platforms should play a bigger role in helping creators make money, regardless of where the money’s coming from. Vivian Tu, who has over 1 million followers on TikTok and over 250,000 on Instagram, said she hopes platforms eventually put more focus on helping creators make income through external sources rather than trying to bring them onto their platforms with their own in-house features.

“As TikTok gets more developed, I think there will be more solidified pricing of what brands should be paying, because I do think a lot of creators are undercharging,” she said.

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