The graft behind the glamour: how social media influencers commercialise meaningful work

Posted in: Marketing, Research, Social media

In an industry based on algorithms, how can content creators appraise the value of their work? Dr Sarah Glozer and Dr Hannah Trittin-Ulbrich from Leuphana University Lüneburg explore the trio of narratives that influence the influencers.

There are 50 million people across the globe who class themselves as ‘influencers’. Influencers create and disseminate content to engage social media users in commercial transactions. Used by many brands, influencing is big business, with recent estimates suggesting that the industry is worth £13.5 billion.

Behind the glamour of promoting luxury holidays, new beauty products and holistic nutrition lies a stark reality: many influencers work for free. Most brands still remunerate influencers through gifts-in-kind (such as free products) or the promise of future exposure.

In keeping with this, many influencers prioritise meaningful work – work that holds personal significance and worth – over paid work. However, what if influencers don’t wish to sacrifice pay for meaning?



Our study explored how influencers commercialised work that they found to be meaningful, drawing on interviews with 19 influencers who participated in the InfluencerPayGap (IPG) community; an Instagram profile established in 2020 to expose pay disparities and discriminatory practices in the influencer industry.

We observed the IPG community and extracted 1,087 posts and over 24,000 comments submitted between June 2020 and March 2021. We also undertook six interviews with companies who employ influencers.

One hashtag resonated with us: #knowyourworth. We observed first-hand how influencers came to ‘know’ the market worth of their work and how best to demonstrate its commercial value, in order to avoid producing commercial content for free and to get paid for doing what they love.

We found three narratives around which they ‘enriched’ their work with commercial value: authenticity, relationality and quantification.


Authenticity: ‘be true to yourself’

Rather than setting out to make money, most influencers became engaged in content creation as a hobby or ‘side-hustle’ alongside other pursuits such as work, studies or raising children. It was partly for this reason that most described themselves as ‘content creators’ rather than influencers. For instance, one influencer laughed when we asked if he was an influencer: “I’m just a regular person who likes to cook.”

The influencers we interviewed were proud of the ‘substance’ of their work and invested considerable time, energy and resources into creating content that brought them ‘joy’ and provided ‘authenticity’ for the brands they worked with.

This narrative also provided a valuable buffer against the risk and constant fear of rejection; even if their work might not (yet) be deemed of market worth by potential clients, creators could at least comfort themselves that it was authentic.


Relationality: ‘build strong connections’

Influencers were vividly aware of their roles as ‘hybrid salespeople’ and the need to build connections with their followers to enrich the market worth of their work.

Engagement rates (the average number of times followers engaged with an account’s social media content) were understood by influencers to be a proxy for the social capital they had accrued. To keep engagement rates high, influencers were warned against becoming too commercial and remaining authentic.

Beyond this, many influencers told us about the genuine friendships they had built with their followers. Such connections helped to make them more commercially viable, but also enhanced meaning in work.

As one influencer commented: “What’s really important to me is making an impact on people. When I die, nobody’s going to care about how many followers I have. The only thing they’re going to care about is how I made people feel and the impact I made on people’s lives.”


Quantification: ‘play the numbers game’

Influencers consistently – even obsessively – measured social media metrics facilitated by platform algorithms, such as follower counts. These were showcased in aesthetically designed ‘media kits’ or ‘rate cards’, accompanied by a description of the influencer’s ‘brand’. Taken together, these tools provided the currency to engage in negotiations with brands.

While the community encouraged one another to ‘get behind their figures’, one specific milestone – the 10,000 follower-count, which provided additional Instagram features – became the holy grail for budding influencers. With a mere 4,823 followers, one influencer admitted that she had limited capacity to demand payment and would “understand why brands wouldn’t wanna pay” for her work.

Quantification thus had a darker side. Influencers operating under the 10,000-follower threshold were often actively encouraged to engage in free work and not develop a sense of entitlement: “No one’s making millions of dollars off of someone with 5k followers… you’re going to sink your career before its even started by thinking your entitled to more than youre worth” [sic].


Double-loop narratives

These three narratives did not operate in isolation, though. Instead, they relied on a ‘double loop of enrichment’ where influencers combined their own personal valuation of the worth of their work with the valuations of other actors, namely their followers and social media platforms and algorithms.

While this double loop enabled many influencers to know and evidence the market worth of their work, it also, for some, undermined their sense of this. Sadly, this led us to conclude that some influencers may never feel ‘worthy enough’ to demand payment for doing what they love.

Moving forward, platforms such as InfluencerPayGap (IPG) provide a crucial sense of optimism for the industry. They elucidate the pay deliberations that usually take place behind closed doors and level the playing field between influencers and companies. As well as creating more transparency, they also offer a valuable avenue of peer support for influencers, who operate outside of formalised and stable structures of remuneration and appraisal. As one influencer put it, ”We want all of us to win, like we need to win – collectively.”

Posted in: Marketing, Research, Social media

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