The ability to self-produce shareable social content like photos and videos makes influencers like Eni appealing to companies that seek a cheaper alternative to traditional advertising. With thousands of followers that support them, they serve as a personal link between brands and consumers.
“Influencers are your new celebrities,” said Shirley Dor, therapist and curator of Haitians Who Blog, an online community that connects Haitian and Caribbean content creators to influencer partnerships. “They’re the people that consumers are going to for information about their favorite stores and brands. Companies have caught on to that and recognize the potential because celebrities are great, but why not get someone who’s a lot more intimate with their audience?”
The influencer marketing industry jumped from being worth $8 billion in 2019 to an estimated $13.8 billion in 2021, according to the latest report by Influencer Marketing Hub. In a survey of 5,000 agencies, brands, and professionals, the research firm noticed a spike in influencer-led campaigns last summer as the pandemic kept production studios closed brands relied heavily on content creators to help advertise their products.
“The work that we do is actually full scale. You can’t have a basic phone that doesn’t have the range to provide those pictures. Then you have email management and preparing documentation that proves the analytics that brands are looking for. A lot of influencers aren’t sponsored, so they have to invest their dollars into the best quality clothing or recruiting a photographer,” says Shirley.
Photo by Justin Romelo for Shirley Dor.
Eni’s younger brother takes most of her pictures and has done so since she started blogging in 2018. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Eni juggles planning daily posts and schoolwork as a full-time law student at Columbia University. The money she earns from sponsorships allows her to minimize her student loans and afford living in Harlem without a traditional job.
“I get questions about how I am able to manage both. Sometimes it comes at the expense of a social life,” said Eni. “On Fridays, we wouldn’t have class so in the evenings I would do content creation work, and then sometimes Saturdays would be a photoshoot day.”
As social media platforms roll out new features like Instagram’s Reels, influencers have to spend hours educating themselves on how to use incorporate them into their personal brands or risk falling behind trends.
“You have to always think about new ideas because if you’re sticking to your preferred method of creating content all the time, you’re just not going to advance. Such is the nature of the industry,” said Eni.
“One of the worst parts of the influencer industry is people devaluing your work and seeing it as just taking pretty pictures,” Shirley Dor said. Shirley also manages Dorsainvil Creative, an agency that offers strategic planning and graphic design services. After helping several influencers sharpen their online presence over the years, Shirley finds it especially insulting when brands shortchange creators, particularly Black people and other influencers of color.
“I’ve seen so many people drop out, disappear, come back, start over and fail,” she said.
Her frustrations are echoed in the media as publications point out the pay gap that discourages burned-out influencers from staying the course.
“Why are Black women being paid less for their posts?,” asks one Cosmopolitan headline.
“Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter,” states the header of an article from Bloomberg Businessweek.
Photo courtesy of Shirley Dor.
Dor experienced this discrepancy during one conversation in a meeting room on Clubhouse, the audio-driven social media platform. With racial tension in the U.S. still brewing months after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, brand representatives hosted discussions on how to acknowledge social justice issues in their messaging.
“When Clubhouse first started gaining traction, I was very active on the influencer side,” Dor said. “You had very insensitive brands who would use the marketing force of black creatives because we were quote-unquote ‘trending.’ They would use that to seem inclusive and make sure that their company isn’t caught in the crossfire of not partnering with black creatives, only to tell us that we are inflating our prices because we are just a trend.”
The value that Black influencers bring to companies is more enduring than the latest current event. With $1.4 trillion in buying power, Black consumers shop, watch live TV, play video games, and use their smartphones more than any other ethnic group in the U.S., according to a 2020 report by Nielsen.