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Young, shafted and black: is anything being done to close the influencer ethnicity pay gap?

Stephanie Yeboah is among the high profile influencers calling out the industry for regularly paying black influencers less than their white counterparts. But what’s being done about it? We talk to platforms, marketers and beauty industry veterans to find out.

Black influencers get paid less than white influencers. Not all the time, and not in every market or in every campaign. And the issue may or may not be systematic (the industry’s lack of transparency over influencer pay prevents us from finding out).

But it happens, in the same way it happens in Hollywood and in the advertising industry and in almost every other paid sphere of modern life.

It happens to Eulanda Osagiede, one half of the travel and lifestyle blogging duo behind Hey! Dip Your Toes In. Last year she told the BBC's The Next Episode how a brand that constantly approached her about a content partnership ostensibly “never had budget” to pay her and her husband, Omo.

“I approached creator friends who had worked with the brand before,” she said. “These creators happened to be white and they all said, ‘Oh no, we got paid’. The brand continued to reach out to us. Each time they never had budget and each time I checked, they always did have budget for someone else. Maybe they just didn’t have budget for people who looked like us.”

It happens to Jacqueline Ilumoka, a blogger, model and marketer who once was paid at least £800 less than a white peer for the same deal with a fast fashion brand. It happens to Stephanie Yeboah, a plus-size influencer who, after being paid in the “low £100s” for a style content gig, found out that white influencers were paid in the “£2,000-£3,000 range” for the same job.

The intermediaries that broker influencer deals between brands and creators say pay discrepancy based on race is by no means built into the system. For many, including the influencer marketing platform Takumi, prices are predicated on each influencer’s reach. So, if an influencer of color has more followers than a white influencer in the same category, they would be paid more.

“The prices can’t be fiddled,” claims the platform’s chief executive Adam Williams (he has since departed the company).

“And actually, quite often clients say they have to have diversity across the board ... and actively remove some of the white influencers [from a campaign] because they want a real mix. From our platform’s perspective, it’s not a problem.”

A similar platform, Influencer, describes a similar phenomenon. The company works by asking influencers to name their fee rather than asking the client its price.

“Never have we had a situation where a client has asked us to negotiate harder or to offer a vastly reduced rate to creators based on their ethnicity,” says head of client services Nik Speller. “In some of our more recent campaigns, creators of color have actually been able to charge more than white creators with a similar following and engagement as they’ve been able to prove their ability to reach a specific audience demographic that the client is looking to advertise to.”

So if the racial influencer pay gap is not appearing at the point of deal-making, why is it happening at all? The reason is complex, structural and rooted in decades – centuries even – of historic racism. It’s because the ‘black dollar’ still has less worth than any other.

Alisa Metzger has worked in the beauty industry for more than 15 years. In that time she’s witnessed a sector failing to keep up with the idea of inclusivity, growing frustrated enough to launch her own company dedicated to affordable, vegan skincare designed for all complexions.

The InnBeauty Project regularly works with a vast array of influencers; other beauty brands don’t do the same, she says, because of who they choose to include in their target market.

“Brands will look at who they’re targeting by asking who has the most money to buy their products,” she explains. “If they’re making products for Caucasian women in their 30s or 40s, they’ll go to influencers in their 20s and 30s – you always skew younger – and that’s where it all lies.

“What you see is influencers based in New York or California or Dallas – influencers that tend to be Caucasian and wear designer clothes – getting bigger paychecks because brands are clamoring for them. It comes from where you’re finding your low-hanging fruit, from who’s there to buy your brand. And in the US, in beauty, it’s still more often white women between the ages of 25 and 40. So you’re going out and finding lookalike influencers to match that demographic.”

But the reason many fashion and beauty brands still desire a white, youthful audience (whether or not they themselves realize they do) isn’t just because they have more money to spend. It’s because “dollars of color have been valued less than others” ever since demographics existed, says Coltrane Curtis, the founder and managing partner of marketing agency Team Epiphany.

This affects not just how much influencers of color get paid, but the lackluster and uninformed ways brands try to reach multicultural communities in the first place. And influencer metrics – so beloved by the modern marketer – have not been formulated with the way these communities communicate in mind, says Curtis.

“Communities of color trust people because of consistency,” he says. “When you really look at activating communities of color, it’s not just about one influencer – you need an entire community backing the message. But brands are not consistent in their marketing efforts to reach us. They use us as adrenaline boosts.

“And social is now about a metric. It’s about how many people follow you. That’s not commensurate with trust.”

This means that while a black influencer may boast a strong engagement rate with their followers, they will be overlooked in a dataset if their follower count doesn’t hit the heights of a white influencer. So their price gets driven down, which means fewer black influencers can afford to pursue such a career.

That means there are less creators available to activate the community for brands. So brands simply don’t bother trying to reach it. And the cycle continues.

“We believe that if brands want to resonate with their target audience, they must earn their place in the culture or community they want to be part of,” says Leila Fataar, founder of Platform13. “The most credible way to do that is to add value to that community and contribute to that culture. That doesn’t always have to be worthy. For us, positive impact comes in many forms.

“But it does mean respectful collaboration with the people who represent, create and shape culture from grassroots up. We call these people cultural voices. These people may or may not have a huge social following, but their authority and expertise – who follows them and how engaged their audience is – become the priority, and budget should be allocated accordingly. This truly has nothing to do with color.”

So how does it all end? The answer is simple – stop treating people of color as a way of amplifying your campaign and instead place them in the core of your creative. For Fataar and Curtis, this has meant turning the concept of ‘influencer’ on its head by brokering deals that go further than a sponsored post. Co-creation at the product level means the cultural expertise of an influencer reaches across all marketing touchpoints, while the product itself will likely appeal to the multicultural community on a more authentic level.

Co-creation, however, is an easy distraction from the bigger question brand marketers haven’t been asking often enough: who is my product really for? InnBeauty’s Metzger, a veteran of the beauty industry, has witnessed companies design products with only a white woman in mind. Now though, she says there’s no excuse for building a company in such a way.

“If you’re only looking at one demographic then it’s likely you’ll only work with a few diverse influencers ... but, at the core, you’re missing the point,” she explains. “You have to start asking who your audience really is and then open out that target audience. You have to ask questions like, ‘does this work on people with different skin tones?’ That’s got to start at the chief marketer level.”

Those interrogating questions – among others such as the expanding flavor profiles of African Americans and cultural norms of second-generation Latinxs – are more likely to be asked by an agency or in-house team that is diverse. Hiring and listening to staff of color makes for an organization that can handle a broader demographic and thus value influencers of color as much as their white counterparts.

As Curtis puts it: “It’s not just about having that diversity within a corporate organization, but about encouraging inclusivity and activism. It’s systemic. It’s about how we really utilize the diversity we have to inform our decisions.

“This whole influence thing is basically word of mouth marketing. Word of mouth marketing is the only tool communities of color actually had. We didn’t have ad pages in magazines and out of home until they wanted to start selling cigarettes and alcohol to us. And so, word of mouth is the only thing that is intrinsically true to the African American experience.”