Commentary: It looks glamorous and fun, but most social media influencers are like unpaid interns

Commentary: It looks glamorous and fun, but most social media influencers are like unpaid interns

Increasing numbers of children, and adults, want to be social media influencers. They would be better off aspiring to be astronauts, says RMIT University's Natalya Saldanha.

Composite Logan Paul Zoella PewDiePie
Composite pictures of PewDiePie, Logan Paul and Zoella - famous YouTube stars with millions of followers who watch them almost every day.

MELBOURNE: Like any eight-year-old, Ryan Kaji loves to play with toys. But when Ryan plays, millions watch.

Since the age of four he’s been the star of his own YouTube channel. All up his videos have gained more than 35 billion views. This helped make him YouTube’s highest-earning star in 2018, earning US$22 million, according to Forbes.

That’s more than actor Jake Paul (US$21 million), the trick-shot sports crew Dude Perfect (US$20 million), Minecraft player DanTDM (US$18.5 million) and make-up artist Jeffree Star (US$18 million).

Ryan is apparently living the dream of many kids – and adults.

According to a Harris Poll/LEGO survey covering the United States, Britain and China, 29 per cent of children aged eight to 12 want to be a “YouTuber”. That’s three times as many as those who want to be astronauts.

Ryan Toysreview
Seven-year-old Ryan of Ryan Toysreview topped Forbes' list of highest-paid YouTubers in 2018, making S$30 million this year.

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Other polls suggest an even higher percentage of teenagers aspire to fame and fortune via YouTube or another social media platform. An eye-grabbing news report out this month suggested a whopping 54 per cent of Americans aged 13 to 38 would become an “influencer” given the chance, with 12 per cent already considering themselves influencers.

These numbers might be questioned, but given the apparent fortunes to be made by goofing around, playing games, applying makeup or unboxing toys, it’s no surprise so many are besotted with the influencer dream.

But there’s a stark divide between the glossy façade and reality of this new industry. The fact is most wannabe influencers have as much a chance of walking on the Moon as they do of emulating Ryan Kaji.

They’ll be lucky, in fact, to earn as much as someone working at fast-food joint.


Marketing literature defines an influencer as someone with a large following on a social media platform, primarily YouTube and Instagram.

As people consume less traditional media and spend more time on social platforms, advertisers are increasingly using these influencers to spruik their products. 

A mega-influencer like Kylie Jenner, with 139 million followers on Instagram, can reportedly charge more than US$1 milllion for a single promotional post.

In 2017 an estimated US$570 million was spent globally on influencer marketing. In 2020, according to the World Advertising Research Center, it will be between US$5 billion and US$10 billion.

Social media influencers hired by MOF for Budget 2018
The Ministry of Finance paid social media influencers to put up sponsored posts promoting Budget 2018. (Photos: Instagram)

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A key driver of this booming market is that about half of consumers use ad-blocking technology, which limits the reach of traditional advertising.


One company to really embrace the social influencer trend is cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. In August the company’s chief executive, Fabrizio Freda, said 75 per cent of its advertising budget was now going to social media influencers, “and they’re revealing to be highly productive”.

But while part of the company’s budget is going to “micro-influencers” – those with fewer than 10,000 followers – it’s likely the bulk is still wrapped up in deals with big-name “spokesmodels” and “brand ambassadors” like Karlie Kloss, Grace Elizabeth, Fei Fei Sun, Anok Yai and Kendall Jenner.

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In a sense these celebrity deals aren’t much different to what the cosmetics company has done for decades with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Elisabeth Hurley and Karen Graham.


So far most of the indications are that the new economics of influencer marketing are not too different to the old economics of marketing.

As in the acting, modelling or music industry, there’s a tiny A-list of superstar influencers making millions.

Then there’s a somewhat larger B-list making a handsome living. But the vast bulk of influencers would be better off getting an ordinary job.

netflix logo website on laptop screen
(Photo: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio)

In 2018 a professor at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, Mathias Bärtl, published a statistical analysis of YouTube channels, uploads and views over a decade.

His results showed that 85 per cent of traffic went to just 3 per cent of channels, and that 96.5 per cent of YouTubers wouldn’t make enough money to reach the US federal poverty line (US$12,140).

Cornell University associate professor Brooke Erin Duffy suggests the lure of being a social influencer is part of a larger myth about the digital economy providing the opportunity for fulfilment, fame and fortune in doing what you love through developing your “personal brand”.

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This is a particularly problematic illusion for young women, Duffy writes in her 2017 book (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love.

The tales of achievement, she says, should not obscure the reality.

Rather than a satisfying career, what most have is an “unpaid internship”.

Natalya Saldanha is an academic at RMIT University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.

Source: CNA/sl