Does being an influencer really pay?

By Danielle van Wyk

Five years ago, if you’d have told your parents you were becoming a “social media influencer” they would have had any number of reactions, from disappointment to confusion.

But this career-stream has grown in leaps and bounds, both globally and locally, as South Africans increasingly realise its financial potential. Along with its growing popularity, there has also been a shift towards young adults and teenagers entering the space.

This week Justmoney looks behind the scenes to see what it takes to become an influencer in South Africa, and whether it is financially feasible.

What do influencers do?

Simply put, an influencer is a person who gets paid or compensated to share content on social media platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. This content is usually centred around a product or a brand and the aim is to promote the brand so that their followers are convinced to buy into it.  

Influencers start by growing their social media presence or following and establishing their focus such as fashion, food, or travel. Depending on their interest, brands will then approach these influencers with the intent of leveraging off their social reach.

Brands may directly reach out to influencers with the intent to do a product collaboration, they could send influencers media drop-offs to inspire them to use their products, or they might invite them to a product launch in the hope of it reaching their followers. 

While this may sound easy enough, the challenge is to build a big enough following and to properly establish yourself as a “thought leader” in a specific interest.

Does being an influencer pay?

“The goal for every influencer is to make bank and get paid, but very few South Africans can claim to actually be a full-time influencer,” says Matthew Jacobs, or ‘Matte Jacobs’ as he is known to his 7,000-follower base on Instagram, who’s a social-media influencer.

“For most they have 9-5 jobs and fulfil a social media role part-time. Others diversify and build brands in association with influencing, such as modelling or motivational speaking,” he adds.

Jacobs says that the sphere of social media influencing is a new concept to South African brands and influencers alike. When it comes to being paid, it often depends on the influencer, the brand, and the magnitude of the campaign.

“Currently, the most reliable method of making money through social media is to get your posts sponsored. This means that brands will pay you to post about them and their products in return for a rate you decide on,” adds Jacobs.

Another potential avenue is when influencers partner with brands to become contractual brand ambassadors. This means that over a certain time period the influencer works with the brand to create a content schedule typically catered to a product range.

According to Sané Ndlovu from IN.PR, a public relations agency based in Durban, it has become very important to involve influencers. Nowadays brands work with both micro and macro influencers. Someone with 2,000 followers is seen as a micro-influencer and may be asked to participate in a campaign if they have high engagement.

“In almost every strategy that we put together or that we are briefed on – mostly lifestyle brands – we are required to, or feel the need to, use influencers,” says Ndlovu.

“Another benefit is that social media campaigns that include influencers are measurable. The brand or client can see who is interested in their product, and information such as their age and location. These are not the same kinds of stats you can receive with print media or radio,” she explains.  

However, there are still many influencers who are not being paid. Instead they are compensated with free products.

“Many influencers are paid but some use trade exchanges. This is where they offer influencers products or services in exchange for social media exposure. Other influencers use a pricing model where they charge 10% of their follower base,” says Ndlovu.

“For example, if they have 1,000 followers, they will charge R1,000 per post. Some influencers look deeper at their own brand equity and what they have built, and they charge as they see fit,” she adds.  

“Receiving free products is awesome because it helps us with content creation and gives us the opportunity to gain access to otherwise exclusive and sometimes expensive products,” says aspiring influencer Teboho Letseli, otherwise known as Nthabi official to her almost 2,000 Instagram following.

“But just getting free products isn’t good enough. It is hard work on the part of the influencer, which is why I believe we as an industry need to push to be taken seriously and be properly compensated for our work,” she says.

How does one break into the industry?

Jacobs, who always had an affinity to fashion and beauty, says that apart from cultivating a following, he also had to change his thinking.

“I had to start thinking of myself as a brand. This meant that I had to start reworking my posts and my content to align to the voice and look and feel I wanted for my brand. I had to consider what I was putting out there, how regularly I was doing so, and how I was engaging with my interests in ensuring I remain current,” says Jacobs.

Other key elements to cracking this industry is a cohesive feed, posting consistently, and being unique. 

“Above all, find something that makes you stand out. And something that makes you happy. True passion will set you apart,” Jacobs says.

For Letseli, who is an aspiring beauty and fashion influencer, her passion was fuelled by the lack of representation of plus-size women in the industry. But this also became one of her biggest challenges as this was new territory. However, the key lies in consistency, she says.

Another challenge that many aspiring influencers face is navigating the industry.

“There are many scams out there supposedly helping those who want to be influencers and brand ambassadors gain followers and access to different products. Often however these scams or social media pages ask for a follow in return and for you to promote a competition they are running to find the next brand ambassador,” says Letseli.

“In this way, they are in fact growing their bases and gaining free exposure through you. I am always weary of these and will rather recommend that those starting out stick to building their following organically,” she adds.

Anytime a page or a brand expects you to pay money in return for them helping you grow your following, ensure you do your homework first.

How do you manage your money?

While Letseli hasn’t reached the stage where she can say she is earning money through influencing, she feeds back whatever money she makes into buying equipment and making sure her business grows.

“I don’t think people realise how much money goes into building your brand. As an influencer, you’re constantly required to create content, and creating content requires money,” says Letseli.

“For example, being a beauty and plus-size fashion influencer, I spend money on photo shoots to post on Instagram. I also spend on equipment, like a camera and a ring light for my YouTube videos, and the latest makeup products in order to keep up with the latest makeup trends. So, content creating is an expense,” she explains.  

However, according to Ndlovu there is money to be made as the relationship between South African influencers and digital agencies continue to grow.

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