Social media influencers are everywhere these days. Chances are, if you have an account in any social network, you’re probably following an influencer or two.
But have you ever wondered “how do influencers make money?” A lot of them seem to be living the “permanent vacation” lifestyle.
In reality, there’s a ton of work that influencers are doing in the background and that doesn’t get the spotlight on their social media channels.
Let’s define who social media influencers are, how they earn money, and how much money they can actually make through their work.
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A social media influencer is someone who has an engaged audience that follows their content on one or more social media platforms. The most popular channels for influencers are Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook.
Influencers also range widely in their social media involvement. Most have other primary occupations (which is probably how they’ve become known in the first place) and act as influencers on the side. These are athletes, subject matter experts, actors, entrepreneurs, etc.
But some influencers have become famous purely from social media — by creating engaging content that could be informative or simply fun to watch. Influencers like Kylie Jenner, Mr. Beast and Charli D’Amelio would fall into this category.
However, not all successful influencers are megastars. In fact, a lot of brands don’t even want to work with large accounts (those with over one million followers), preferring niche influencers with more engaged audiences.
Niche influencers, in turn, can be divided in three distinct categories: macro influencers, micro influencers and nano influencers.
Macro influencers (100,000+ followers)
In general, macro influencers are just one step below really famous people. They are well-known in their industry and have been featured in national or international media. Their opinion matters and they can really help companies with promoting products given that there’s an audience fit.
Micro influencers (10,000-100,000 followers)
Brands love micro influencers because they are more accessible, more flexible and, sometimes, even more creative when it comes to creating content.
At the same time, trying to find future stars among micro influencers is becoming increasingly popular. Secure a long-term deal and you can pay today’s rates for tomorrow’s audience.
Nano Influencers (1,000-10,000 followers)
The most authentic of all are nano influencers — those with fewer than 10,000 followers and as little as 1,000 followers, as outlined by Akinola Olusegun in his book Instagram Money. They are valuable because they have a semi-personal relationship with their audience that’s built on trust.
Endorsements from nano influencers tend to seem more real and be more actionable, even if the audience itself is just somewhere in the four digits.
Accounts that don’t yet have at least 1,000 followers rarely get approached by brands, since the results rarely justify the effort required from all parties.
While everyone knows that world-famous influencers make really big money (often millions), niche-level influencers can also get creative and bring in thousands of dollars. A key consideration for both though is creating product lines and trying other ways to diversify their income streams.
What’s important to consider is the importance of authenticity and community for a social media strategy. Audiences come for content but stay for the community. Don’t forget to share your stories, experiences, and opinions, and that authenticity will attract like-minded people.
Here are 8 ways for TikTok, YouTube and Instagram influencers to make a non-trivial amount of money. Our guide is inspired by Become an Influencer, a 2019 book from Chris Riley.
1. Post sponsored content
When people think about influencer marketing, the most straightforward way of making money that comes to mind is sharing a sponsored Instagram post.
Brands love to send influencers samplers of their products for free in the hopes that they like them and write about them — or at least be willing to agree on a sponsorship deal.
There are generally two types of sponsored posts. Brands either “rent” the space on someone’s social media and insert their own creative or they work with influencers to integrate their products into the influencer content naturally. Needless to say, the latter is vastly more popular.
2. Become a brand ambassador
Some brands understand that influencers don’t just live on social media and that striking a long-term deal and letting influencers become brand ambassadors can be a much better proposition with a lot more brand touch points.
One of the brands that does this on a consistent basis is Lululemon, with their Global and Store Ambassadors communities.
3. Enable affiliate marketing
Brands that are focused on results rather than awareness can be interested in agreeing on affiliate marketing deals with influencers.
Affiliate marketing earns money for influencers when someone from their audience follows a link or enters a special coupon code and actually buys the brand’s product.
4. Accept donations or create member subscriptions
One more way for influencers to quit their full-time jobs and unlock their creativity is to activate their most loyal followers and offer them an opportunity for direct support.
This is especially common in the gaming industry with live streams, during which the audience can send practically unlimited donations.
Subscriptions with exclusive content are popular too, relying on platforms like Patreon to define different tiers of support.
5. Work on product collaborations
The next level, after being a brand ambassador, is working together with companies on exclusive releases, which might be anything from physical goods to digital products.
Collaborations have the added benefit of making sure that both sides get exposed to a new audience and thus are mutually beneficial.
6. Design your own merchandise
One of the highest revenue lines for most famous influencers is selling merch. For the most part, it doesn’t even matter what the merch is, since your audience is buying it for the reasons of association, to be part of a community, rather than strict pragmatism.
7. Sell digital products
A faster way to scale the business side of being an influencer is to offer digital products, such as ebooks and online courses.
The power of digital products is in only having to spend time creating them once and then benefiting from new sales for years to come, with very little involvement.
8. Open an ecommerce store
While selling the result of product collaborations, merchandise and digital products is mostly about creation, there’s something to be said about curation as well.
Since influencers have the ability to shift popular taste, they can use this for third-party product curation that can then be sold through their own ecommerce storefront.
There are, of course, many other ideas for making money as an influencer, from being featured in ads to acting to modelling, etc.
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Given a wide range of possible activities that influencers can be engaged in, the amount of money they make can also range widely.
For the most part, influencers with larger audiences make more money than influencers with smaller ones. At the same time, it also depends on how engaged their audience is.
If we’re just comparing compensation for sponsored posts, nano influencers (those with fewer than 10,000 followers) can make a few hundred dollars per post. Micro influencers can expect thousands of dollars. Macro influencers are able to break into tens of thousands of dollars per post when they get close to one million engaged followers.
Influencers at the top of their game, like Kylie Jenner (over 300 million followers), can request over one million dollars per sponsored post.
Add to that all the other ways of making money that we discussed above and you’ll realize that even nano influencers can turn this into a full-time job if they successfully combine a few income streams. Check out this TikTok money calculator to see just how much they can earn.
Note: It’s important to consider ethical ways of producing sponsored content. A great research paper by Mariah Wellman titled the “Ethics of Authenticity” dives deep on this issue.
Online courses are a great way for influencers to make money
A common thread among all influencers is how much knowledge and how many skills they can share with their audience. It doesn’t have to be something complex or academic — just explaining things that you do well can be a great start.
Online courses are great at packaging and sharing knowledge. Plus, you probably already know how to film yourself like a pro. The only thing you’re missing is a capable platform to make creating and selling your course a breeze.
Thinkific is an intuitive and user-friendly course creation and management platform. You don’t need to know how to code to get started — just use professionally designed templates along with a drag-and-drop editor to customize your course.
This blog was published in May 2022, and was updated in October 2023 to be even more useful!