We've been sold the idea that becoming an influencer is a glamorous, lucrative and oh-so-millennial career choice, but a new study suggests it's actually very difficult to earn a living solely from YouTube videos and social media likes.
The decade-long study by Mathias Bartl, a professor at Germany's Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, found that there is an "overwhelming dominance of very few channels over the rest of content on YouTube".
This has created a massive discrepancy between the very small number of YouTube channels earning sizeable sums from advertising revenue, and the very large number of YouTube channels earning very little.
According to the study, 97% of YouTube's most-viewed channels bring in less than £12,800 a year in advertising revenue. At the other end of the scale, YouTube channels with 7 million subscribers or more can expect to earn a hefty $300,000 (£225,000) for a video partnership, Forbes has previously reported.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that the vast majority of vloggers are struggling to make ends meet. Tribe – a tech company which matches brands with suitable influencers – shared some "ballpark figures" for sponsored social media posts with Business Insider last September.
An influencer with between 3,000 and 10,000 followers can expect to earn £50-£100 per post
An influencer with between 3,000 and 10,000 followers can expect to earn £50-£100 per post, Tribe said, while an influencer with between 25,000 and 50,000 followers can expect to earn £180-£250 per post.
Though influencers might be tempted to accept as many sponsored posts as possible in order to maximise their earnings, they need to be acutely aware of protecting their brand.
"Being authentic is their main asset," Tribe's UK general manager Lisa Target explained. "So if they're writing about something they love, other people will love it. And this is really 'word of mouth' gone global enabled by tech."
LA-based Gaby Dunn, an influencer who runs a comedy YouTube channel with her best friend Allison Raskin, wrote candidly about her financial situation in a 2015 blogpost titled Get Rich or Die Vlogging: The Sad Economics of Internet Fame.
"Allison and I make money from ads that play before our videos, freelance writing and acting gigs, and brand deals on YouTube and Instagram. But it’s not enough to live, and its influx is unpredictable," she wrote.
Speaking to Refinery29 last year, Dunn revealed that she and Raskin have since been able to make better money by branching out: they've written a young adult novel, launched a podcast and sold ideas for TV shows.
"We did the [YouTube] channel for 3 years for essentially free," Dunn added. "Let's say we made 200 videos for free, maybe 10 of them are sponsored. But then people would comment that we were sellouts, even though I'd eaten noodles for years and provided content (and joy) to an audience for free, getting paid for 2% of those videos.
"Then you start to get mad and resent your fans, because you get upset. Sometimes it feels like they don't have any idea about the amounts of money and labour that goes into making these videos for free."
Calum McSwiggan, a writer, digital content creator, radio presenter & LGBT+ advocate with just under 70,000 Twitter followers, tells Refinery29 that "there are some wildly disproportionate ideas about how much influencers actually earn".
"Earnings vary slightly from creator to creator but I estimate that I earn around £0.50 for every 1,000 [YouTube] views," McSwiggan says. "That means that my most viewed video earned me around £250. Considering the time and effort that can go into creating a video - not to mention the years it can take to build an audience who actually want to watch - it isn’t the easy money making scheme a lot of people believe it to be."
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McSwiggan also says that for around his first five years on YouTube, he held down a full-time office job to make ends meet. "I’ve known YouTubers with millions of fans having to work in Starbucks on the side just to make things work," he adds.
McSwiggan is now fully self-employed, but makes a living through a web of different revenue streams - of which YouTube is a "tiny fraction".
"The majority of my earnings come from other work like collaborations with brands, working as a presenter, and freelance writing. Like all creative jobs, you have to create content for the love of creating content," he says.
"No matter how hard you work and no matter how many hours you put into it, there’s absolutely no guarantee that it’ll pay off or become something you can monetise. Building an audience isn’t something you can control - some people get lucky, that’s all."