The true cost of becoming an influencer

Most social media stars and YouTubers don't make as much money as you think

Illustration by Gary Clement
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Ahh, summertime — there’s the infinity pool, the food, the nightlife. Welcome to the world of virtual holidays and salivating over social media posts.

Then there’s salivating over what can be earned from living the high life and sharing that experience. The right shot in the right place, and you too could post and brag your way to Instafame and a slice of the projected $5.6 billion (Dh20.5bn) industry come next year — according to Influencer Marketing Hub — and all while having fun, fun, fun!

You’d be forgiven for wondering why you put up with your daily dough-earner when this world beckons. But before you join the ranks of wannabe social media stars, let’s delve into this a bit more.

First off, how much do social media influencers earn? That depends on the influencer, their reach, whether they have general or specialist appeal, and their general entrepreneurial savviness. According to the Financial Times, "an influencer with 100,000 followers on Instagram can charge around £2,000 (Dh8,910) per picture, while celebrity influencers with between four million and 20 million followers can charge £5,000 to £13,000".

According to’s Influencer Rate and Engagement report for April 2017, those based in the UAE charge the highest average rate per sponsored post globally. The rate of $274 is about 25 per cent higher than the rate in the US ($214) and Canada ($210).

Various media sources report US-based influencers with 100,000 followers make $5,000 per sponsored post, while the mega successful global stars of this world command over $700,000.

The appeal of earning from social media is relentlessly seductive. YouTube pulls in 1.8 billion users a month, Facebook has 2.41 billion users, and a billion people access Instagram every month (500 million use it every day).

Little wonder that Bloomberg research shows one-third of British children aged 6-17 want to become a YouTuber, which was “three times as many as those who wanted to become a doctor or a nurse”.

But it’s not a financial win for most. According to a decade-long study by a professor at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, 96.5 per cent of YouTubers don’t make enough annual revenue — generated from advertising — to reach the US federal poverty line.

The truth is that a beautiful social media feed can be a financial hole. According to fashion news website Fashionista, you’d need to spend about $31,400 a year to “maintain the standards of physical beauty represented daily in our Instagram feeds”.

Aspiring travel influencer Lissette Calveiro found this out the hard way when she racked up $10,000 in debt living a life beyond her means to curate clicks and followers. She shared her story with the New York Post last year to highlight the financial cost many influencers face. Her regret? Not investing the money spent in pursuit of insta-worthy status. Had she done that, she would have had the capital, plus whatever interest or profit it would have generated.

If you or someone you know still thinks this is the route to fame and fortune, read this book: (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love by Cornell University professor Brooke Erin Duffy. In it she examines the myth that working hard on a personal brand will pay off in the long run. The case studies she shares have little to show for the many hours of unpaid work. That finding is confirmed by USA Today, which reported that many influencers work longer hours than they did in their previous full-time jobs, and spend huge chunks of their days interacting with followers and building engagement on social media.

Plus the trend appears to have already peaked — 52 per cent of millennial participants don’t trust influencers anymore, according to a 2017 Millennial Shopper Survey by DealSpotr, a shopping and influencer marketing platform. It’s a matter of time before the plug is pulled on this sort of promotional spend.

Besides the risk of going broke while paying for the pursuit of a viral post, there is the bigger concern of mental health and burnout. Research published by the academic journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture reveals worrying details of how using Instagram can affect our mental well-being. Compared to other social media platforms, Instagram can be more taxing on our brains. The more time spent on it, the more anxious and depressed users are.

Yes, you could make money from being an influencer, but the reality is that it’s no “get-rich-quick-while-having-fun” scheme. The irony is that the mega-stars will continue to rake it in, while the influenced (including aspiring influencers) get into debt emulating them.

How about going back to being you and sharing what you actually love to do. Perhaps then, by being a genuine, accidental, micro-influencer, you’ll end up having a slice of that $5.6bn pie — and be fit enough to enjoy it.

Nima Abu Wardeh is a broadcast journalist, columnist and blogger. Share her journey on