How do internet celebrities make money?

More young people would now like to be YouTubers than astronauts, one survey suggests. It’s a sign of just how well-established the career of social media influencer has become – at least for some of the industry’s biggest names.

The market for influencers worldwide was estimated to be worth £11.2bn last year. In the UK, about 300,000 young people are now able to make it their only source of income, according to research by YouGov. But where does the money come from? We searched out some views from industry experts to find out.

Affiliate marketing 

If you see an internet celebrity linking to a product, chances are that clicking the link and making a purchase will earn them a bit of money – a commission known as affiliate marketing. For budding internet celebrities (“nano” or “micro” influencers with between 1,000 and 100,000 followers), it often provides their first opportunity to make an income and work with brands.

Several influencers, covering topics from personal finance to fashion, told Business Insider that they make between $50 (£43.60) a month and $25,000 a month from affiliate marketing. However, some of these were mega-influencers who boasted audiences of nearly two million followers.

Sponsored posts 

Producing content sponsored by brands was one of the first ways influencers made money from their social media audiences. According to Hootsuite, a company which makes social media marketing tools, the unspoken industry rate is currently about $100 per 10,000 followers for each post.

The company says that smaller audiences can be attractive to brands, too, with micro-influencers often being preferred on Instagram. “Remember, long-term relationships are often lucrative over time, much more than one-off posts,” says Hootsuite’s Colleen Christison. “If you’re smaller, work on building your niche or specialty.”

Display advertising 

Selling advertising space on your own website, just like the ads you might see in magazines or on TV, has been one of the most popular ways to earn money on the internet since the web’s earliest days. But nowadays, YouTube is the biggest platform for creators to make money from display ads.

In 2020, YouTube revealed for the first time how much it was earning from advertising revenue: about $15bn (£12.9bn), or 20% of the total advertising spend on US network television, as The Verge reported. But less than $8.5bn gets paid to YouTubers, and they say that a large proportion of that goes to the top 1% of creators, so competition is tough.

Selling their own products

Many social media personalities boost their income by selling products directly to the public. Often, that means packaging up extra content in the form of ebooks or subscriber-only services. Services like Patreon offer a way to take payments and unlock premium content for subscribers.

Travel marketing agency HMI Marketing says it’s also becoming increasingly common for influencers to host their own events and tours, offering their fans an opportunity to meet them in person and visit a destination with the influencer as their guide. A sold-out photo walk in a popular city could earn $500 or more, the company suggests – while a luxury tour in an exotic destination could bring in more than $10,000 for an internet celebrity.