When Candace Jackson learned that Instagram-famous boutique Pink Lily was looking to partner with Black influencers, she thought her account focused on fashion and parenting tips would be a perfect match. Pink Lily is one of the biggest online retailers on Instagram, with more than a million followers. Jackson is working to build her brand and her business, and a partnership could help increase her followers and revenue.
But there was a catch. A Pink Lily representative, in emails Jackson shared with BuzzFeed News, said that if an influencer has under a certain amount of followers, company policy is to not pay them directly for the content they produce. Instead, in exchange for a campaign, the company gives the influencer free products and provides them with a swipe-up link to earn a 10% commission on anything their followers buy.
This is a common practice in the influencer industry — work for indirect payment and the “exposure” of being associated with a big brand — that is increasingly becoming more controversial. The movement against it is being led in many ways by influencers of color, as many Black creators are more likely to fall below the threshold of followers needed to be paid by a brand than white creators. The debate around Pink Lily, which came during Black History Month, is emblematic of how people who run smaller accounts have been speaking out against the bigger brands with the power to offer these agreements.
One Black influencer who has been vocal about this issue, Kimberly Renee, told BuzzFeed News she’s bothered by how many brands have flocked to Black creators after the police killing of George Floyd, actively seeking “more diverse faces for their own storytelling needs” — but, in her opinion, not compensating them adequately.
“This is particularly problematic, as it reads as if we’re being used as a prop to appease your temporary guilt or address customer complaints without taking real action,” Renee said. “The lack of fair payment (or any payment for that matter) says that you still see us as people to be used up, drained, and exploited.”
Tori Gerbig, who founded Pink Lily, disagrees that this type of compensation is exploitative. She told BuzzFeed News that her company’s policy — not directly paying anyone who has under 50,000 followers the first time it works with them — is based on years of experience and research. If it works with a smaller creator and sees a great return on investment, she said, it adjusts its policy and pays them on a case-by-case basis. But it can’t just pay everyone, she said, adding that she has seen rates for content increase.
“We would love to pay every single influencer that we work with. We don’t have an unlimited budget no matter who it is,” she said. “It’s really hard as a brand owner to just afford to pay every single content creator with the way that the rates have gone over the past few years.” Plus, she added, plenty of smaller influencers agree to this arrangement as a way to “get their foot in the door” with a big brand. She has even done it herself, she said, on her personal page.
“As a brand owner, I don't think everyone should just get a flat rate getting paid up front,” she said. “You have to almost prove yourself, in my opinion.”
But for Jackson and other Black influencers, the issue is more nuanced, especially when it comes to Pink Lily’s Black History Month campaign.
In January, Gerbig posted a callout in a Facebook group looking for Black influencers to partner with, writing that for Black History Month, Pink Lily wanted to “spotlight smaller, up and coming women of color on our feed, and social media platforms.”
“Our goal is to empower new woc bloggers and help them get their name and accounts seen,” she said.
This sounded great to Jackson. While she had dabbled with a YouTube channel in 2014, she only just launched her blog and Instagram account last April. Her engagement is strong (8%), but her following is small, around 1,400 people. She emailed Pink Lily in mid-January, saying she “would love to be a part of this important campaign” and sent along her rates ($100 for an Instagram post and three Instagram stories, $250 for a Reel). After some back-and-forth, the Pink Lily representative countered: She offered to pay Jackson $20 for an Instagram post, based on her following.
To Jackson, the amount was laughable, and it was especially hurtful in light of the stated purpose behind the campaign.
“I’m not going to do all this work for $20,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I do research studies for $150 an hour.”
Determining fair market rates for influencers is complicated; rates are opaque. There is a rough standard in the industry of charging about a cent per follower, so $10 per 1,000 followers, according to the influencer marketing platform Later. But many brands take several other factors into account, like “engagement rate, client budget, campaign length, and other partnership specifics,” when determining how much to pay an influencer. So this rough standard is not always followed.
In fact, the online business platform Built In writes that nanoinfluencers, those with under 10,000 followers, can sometimes be even more valuable for brands based on the specific campaign, because they tend to have a highly engaged audience. Some brands are willing to pay these influencers similar or even higher rates for their content.
In the case of Pink Lily, many Black nanoinfluencers said they felt they should have been compensated for the value their specific contributions — such as diverse perspectives and experiences — would bring to the brand. Jackson’s sister, Myranda Barnes, also blogs at @honestlymyranda. She has about 1,600 followers and said Pink Lily’s specific solicitation of smaller influencers also bothered her, as did the company’s suggestion, in the email she received, that if she wished she could provide “personal notes to highlight the importance of Black History Month, diversity, or self-love.”
“They want to get all of this free work, and it seems like a great deal for them,” Barnes said. “And then they get to look like they embrace diversity, like they’re uplifting Black voices.”
Kisha Gulley, who has around 12,000 followers on her account @panamakish, also watched as Gerbig began to receive criticism in the Facebook group about the campaign. She told BuzzFeed News she gave credit to Gerbig for engaging with the debate, but believed a true way to support Black creators would have been to pay people.
“Given the current climate, don’t you think you could just pay people?” she said, adding that companies seeking to increase diversity should put their money where their mouth is. “When you said you were listening, didn’t you hear that we wanted to be paid?”
In her email exchange with a representative for Pink Lily, Barnes told them that she does not believe that “offering Black influencers clothes and wanting free labor is a proper way to celebrate and honor Black voices.”
“Pink Lily is getting free work from Black influencers for the month of February under the guise that it will gain them followers or traffic,” she wrote.
Another Black influencer also questioned Gerbig in the Facebook group about Pink Lily’s decision to not pay every influencer involved in the campaign. Gerbig said the goal is to help smaller influencers “build up their audience,” and that Pink Lily’s huge newsletter and Instagram followings would help with that. Gerbig said her company works with “hundreds” of influencers each month in this manner.
One such influencer who Pink Lily worked with for the Black History Month campaign is Kenid, who blogs @KikiStyles101. She told BuzzFeed News she has seen a lot of growth since partnering with Pink Lily — she’s gained more than 800 followers after doing a series on the brand’s stories — which has been a huge boon to her Instagram career.
“For me, I’m not looking for payment from Pink Lily,” she said. “I’m looking for engagement and followers, which I’ve been getting every time they share my stories.”
Industry advocates for fair pay, though, told BuzzFeed News that the debate around this campaign shows exactly why companies need to take a hard look at the practice of not paying everyone directly for their work. Lindsey Lee, who blogs at @msyoungprofessional, told BuzzFeed News she disagrees with some brands that insist “exposure” is valuable for the influencer. In her experience, the actual reward isn’t worth the time and effort spent on creating the content, which she said is critically undervalued.
“It's a cop-out,” Lee said. “They're trying to sell you the delusion that their partnership could somehow be so good for you in terms of getting yourself out there, that you should do it for free. But that's just their strategy — find smaller influencers to churn out content for free. They're not going to come back and offer to pay you in money when you have more followers. They're going to drop you and move onto the next hopeful.”
During her career, Lee grew extremely tired of being “paid” in exposure or commission, writing on her website she is infuriated “every time a brand asks me to perform this work yet is offended by my desire to be compensated for said work.” So she decided to do something about it. She launched F*** You Pay Me, a platform where influencers anonymously share rates for different companies and can search a database of companies to determine how much influencers should charge for content. She calls it “Glassdoor for influencers.”
In the case of Pink Lily, Lee said, this policy is especially concerning because the campaign is based on being empowering for Black creators. She pointed out that Pink Lily must believe that the influencers do provide value, otherwise it wouldn’t reach out to them at all. Thus, their work should be compensated.
“A white woman who rises in status off the backs of women’s unpaid labor isn’t really a win for women. And a white woman who rises in status off the backs of Black women’s unpaid labor during Black History Month isn’t really a win for Black women. It’s performative,” Lee said.
As Renee put it, “our ancestors worked for free for hundreds of years.”
“That debt owed has not been returned to the descendants of enslaved Africans. And now, corporate America continues exploitation by asking for more free labor,” she said.
Gerbig finds this criticism unfair. She said Pink Lily did adjust its expectations for the Black History Month campaign, dropping the payment threshold from 50,000 followers to 10,000. It did this, she said, because it was having an issue “finding influencers, Black content creators over 50,000.”
“For this specific campaign, we made an exception to lower it for Black content creators only,” she said. Gerbig acknowledged that some Black influencers were “offended” by the terms of the campaign, but “in our opinion, no matter if you’re Black, you’re white, you’re Asian, you’re anything, that’s what we go by.”
One of the bloggers that Pink Lily did directly pay is Camry Pierce — @cammpie — a Black influencer who has been doing campaigns with the company since 2019. Pierce told BuzzFeed News she pitched herself to the brand when she had around 15,000 followers and she has always had a great experience with them. Kenid also said her experience with Pink Lily has been positive, and as someone who works in sales, she understands she needs to prove she would provide a good return on investment before charging for her content. Kenid felt proud to share her experiences as a Black woman with such a large, likely mostly white, audience for this campaign.
“To me personally, [it was] an honor,” she said. However, she said she also totally understands if someone does not feel comfortable sharing in this way for exposure rather than payment.
Since June of last year, Gerwig said, Pink Lily has taken steps to diversify its branding and “support the Black community.”
“We’re really actively trying our hardest to involve women of color and Black content creators and really push them to the forefront, and we made an effort,” she said.
These efforts include making it a “priority to add Black models and influencers to our marketing campaigns on an ongoing basis,” including hiring Black models for its biggest collection of the year, the brand’s spring line. Pink Lily also has “put out the call to our customers and followers in order to feature a diverse and more representative set of our customer base” and launched a line of T-shirts from which it will donate “100% of all profits to the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness, up to $20,000.” Black influencers have also been taking over Pink Lily’s Instagram stories in February to discuss what Black History Month means to them.
Pierce said that while Pink Lily definitely could have featured more Black influencers before last year, she thinks its commitment to diversity has been genuine.
“Once they were called out and they addressed it, I think, from my experience and perspective, they have done a great job incorporating more women of color...so I commend them on hearing that they could do better and they took the initiative to do better,” she said.
Pierce, though, said she has very rarely done work in exchange for nonpaid collaboration because she “knows her worth” to brands. She thinks it’s up to each influencer to decide whether they are willing to do unpaid campaigns or not.
“I’m doing this for work. It takes effort to do it, so I require a payment,” she said, adding, “I know that I deserve to be paid for doing marketing for a brand.”
Renee put it simply: “Offering free products in exchange for work is unethical.”