When a Sponsored Facebook Post Does Not Pay Off
After rising to MySpace fame in the mid-aughts, singer-songwriter Kaila Yu amassed a following of nearly half a million fans on Facebook and 70,000 on Twitter and Instagram. Like all “influencers”—people who leverage a social-media following to influence others—Yu now makes her living monetizing her audience with branded content, promoting products and events through sponsored posts.
In July, she received an overture from a well-known influencer management platform called Speakr, on behalf of DNA testing kit 23andMe. They were offering her $300 for a Facebook post. “Somebody really likes you! One of our brand partners is running a campaign and we think you’re a perfect fit,” read the email from Speakr, which Yu shared with The Atlantic.
Yu agreed to the offer and coordinated with a Speakr account executive via email. Yu followed her directions to a T and on the morning of July 25th she loaded up her Facebook page and posted the ad.
The next day, she requested payment. Six months and countless emails and phone calls later, Yu says she still hadn’t been paid for her work.
Speakr is one of the most notable and established influencer management platforms, with clients like Verizon, Sony, Ford, Nissan, Disney, Microsoft, and Universal Studios. It, like most influencer management platforms, offers a simple service: sifting through the saturated influencer market to match stars with brands. Speakr is the middleman: The brand pays Speakr (or the brand pays an agency, which pays Speakr), and Speakr then distributes payment across a group of approved influencers, slicing and dicing the money to get maximum reach. For instance, the platform might pay 20 smaller influencers $500 each for a tweet, then pay five larger ones $1,000 each for an Instagram post for a total influencer promotion ad buy of $10,000.
Unless you’re a top-tier influencer, you’ll almost never get paid before actually delivering work. Most influencers submit an invoice after the post goes up, and are theoretically paid soon thereafter.
Speakr, however, stopped paying influencers early this year, say several influencers who themselves failed to receive payment after delivering work. Ten influencers on Speakr’s platform, some with more than a million followers, told The Atlantic they either never received payment for the sponsored content they’ve posted, received only partial payment, or weren’t paid until months later after issuing threats to take their problems public. Many others have posted publicly about not being paid.
Wolftyla, who has more than 1.5 million followers on Instagram and doesn’t reveal her real name, wrote in an email that Speakr currently owes her $1,500 for work she completed on July 19. Brianne Manz, a fashion and lifestyle influencer did a campaign for Tropicana over the summer which she says she was never paid for. Zippy Sandler, a travel influencer, also did a campaign through Speakr in July and says she had not been paid by late fall.
Sarah Barlondo, a lifestyle influencer with 100,000 followers on Instagram, told me she chased Speakr for months about a fee that, to many would seem nominal. “It’s such a small payment it’s ridiculous,” she says. In late October, she says, Speakr sent her just a portion of what she was owed via PayPal, and she gave up chasing the rest. “Even if it’s small, it’s your metro card for the month,” she says.
One influencer went so far as to file a lawsuit. Speakr currently owes the 22-year-old influencer and former Vine star known as JoJoe $4,000, according to legal documents filed in small-claims court and reviewed by The Atlantic. JoJoe posted several videos to his Instagram story on May 21, 2018, promoting Universal Music artist Kris Wu’s new single. According to his manager, Ray Hughes, on May 25, he was told that the payment was being processed and would be in his account shortly. As of December 12, he had still not been paid. After months of following up, Hughes discovered through a connection he had at Universal that the brand had paid Speakr back in June. After several more attempts to contact the company and obtain payment, Hughes took Speakr to small-claims court. The judge ruled in JoJoe’s favor, but JoJoe has still yet to be paid.
The influencer industry is set to reach up to $10 billion by 2020 and as it has grown, influencer management platforms have proliferated: More than 420 of them opened in 2017 alone. Influencer management platforms are the primary way small to mid-level influencers find brand deals, yet the platforms and industry itself are highly unregulated. A 2018 survey conducted by The World Federation of Advertisers found that 65 percent of global advertisers plan to increase spending on influencer marketing in the next 12 months. But as a money flows from brands through a network of agencies and platforms, sometimes the influencers themselves are left penniless.
While top-tier influencers usually have managers and agents and bookkeepers who can keep track of missing funds, the vast majority operate on their own, often without contracts or accounting software. “I didn’t sign a contract [with Speakr], but their site looked so professional,” says Yu. “A lot of times I don’t sign contracts with brands for a quick post.”
It’s not uncommon for influencers to be signed up for more than five influencer management platforms at once, and some are active on as many as 10. But with so many scattered campaigns and pending payments floating around, money can slip through the cracks. For all but the most organized influencers, it’s easy to forget about small brand work like a sponsored tweet posted months ago for $50. Barlondo says she almost forgot the company owed her at all.
“Influencers are not always good businesspeople,” says Jeremiah Boehner, who consults with brands about influencers. “They’re good at whatever made them an influencer.”
Even those who do remain on top of things can find themselves in a financial hole. “I’ve gotten paid same day and six months later, says Nellie, an influencer who goes by the name Brooklyn Active Mama and doesn’t reveal her real name. “You have to be prepared to get paid at any time. It’s very difficult for an influencer, if you sign a $2,000 contract, you really never know when you’re going to get that money.” Still, she says, most platforms are communicative about the delay, or will issue partial payment up front as insurance. Nellie says that after working with Speakr to do a Twitter campaign for Pepsi, she had to harass the agency for eight months before receiving her $200 payment. (Pepsi did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Nellie hasn’t soured on management platforms all together though: She’s still registered on at least four others.
By many accounts, Speakr basically invented influencer marketing. In 2010, Marco Hansell, a digital strategist who previously worked with musicians like John Legend and Ludacris, noticed that brands would pay large amounts of money for people with online followings to post about them. He used $20,000 to bootstrap a new company called twtMob (later, Speakr). Hansell told me that in his first year the company generated $1.8 million in revenue.
“They kind of came on the scene when there weren’t other influencer marketing companies in general,” says Taylor Nikolai, a marketer and social-media influencer who runs several Twitter accounts with a collective 10 million followers. “They were basically the first ones doing only influencer marketing. At the time, there wasn’t even a word for influencers.”
By the time, platforms like Vine and Instagram took off around 2014, twtMob was working with stars like Christian DelGrosso, Logan Paul, and Jake Paul. For many influencers, the first time they got paid to post about a product was through twtMob. In October 2014 the company rebranded to Speakr. From 2012 to 2016 it raised at least $4.5 million through four funding rounds. “Hundreds of influencers make $10,000 to $20,000 a month [on Speakr]. Thousands can make a few thousand [dollars] a month,” Hansell claimed at the time.
And for years, influencers did make real money on the platform. Nikolai told me that he earned a healthy five-figure sum per year through twtmob and later Speakr, by posting sponsored tweets about Samsung and several movie studios. “They facilitated well-paying sponsorships and I always got paid,” Nikolai says.
Since then, Speakr has continued to grow. In 2016 the company penned a lucrative partnership with Time Inc., which launched an influencer network “powered by” Speakr. “Why we chose Speakr is because they’re really smart ... They have an edge there in their space, and they give us that edge in our space, as well,” Regina Buckley, Time Inc.’s senior vice president of digital business development, said at the time. (Time Inc. did not respond to several requests for comment.) 2017 saw the company’s profile rise even further, and Hansell became a go-to quote for reporters writing about his growing industry. In one private Facebook group where influencers discuss deals, Speakr was mentioned as a reliable platform.
According to influencers who spoke to The Atlantic, the trouble with the company started between late 2017 and spring of 2018. Suddenly, checks weren’t coming on time. Brandi Jeter Riley completed a campaign for Speakr in December 2017 and expected to receive payment within 30 days, she says. By April the money still hadn’t arrived, so she resorted to tweeting at Hansell. “Hello! Congrats on being a 7-Figure #ecommerce company! Could you please help me get paid for a program that I did with you all in December?” she tweeted on April 24. She also emailed the company and took to Facebook, leaving a one-star review on Speakr’s page. “Speakr has not paid me for services I provided in 2017. They are not responsive to emails. For a company that needs influencers to support their business, they certainly don’t seem to value us,” she wrote. Finally, on April 30, she says the company rendered payment.
As the months went on, more influencers began to have issues. Some, like JoJoe, were told by a Speakr account executive that payments would be arriving shortly, only to receive radio silence when they tried to follow up. Erin Sullivan, an outdoors-focused influencer with 65,000 followers on Instagram, tweeted in early September that she had yet to receive payment for a campaign she did months ago. Ariane Andrew, an Instagram fitness star with more than 800,000 followers, posted a tweet promoting 23andMe in July for $750 and says she also had not been paid by September. Last week, she finally received the $750 she was owed, but says that at this point she feels entitled to more given the time she spent trying to track down her money. (23andMe did not respond to a request for comment.)
Jason Horton posted a tweet about the movie Second Act in July for $100. He told me he was only paid in November after “escalating my emails to the point where I was going to show up at their office.” All in all, he spent hours of his time tracking down his money. “It was a lot of work,” he says. “A lot of checking back ... I did the work in a very timely way so I expect to get paid in a timely way.”