Influencers with big followings on Instagram and other platforms are starting to put up “paywalls” by charging fans for exclusive content.
Some charge a monthly fee to become a “Close Friend” on Instagram, while others are trialling WeChat’s new paywalls. In effect, content quality is becoming a focus.
While these payments add another revenue stream for influencers, analysts say brand partnerships will remain as a source of credibility.
Caroline Calloway, a 28-year-old internet personality known for her lengthy Instagram captions, and, more recently, the controversy surrounding her workshops and her relationship with Natalie Beach, started offering her 717,000 Instagram followers the option to sign up for paid access to her “Close Friends” list in August 2019. She decided the content on her Instagram was personal enough to warrant paying for.
“What I do provides value and I should be compensated for that service, just like anyone else,” says Calloway. “A stranger is not entitled to consume what I make, just as I am not entitled to reap the benefits of whatever job they are employed at.”
Patreon, a membership platform that launched in May 2013, lets creators set up pages for subscription payments from patrons by offering certain perks or incentives, and donors can pledge certain sums of money based on those tiers and perks. Today, it counts over 150,000 creators and more than 4 million patrons.
Fans of Calloway can pay a monthly fee of $2 via Patreon to see her “Close Friends” Instagram Stories, or $100 for exclusive content plus a monthly 25-minute FaceTime session with the influencer herself. “Because my content is monthly, I want what I make to be really special and meaningful,” she explains. For Valentine’s Day, she planned to share with her 419 Close Friends the details of her secret boyfriend.
Gabi Abrão has used Instagram’s Close Friends feature in a similar vein. The 25-year-old Los Angeles-based artist behind the popular meme account @sighswoon, which counts over 104,000 followers, discovered Patreon last summer. "It was a lot of people wanting more from me. They wanted more things about my life and more content,” she says. “I thought about how I could make content that was more personal but have a guaranteed income.”
Abrão currently has 415 subscribers on Patreon: for $3.33 a month, she’ll add users to her Close Friends list on Instagram. For $9, she’ll share a vlog every week on a password-protected Vimeo site. For $55 a month, users can receive merch. Fans who pay the highest tier — $222 a month — receive personal emails from Abrão every week, answering questions, giving advice or just talking about their lives.
Calloway and Abrão aren’t fashion influencers, but the industry has a collection of Instagram personalities who have massive, monetisable audiences: Chiara Ferragni has over 18.5 million followers on Instagram; Aimee Song has 5.5 million. There’s also opportunity for magazine publishers like Vogue — 26.2 million people follow US Vogue on Instagram alone — to offer exclusive behind the scenes content for a fee. (Vogue Business and US Vogue share a parent company, Condé Nast.)
Influencer marketing is a growing industry. The global influencer market is expected to reach $15 billion by 2022, up from $8 billion in 2019, according to Media Kix data. But it’s nascent, and any shift can spell change for the entire category. Last year, Instagram experimented with hiding the number of likes on posts, with the intention of minimising the social pressures that come with social media. Some experts believe if this becomes a permanent feature, it could incentivise brands to spend more on ads and less on posts that feature influencers.
Influencers who develop a second revenue stream through the monetisation of close friends and private groups could be seen as a threat to brand partnerships, as they can drive their own income and might be less likely to want to introduce ads or sponsored content to an already-paying audience.
But it could also be a benefit for brands, as the influencers they work with could be more likely to develop stronger partnerships and produce higher quality content. “It will enable influencers to avoid having ‘one night stands’ with brands and rather focus on creating long-term ambassadorships with brands that are truly authentic to their lifestyle,” says Krishna Subramanian, CEO of influencer marketing and branded content firm Captiv8.
Private subscriptions for fans
“It’s the way of the future,” says Subramanian. “If you look at these fan clubs or VIP memberships that have launched, it’s tied to exclusive, specific types of content being provided by influencers and celebrities.” Erotic models have paved the way here by offering private subscriptions for their most loyal fans on platforms like Onlyfans.
Instagram introduced its Close Friends feature in November 2018 as a way to give users a space to post less curated content, similar to what has become increasingly popular with secondary “Finstagram” accounts. (The launch of Close Friends was a transparent move to recapture the interest of younger people, who were turning to platforms like Snapchat and TikTok for content they don’t want parents, teachers or any unapproved eyes to see.)
According to a spokesperson at Instagram, the Close Friends feature is used by millions of people worldwide today, with the average Close Friends list being around 20 people.
While influencers like Calloway use the Close Friends feature as a hack to charge money for more intimate access, others ask that their fans fund and support specific projects. Former venture capitalist Jenny Gyllander, who runs the product-review Instagram account @thingtesting with 42,700 followers, charges a one-time fee of $100 for a spot on her Close Friends list, which includes exclusive content such as a behind-the-scenes look at her product review journeys. (Three hundred people have been granted access so far, and Gyllander says there’s currently a waitlist.)
This gives creators a way to monetise their work without relying on brand-sponsored posts. It also incentivises them to make more quality content. Millennial astrologer Aliza Kelly charges users anywhere from $5 to $200 a month for varying access to The Constellation Club — which she describes as “a private virtual community built around astrology, magic, spirituality and esotericism”. Of her 28,500 Instagram followers, about 300 have signed up for a paid subscription, which at its most basic level offers access to the chat group on Discord and private Instagram account @constellationclub.
"I’m trying to provide a balance of free content for people to enjoy on my Instagram, while also being able to give paid-for, personalised attention,” she says, like providing birth charts or answers to questions about compatibility.
For Tribe Dynamics president Conor Begley, the opportunity for influencers to monetise their fans “should give more freedom to post content that their audience will find interesting rather than purely branded content. We’ve recently seen a decline in the volume of branded posts being created by influencers that this could be connected to”.
According to Kelly, her fans are global, with most being in the US, followed by Canada, Australia and the UK. She says that the paywall approach has been a significant way to “build a community, scale my business and offer my true dedicated fans the type of quality content they wouldn’t be able to receive on a free basis”.
New forms of social media transactions
While Patreon has helped build out this model, other platforms enable similar transactions. On Twitch, people can buy virtual goods as gifts for creators. TikTok allows users to “tip” live streamers (although some creators have been linking their Venmo handles in their captions so fans can send donations directly). YouTube quietly rolled out a subscription-inspired “join” button in 2018 where fans can pay creators a monthly $4.99 fee in return for rewards such as members-only content, early access to new videos and merch discounts.
In January 2020, WeChat — China’s most popular social messaging app, with over 900 million users — began rolling out optional paywalls on a trial basis. According to the platform, articles published by its 500 most popular accounts received 39,000 views on average in 2019.
Li Huanxin, a content creator with over 500,000 followers on WeChat, was among the first to introduce a paywall to his account, where he publishes commentaries on social issues. His article about WeChat’s new paywalls costs RMB 1 ($0.15) to read and has been purchased over 5,000 times since it was published on 15 January.
The Constellation Club founder Aliza Kelly
© Bridget Badore
Meanwhile, Li Jianqu, who runs a history and politics-focused account, with 33,480 followers, normally has an article open-rate of 37 per cent, far above the industry average of 1.2 per cent. On 17 January, he posted an article discussing issues in Iran that was available to read for RMB 3 ($0.43). Nearly 700 readers paid for the post, accumulating him RMB 2,064 (about $295).
These paywalls don’t always pay dividends. According to data from Tom Boruta, a developer who tracks Patreon statistics under the name Graphtreon, only 2 per cent of Patreon’s creators — 1,393 people — made the equivalent of federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $1,160 a month, in October 2017, indicating that in this network initially designed to support creatives, most of the money is still concentrated at the top.
If influencers make money directly from their followers, it would be an added revenue stream, but it doesn’t mean they won’t still go after brand partnerships, says Harry Hugo, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Goat, because being associated with brands like Mac or Gucci still represents a level of clout.
“As influencers get larger, they can monetise in a variety of ways that don’t involve brand partnerships, whether it’s launching their own brand, getting a cut of advertising revenue through YouTube or paid subscription services to exclusive content,” adds Tribe Dynamics’ Begley. “But brand partnerships will continue to be a part of the equation because these brands can have a positive impact on an influencer’s credibility and audience.”
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