The influencer marketing industry is rapidly growing and evolving. Latest estimates predict influencer marketing spend will reach $5-10 billion by 2020, and Instagram influencer marketing alone will reach $2.28 billion in 2019.
Now that influencer marketing has become mainstream, marketers are looking to tap into the next set of high-value influencers to improve performance. Amidst this scramble for fresh blood, new influencer tiers (such as “nano-influencers”) are suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
As the industry vocabulary expands to include new buzzwords, so does confusion over what they all mean and how they apply to different influencer marketing strategies. Marketers who invest in influencer marketing today still struggle with basic questions:
The fact is, standard influencer tiers have yet to be universally established across the influencer marketing industry, or categorized clearly by social media channel, follower count, and engagement. Below, we provide comprehensive influencer tiers for Instagram and YouTube based on the Standard Terminology in Influencer Marketing (STIM), and explore the strengths and pitfalls of partnering with each tier for an influencer campaign.
Instagram is the main social media channel for which people frequently use ranking terminology such as “micro-influencer.” The most common way that marketers categorize Instagram influencers is based on their number of followers.
The standard Instagram influencer tiers are as follows:
Nano-influencers have small followings of roughly 1,000 to 10,000 users on Instagram, and are the latest tier to enter the influencer marketing lexicon. The term “nano-influencer” was popularized by a New York Times article entitled “Are You Ready for the Nanoinfluencers?,” which covered Instagrammers with as few as 1,000 followers who were striking sponsorships with brands.
“Their lack of fame is one of the qualities that make them approachable,” explains Sapna Maheshwari, author of the New York Times’ piece. “When they recommend a shampoo or a lotion or a furniture brand on Instagram, their word seems as genuine as advice from a friend.”
As influencer marketing reaches critical mass, some brands worry the market is becoming saturated and that it’s increasingly difficult to recruit larger influencers. In reaction, many are tapping into smaller, more accessible Instagrammers. Most nano-influencers know their followers personally, so brands hope that their promotion will attract strong engagement and will feel more authentic than say, a macro-influencer who doesn’t personally know a majority of their large following.
Nano-influencers are also generally open to posting in exchange for free products or nominal amounts of money, making them a highly accessible group for low-budget campaigns. That being said, nano-influencers will take the most time to manage, and will likely prove difficult for small teams to scale up; it would require tens or hundreds of nano-influencers to achieve the same reach as a single mid-tier or macro-influencer.
Micro-influencers are Instagram influencers with roughly 10,000 – 50,000 followers. Micro-influencers were the most “buzzed about” influencer tiers in 2018, and some analysts even argued that they were the most important segment for influencer marketing.
The excitement around micro-influencers is partly based on their ability to cultivate niche communities around specific interests. Whereas larger influencers attract a broader swath of followers across many groups, micro-influencers enable brands to tap into more clearly defined micro-communities. This has enabled marketers to launch highly tailored micro-influencer campaigns, in some cases with powerful results.
Micro-influencers are also commonly considered to have higher engagement rates than influencers with higher followings, although Mediakix found negligible engagement differences between micro-influencers and larger influencers on Instagram. We’ll explore engagement rates in more depth in the later section, “Instagram Rankings Based on Engagement Rate.”
In general, micro-influencers are effective for raising awareness about new products across a variety of communities. That, along with the highly visual nature of Instagram, makes micro-influencers particularly popular among fashion and beauty brands. A survey of fashion and cosmetics marketers cited in eMarketer found that 46% of marketers found micro-influencers to be the most effective, followed by 34% who felt macro-influencers were the best tier, and much smaller percentages who voted in favor of mega-influencers or celebrity-level stars.
Partnering with a micro-influencer can cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on their industry, size, engagement levels, and demonstrated performance on previous campaigns. Like nano-influencers, micro-influencers can only provide limited audience reach, so they will require more time and effort to manage at scale. It will take dozens of micro-influencers to achieve the same reach as a single macro- or mega-influencer post. Micro-influencers are also an especially risky segment when it comes to fake followers, therefore they require extra scrutiny before partnering up.
These middle-of-the-road Instagram influencers have a fanbase ranging from 50,000 – 500,000 followers. Whereas smaller influencers generally manage their Instagram as a side hustle, mid-tier influencers can secure more sizable sponsorships, and many make a full-time living off of their Instagram presence.
For marketers, the advantage of working with mid-tier influencers is that they offer stronger reach than the micro- and nano-influencers, but are still more accessible than macro- and mega-influencers. They will generally be easier to contact, and significantly more affordable than macro- and mega-influencers. In general, mid-tier influencers can command anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per post, depending on their reach and industry category.
One study suggests that mid-tier creators are perceived as more engaging and trustworthy than micro-influencers or large-scale social media celebrities (note: this study defines mid-tier influencers slightly higher than Mediakix, starting at 250,000 followers).
Overall, mid-tier influencers represent a happy balance between intimate fan communities and scalable audience reach.
Macro-influencers are established Instagram stars with a sizable following of 500,000 – 1,000,000 followers. In almost all cases, their social media presence represents their entire source of income—either that, or they are actors, models, athletes, or musicians in their own right. Macro-influencers generally command thousands of dollars per sponsored post.
According to data cited in Recode, influencers in this tier drive the best deal in terms of influencer marketing CPM (cost per thousand impressions). In other words, macro-influencers represent the “sweet spot” between cost and reach, and may drive the most impactful ROI compared to other influencer tiers. The study defines this “Tier 3” group as having an average following of 853,000 followers, which falls on the higher end of mid-tier.
Macro-influencers are a fantastic way to achieve broad scale and reach without spending your entire budget on a single mega-influencer sponsorship.
Mega-influencers have achieved celebrity status on Instagram with a massive fanbase of 1,000,000 or more followers. Their broad appeal and colossal follower count grant them a powerful position as cultural tastemakers. Mega-influencers shape popular culture, drive trends and hashtags, create sell-out demand for products, direct attention to new travel destinations, and more.
When it comes to influencer marketing, mega-influencers are generally reserved for brands with large budgets. They are often only reached through a talent manager, and will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single sponsored post. On the highest end, Coca-Cola famously paid Selena Gomez $550,000 for a single social media post.
Like Selena, some mega-influencers are famous actors, singers, and athletes. It’s important for brands to treat these campaigns with the audience in mind because traditional celebrity sponsorships on social media run the risk of being perceived as inauthentic. According to this study, consumers are 10 times more likely to purchase a product recommended by a non-celebrity influencer, rather than a traditional celebrity.
The benefit of creating sponsored content with mega-influencers is that they offer the largest impact, highest brand lift, and greatest possible reach from a single sponsored post—without the time and management resources necessary to achieve the same results through hundreds of smaller influencers. Mega-influencers also avoid the risk of audience duplication that arises when working with hundreds of smaller influencers within a single category.
Compared to influencers with niche followings, mega-influencers have the power to start a conversation with a much wider audience and drive larger cultural conversations.
Rather than exclusively looking at follower count, many marketers also evaluate influencers based on their engagement rate. But what engagement level is “normal” for an influencer?
Marketers tend to see an influencer’s engagement rate as a marker of fan affinity, audience reach, and potential campaign impact. That being said, defining “low” engagement on Instagram can be very tricky. Average engagement rates can vary wildly depending on the influencer’s size, category, interests, and primary content format.
One commonly held belief is that influencers with smaller followings, such as micro-influencers, pull higher average engagement rates than larger influencers. However, the gravity of this difference is disputed across the industry.
A study cited in AdWeek stated that Instagram accounts with less than 30,000 followers get as much as 60% higher engagement rates than larger influencers. Influencer Marketing Hub found another set of averages that confirm the strength of smaller influencers, but with a different set of numbers:
However, in a proprietary analysis of micro- and macro-influencer posts, Mediakix found only a 0.1% difference in engagement rate between the two groups. This suggests that while influencers with a smaller follower count do have higher engagement rates, the recorded difference will vary quite drastically depending on your sample.
Although small influencers pull higher engagement rates than larger influencers, it’s important to consider whether or not that ultimately leads to higher campaign impact. An interesting analysis cited in Digiday found that, contrary to popular belief, higher engagement rates and smaller audience sizes do not necessarily correlate to higher reach. This means that more likes and comments don’t always lead to greater exposure when it comes to spreading your sponsored content.
The industry in which the influencer operates is another major determining factor when it comes to average engagement rates. For example, a Capitv8 analysis highlighted in TechCrunch found that Instagrammers in the gaming, fashion, and entertainment categories got nearly twice as much engagement as food Instagrammers.
Beyond follower count and category, expectations for the engagement rates on sponsored content should be anywhere from 20-40% lower compared to organic Instagram posts
It is less common for YouTubers (also known as YouTube Creators) to be categorized by specific tiers in the same way Instagrammers are, at least in relation to influencer marketing. It’s challenging to definitively rank YouTubers by specific tiers because their subscriber count is less relevant for sponsorship than follower count is on Instagram.
As we’ll explore below, video views and engagement are much more important when it comes to measuring a YouTube partnership. Creating standard ranking terminology for YouTube Creators is invaluable for marketers looking to more clearly build, measure, and evaluate sponsored campaigns on YouTube.
The standard YouTube influencer tiers are as follows:
YouTube subscriber count reflects the number of users who have “subscribed” to a Creator’s channel, essentially opting to see the Creator’s most recent video content in their feed.
YouTube has official Creator Levels based on subscriber count, and each unlocks particular benefits for the influencer. This includes improved audience analytics, monetization options, management, and access to YouTube’s private production studio.
YouTube Creator Levels
While these levels are meaningful for the Creators themselves, subscriber count is less relevant for marketers and brands. YouTube has been around for long enough that many of its influencers have come and gone in waves. Creators who were popular ten years ago may have millions of legacy subscribers, but their videos might attract significantly less engagement than they did at the peak of their fame. This is why subscriber count is not a good indicator of potential video views or cultural relevance.
The preferred way for marketers to evaluate a YouTube influencer today is based on engagement metrics—most importantly, average video views.
A simple way to calculate average video views is to:
Eliminating the outliers on the top and bottom helps improve the accuracy of the average view count. Sometimes a single video will go viral and capture 20X more views than normal, or it will bomb and get almost no views. Neither example accurately represents the Creator’s true “average” video, therefore might skew the result.Based on this more precise calculation of average video views, here are the standard YouTube influencer tiers:
It’s easy to assume that higher-tiered Creators are the most desirable for influencer marketing, but there are many other considerations for evaluating a potential Youtube partner:
YouTube provides influencers with detailed information about the age, gender, and location of their viewers, as well as the type of content their audience likes to watch. Review this data carefully to ensure that the Creator’s audience aligns with your brand’s.
Industry alignment is crucial—and not as simple as you might think. Apple can partner with technology YouTubers, and Revlon can work with beauty creators, but entertainment, comedy, and lifestyle influencers make up the majority of YouTube—and can be trickier to peg for a successful sponsorship. Non-endemic promotions (sponsorships between an influencer from one industry and a brand from another, e.g. a gaming YouTuber and a snack brand) can also be very successful if executed correctly. Look at previous sponsorships, audience interests, and demographics to determine if the Creator is the right fit for you.
How many comments does the creator pull per video? What is the sentiment behind those comments? Do most responses demonstrate strong affinity for the Creator, or do they indicate annoyance or distrust?
Video Likes Vs. Dislikes
Some YouTube influencers attract a lot of views and comments because they are controversial. Evaluate the like versus dislike ratio on their videos, along with the comments (as mentioned above), in order to get a fuller picture of viewers’ feelings towards the Creator.
Many influencers today operate across social media channels—some more successfully than others. Does the YouTube Creator have an established, engaged presence on Instagram, Facebook, and more? Can you negotiate a cross-platform campaign in which they share sponsored content across several social media channels?
Finally, it’s essential to consider brand safety when working with any YouTube influencer. Are they family-friendly? Does their voice match your brand’s? Have they sparked any controversies? Are they aligned with your company’s values? Can you trust they will follow the contract with quality work?
At only 1,000 to 10,000 average video views, nano-Creators won’t usually drive a ton of awareness. However, their personal and authentic videos can provide excellent content for other marketing campaigns.
For example, Ross Dress For Less specifically works with YouTube nano-creators to source unique content that Ross can repurpose on Facebook, their top social media channel. Nano-Creator content might not get a lot of reach, but it proves much more engaging fodder for the company’s Facebook page than brand-generated content.
In this video, the Quinn sisters create fun, monster-themed snacks and drinks for their movie night screening of Goosebumps 2. This micro-creator duo pulls roughly between 10,000 and 25,000 views per video, reaching a modest but highly engaged “tween” target audience that Goosebumps aims to reach.
In this video, Chad cooks a Blue Apron dinner for his wife Gabrielle and their two children, and offers his viewers a discount code. The family then goes on with their daily routine, talking about their chores for the day, and driving their kids to an activity center. The video is shot in a no-frills vlog style, so the viewer feels like a friend standing in their kitchen or riding along in their car.
This mid-tier YouTube family is highly relatable for their family-oriented audience, but also popular enough to drive licks and sign-ups to Blue Apron.
At 100,000 to 1 million average video views, macro-Creators provide strong impact without the same cost or hurdles associated with elite Creators.
In this video, technology and gaming macro-Creator JayzTwoCents provides an in-depth review of the RYUJIN 360 CPU cooler. Before beginning his review, he mentions his sponsorship by World of Warships, which he reminds his fans he has already been playing regularly, making this sponsorship a “no brainer.” Because of this very natural integration, the sponsored video gets strong views, likes, and positive comments from fans.
With over a million average video views, elite Creators provide the highest amplification and can be difficult to contact without an agency or talent manager connection. In spite of their high price tag, elite Creators provide unparalleled video views and awareness of a product or service.
In this Shorty-Award-winning video, YouTube mega-star Lele Pons and Anwar Jibari shoot a comedic skit for Walking Dead’s “No Man’s Land” mobile game. The video manages to slip in a shot of live game play without it feeling forced, and plays off the zombie theme in light, playful, and on-brand way.
These Instagram and YouTube influencer tiers fall under STIM, the Standard Terminology in Influencer Marketing. Here is a simple graphic to break down current standards:
The goal of these tiers is to help marketers more effectively plan, partner with, execute, and measure performance of their influencers for campaigns across channels. As the influencer marketing industry—and the definition of “influencer” itself—continues to shift, clear rankings will help both influencers and marketers succeed.