Updated: Sep 5
This post contains *affiliate* links, which means that I may receive commissions for purchases made through these links. I only provide links to products that I use and wholeheartedly recommend.
Content creation has become a legitimate career path and area of interest for many. Influencers, some of whom now have greater reach than traditional media organizations, have become an essential part of the digital economy. As a result, creator tools and resources abound, aiming to help guide those interested through the complicated journey of making money online through independent digital entrepreneurship.
Ask any creator or influencer about their work, and they'll tell you: Content creation takes an immense amount of skill, dedication to continued education, and, yes, money to do well. The apps, cameras, and software that influencers use to create digital content all come at a cost. And often, so do the items featured in influencer content, such as meals, clothing, travel experiences, and more.
So how much does content creation really cost? Let's dig into it.
Content Creation Costs Vary Based On Influencer Policy
It's impossible to calculate the standard costs that creators spend on their content across niches and accounts. Travel is often inherently more expensive than reviewing restaurants, and the costs for clothing to feature in styling videos can vary wildly.
The cost to create a piece of content also varies based on the influencer's policies towards accepting free or gifted items. Some creators don't accept any free experiences, meals, or gifts (though my perception is that this is rare in the influencer industry). Others will accept some free items that align with their content or brand, but those items only make up a minority of their content. For others, the majority of their posts might feature items that were given to them for free.
Here are some examples of how influencer policies affect content creation costs.
I use “content creator” and “influencer” pretty evenly and interchangeably. I know a lot of creators find the term “influencer” super cringe, but I have neutral feelings about it. Also, now that there’s been such a rise in UGC content creators, I actually think it may be useful to distinguish between people who get paid *just* for creating content but have no audience of their own, versus people (like me) who are paid both for their content and for their audience.
In our first few years as travel creators, the majority of our trips were hosted/paid. Since our girls were still in public school and my husband and I were running a bricks-and-mortar business, we couldn’t travel as frequently as we do now. So we tended to “save” the PTO we had for trips that were done with brand/destination partners. In fall 2020 we started homeschooling our girls and we also closed our bricks-and-mortar business. Suddenly we were location-independent, and that freed us up to do a lot more travel.
In 2021, we did a series called “21 Resorts in 2021” and for that series, almost all the resort stays were hosted. However, we paid for almost all of our own airfare. In 2022, we did a series called “22 Cities in 2022.” We had a hotel partner who hosted us in 10 of the 22 cities. One of the cities was part of a tourism board trip, so that trip was fully hosted. Other than that, we paid for everything ourselves.
The longer we do this, the more I enjoy paying for my own trips and having 100% freedom in how I present the experiences. Dont’ get me wrong - we love our hotel and airline partners. But there’s something very freeing about doing a trip when you don’t have the pressure of client deliverables. So while many travel creators focus most of their efforts on getting paid travel projects, our business model is more to generate revenue from a variety of sources (paid consumer brand deals being the largest chunk) and then using that revenue to pay for whatever trips we want to take.
Another account I admire, @blackfoodfridays, is run by my friend KJ Kearney. @blackfoodfridays is unique as KJ's mission is to spotlight Black-owned food businesses and encourage people to shop from them every Friday.
@blackfoodfridays creates original content and also reposts a significant amount of content featuring Black-owned businesses. These reposts help spread the word about these businesses and also help keep costs down, as KJ doesn't have to create it all from scratch. KJ estimates that his monthly content creation costs are only about $200.
Note that while I tried, I did not find any influencers who create most of their content featuring free or gifted items to talk to for this case study. While I know they exist and know who some of them are, they opted out of this piece.
And I get why. Our society loves to judge influencers and frame them as vapid, selfish, greedy, only out for free stuff, etc... This view is problematic, to say the least, and also ignores how capitalism impacts us all.
Being able to operate in an industry without a steady salary or insurance with significant start-up costs, without accepting any free items, is not something most people can afford to do. Free and gifted items for many influencers serve the purpose of keeping costs down, so they have space to continue creating. And because of how wealth is so tied to white supremacy in our society, a society without creators taking at least some gifted items is likely one without many creators who are immigrants, BIPOC, or otherwise from marginalized communities.
Though I will say that influencers, in general, need to be better about disclosing gifted items according to FTC guidelines for the sake of transparency and building consumer trust. Continued lack of disclosure only makes it easier for negative stereotypes of influencers to continue to circulate.
The Case Study: Falling In Love With Portland, Oregon Content Series
Estimates aside, let's look at a cost breakdown of my recent content series, Falling In Love With Portland, Oregon. I started this series after moving to Portland, Oregon, as a way to force myself to explore my new home, make connections in the local creator space, and begin to nurture a local audience. In each episode, I go out into the city to try something new with a Portland-based creator and reflect on what I've learned about my new home.
For each episode, I paid for any/all activities for myself and for the creator I was exploring with. This ranged from the restaurants we dined at to the cost of the spa entry for a self-care day. Total activity costs for the series: $1,096.65
I also paid for video editing for this series. I use a third-party editor for a significant portion of my videos to save myself time. My incredible editor worked on every video in this series, totaling about 10 hours of work time. Total video editing costs: $435.99
In total, I spent $1,532.64 on this content series. Those are just the costs that are easy to track. Those figures don't account for paying myself for my time, the various software I use to manage my content, cloud storage, the equipment I film with, etc...
Was It Worth It?
It's hard to calculate whether the content is "worth it" as a creator considering concrete costs. So much of the value of the content I share, at least the value for my business, is hard to quantify. Yes, I can look at reach and metrics around engagement. But those don't provide the full picture.
I started this series as a new Portland resident with the aim of getting to know the local creator community, building more of a local following, and exploring my new home. How do I quantify the value of those?
In some ways, it's impossible though I do have qualitative data. I've been tagged in stories by Portlanders thanking me for making the series as it introduced them to new places or accounts that they appreciate. The series has introduced me to local creators who have become friends. And though I'm still not in love with Portland, I did learn a lot about the city through filming this series. I'm a step further towards it feeling like home.
Will I continue the series? That I don't know yet. For now, the series is on pause as so much of my work and interests seem to be pulling me away from Portland at the moment. Though that could change. If you have any questions about this topic or content creation, drop them in the comments below! I'm happy to help however I can.