What Marketers Can Do to Improve YouTube’s Major Diversity Problem Among Its Influencers

People of color make up just 14% of the top channels

Sources: Getty Images, YouTube

I was recently talking to a major brand about providing them with an influencer for a campaign it was developing. My company, Divergent Media, is, among many things, an influencer marketing agency that works exclusively with influencers of color to provide brands with targeted, diverse creators for their campaigns. That being said, the brand wanted the following for its campaign: An African-American mother, clear emphasis on motherhood and lifestyle via her Instagram content, U.S. based, 500,000 followers minimum.

Austin Null

I started going through the list of people I work with. I had a few people who were mothers with that many followers but whose Instagram content wasn’t focused on motherhood as they were hair or beauty gurus. I had someone who was a pretty close fit but was based in Canada. I then started thinking “big picture celebrity” and thought of Ayesha Curry, who I’ve worked with in the past, but her content, even with her amazing social reach, was still a mix of motherhood but with an emphasis on her passion for cooking.

Nothing seemed to fit for this brand, given the specific outlines they had asked for. I literally told them that I couldn’t find a creator that fits that criteria. It was depressing. We ended up settling on a lower size creator and budget, which is totally fine because at least I was still able to bring someone an opportunity, but I was very bothered with the lack of “well-known” influencers of color, at least in regards to family/mom focused content.

This led to me thinking outside of just family content and wondering, “How many ‘top tier’ influencers of color are there in general?” Anyone who is passionate about diversity and representation in media can tell you the answer is “not many.” But I hadn’t seen any studies done that quantify “not many” into a number. So over the next week I individually researched the Top 5,000 Most Subscribed YouTube Channels via SocialBlade by opening up each channel, looking at the creator and marking down every person of color who is either the creator of the channel or a prominent presence of the channel.

Sadly, these were the embarrassing results.

Let me first address the way I approached this project, outliers and variables, etc. I marked down every channel that was run by a noticeably non-white person of color. Taking the studies of Hochschild and Weaver (The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order) and the form of discrimination known as Shadeism (or Colorism) into account, if someone looked white (many creators in Spain and Argentina fit this description, for example) I did not include them as a “creator of color” on my list. Since the general focus, particularly in America, is on diversity based on race (our history is pretty problematic regarding this, obviously) I made that the focus. I also did not include traditional celebrities, VEVO channels, etc. in this study since the industry of influencer marketing doesn’t typically rely on those outlets for the work we do.

We just need to come to an agreement, as a digital advertising community, that diversity shouldn’t be an option ... it should be a necessity.

OK, here are the results: I’ll break them down in different phases from most broad to more specific. Of the 5,000 most subscribed YouTube channels ranging from 760,000 subscribers to 54 million subscribers, 1,101 (22 percent) are creators of color. When adjusted for the channels I omitted (I subtracted 500 from 5,000 to account for VEVO, celebrities, gaming channels with no face, etc), creators of color still only make up 24 percent of the 4,500 most subscribed channels. This was globally, combining North America and international channels.

There are 2,930 international channels in the top 5,000 and the other 2,070 channels are in North America (U.S. and Canada). Of the 2,930 international channels, 817 (28 percent) are creators of color. When adjusted 10 percent (like I did above) they still only account for 31 percent of the remaining 2,637 channels. These were the easiest channels to identify too because many of them are Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese, etc. They were obviously non-white. However, considering most of the international world is non-white, I found these numbers to be extremely low. Also, for the record, if I was unsure about someone’s racial and ethnic background, I researched it on Google and nearly always found the answer.

Moving on to North America, which was predominantly made up of U.S. creators along with some Canadian creators here and there, the numbers really hit home and confirmed my suspicions I expressed when I couldn’t find a top tier influencer of color for the brand in the beginning of this article. Of the 2,070 North American channels in the top 5,000 most subscribed channel on YouTube, 284 (14 percent) are creators of color. When adjusted 10 percent (again, like I did above) they still only account for 15 percent of the remaining 1,863 channels.

That’s 284 people. 284. That means if Delta decided to take every North American influencer of color from this study overseas to visit some of its international counterparts, Delta could fit every single person on its Boeing 747-400 airliner in the economy section with two seats to spare and 50 remaining first class seats for the numerous brand executives reading who should be alarmed by this study and outraged by these numbers. They should look to incorporate, uplift and empower creators of color in every campaign they create around influencers. A guy can hope, can’t he?

So what are the takeaways from these pathetic numbers? First, I want to remind everyone that although there are only 284 influencers of color with 760,000 subscribers or more on YouTube in North America, there are hundreds more in the mid-tier range, not to mention on other social platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and they can’t be forgotten. One of the things I focus on when identifying and reaching out to influencers I work with is finding mid-tier influencers who have a super engaged audience and great content. Because, as a full-time, mid-tier influencer myself, I understand the power and the quality that can be found in these channels. Not to mention, studies show that’s a hot spot right now anyways.

Secondly, if you work in the digital advertising space and you believe that diversity is important then you need to treat it that way. If you think that these numbers are staggering then after you share this across social media and tell your friends about it, do something about it. It’s one thing to say “there should be more diversity in advertising” and it’s another to put money, time and creativity into investing in the plethora of diverse creators out there. Show them that you value their creativity and their perspective that shines through their original content each and every day. They’re ready and willing to work with you, but you’re not going to find them in an algorithm. You need to seek them out and invest in them.

It’s what a company like Shade, which I recently discovered, run by Jacques Bastien, is designed to do. We just need to come to an agreement, as a digital advertising community, that diversity shouldn’t be an option … it should be a necessity.

Austin Null (@AustinNull) is the CEO of Divergent Media, an influencer marketing agency working exclusively with creators of color and helping brands comprehensively integrate diversity and representation into their marketing strategy.