Member Exclusive   //   April 29, 2024

Modern Retail+ Research 2024 Influencer Index: The level of engagement top influencers can harness for brands

This index was originally published on Modern Retail’s sibling publication Glossy.

Data for this index was collected by Dash Hudson.


Social media platforms reach large audiences, but fostering connections with consumers can be tricky to do through official brand pages, which heavily feature promotional content and paid advertisements. While brand pages can communicate messages about events like upcoming sales or shopping locations, audiences are skeptical of their curated marketing content. This is where influencers come in. To fill the social gap between consumers and brands, influencers can act as brands’ official spokespeople. 

A study by Influencity found there are 103.7 million Instagram users in the U.S. and, of those users, 10.2 million can be considered influencers. This means that 9.8% of Instagram profiles in the U.S. are potentially shaping the purchasing decisions and behavior of their audiences. Only four years ago, in 2020, this number was much lower at 2.5%. 

The majority of marketers agree that Instagram is a great tool for influencing purchasing behaviors. In Modern Retail’s Q1 2024 survey, marketers chose Instagram and YouTube as the top platforms for branding.

To measure the impact influencers have on consumers’ purchasing behaviors, Modern Retail+ Research analyzed the levels of engagement influencers who made waves in 2023 received on their sponsored Instagram and YouTube posts, as well as the influencer marketing trends for the year ahead.


The Modern Retail Influencer Index collects data from 15 influencers and their Instagram and YouTube channels, scoring them across a set of key dimensions to create a total index average score. Each influencer is then given a deviation percentage from the index average to denote above- or below-average performance in specific dimensions. Results are dependent upon the list of influencers and the time period of data collection, generating a snapshot of the influencer space at a specific moment in time. 

Modern Retail’s index collected Instagram and YouTube data from 2023 (January 1, 2023 – December 31, 2023), with data collection occurring in February 2024. Data collection was conducted by social media management company Dash Hudson. 

The influencers were selected by Modern Retail’s editorial team, based on their reputations for creating content their followers deem to be honest and valuable, or that aid them in making informed purchases. The index uses four main dimensions to measure an influencer’s performance. They are presented here in the order in which they impact our model, from least to most heavily weighted:

  • Sponsored Engagement: A measure of the influencer’s engagement on sponsored content compared to their following or subscriber count to showcase the impact of the influencer’s sponsored content and the quality of their viewership. A high engagement ratio signals large-scale viewership and an influencer who resonates with their following. 
  • Brand Prominence: A measurement of the presence of branded content, the type of branded content, and the synergy between the influencer and partner brands to determine the cases in which an influencer would make a good collaboration partner.
  • Non-Sponsored Engagement: A measure of the influencer’s engagement on sponsored content compared to their following or subscriber count. Non-sponsored engagement, similar to sponsored engagement, indicates whether and to what degree non-sponsored influencer content generally resonates with the influencer’s viewership.
  • Audience Impact: A measure of the influencer’s total reach in 2023. This dimension measures audience size and overall post activity.

For Instagram, the majority of the influencers, 12 of the total 15, were categorized as beauty influencers. Two others were categorized as fashion influencers and one was classified as an entertainment influencer. All classifications were based on the most-common product category sponsored. The entertainment category included collaborations with media publications, digital platforms and popular events like movie premieres or awards shows. 

For YouTube, all influencers, except Jackie Aina and Nikkie de Jager, were categorized as beauty influencers. Aina and de Jager were categorized as “other” for their large quantity of sponsorships for technology companies like Cash App and Shop Google. Influencers who did not post any paid partnerships in 2023 were not categorized or scored among the sponsored dimension. In total, 2,333 Instagram posts and 4,827 YouTube videos, across 15 influencers, were measured in the index.

Industry cross-collaborations increase and influencers seek natural partnerships

In the early days of YouTube and Instagram, influencers were categorized by the type of content they posted. Being a beauty influencer was a different beat than being a gaming influencer or a DIY creator, and the types of brands that worked with these influencers resided within the same world. However, this has changed over time. Today, many influencers work with a wide array of brands, across various industries. Following beauty and fashion sponsorships, entertainment and media sponsorships were the third-most common type of partnerships on Instagram and YouTube last year. 

Influencers are entering more diverse product categories to match the diverse interests of their audiences. In particular, entertainment sponsorships are well-received by audiences, and include influencers collaborating with media companies like TikTok or publications like Vogue and Elle. The influencers also make guest appearances on shows such as “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and popular podcasts like Call Her Daddy. Looking at the average engagement rates of sponsored posts on Instagram and YouTube, the entertainment category had the highest engagement rate.

Additionally, influencers on Instagram whose majority of sponsorships are in the entertainment category scored the highest on average across all four dimensions: audience reach, non-sponsored engagement, sponsored engagement and brand prominence.

Many influencers’ loyal viewers have been watching their organic non-sponsored content for weeks, months or, maybe, even years.  Because of the parasocial relationship viewers have built with their favorite internet celebrities, it is important for influencers to find brand partners that naturally align with their personalities and typical content — if not, their audiences will notice. 

Modern Retail+ Research sat down with Stephanie Valentine and Mikayla Nogueira to learn more about how they maintain this organic relationship with their viewers when posting brand-sponsored content. “The key to brand partnerships is taking your organic content and just [for] today it’s sponsored,” Valentine explained. “The key to it all is loving the brand, actually using the product, knowing what you’re talking about and highlighting something. Then whatever you post, you post.” 

Nogueira, similarly, is open to collaborations outside of her mainstay makeup and beauty partnerships, but noted the collaboration would have to align with her interests and what products she actually uses in her everyday life. “I love fashion. I love jewelry. I’m a big foodie. I love drinks,” she said. “If I were approached by a hat company and they wanted to do a line of custom hats with me, that would make zero sense because I hate hats. I never wear hats. I would never do that.”

Forced branding also does not always work, even if it gives a brand more exposure, such as through collaboration posts on Instagram that allow influencers to co-author posts with other accounts. Modern Retail asked Valentine and Nogueira if the collaboration feature on Instagram improved engagement when posting sponsored content and, surprisingly, although they’re open to using the feature, the answer was no. 

Even though this new feature allows posts to appear on both an influencer’s and a brand’s page, thereby increasing the amount of exposure for the post, it doesn’t seem to improve Valentine’s and Nogueira’s engagement numbers. In fact, they’ve noticed a dip in engagement when using it. “I like the feature. But I find that anytime I’m using it, my engagement is cut in half or sometimes more,” Nogueira said. “You would think that if you’re collaborating and adding an additional page into one post, more eyes would see it, but it’s actually way less. And I never really understood why.” 

“It’s so strange. I would expect my views or my likes and comments to double, but it doesn’t. Actually, I find that sometimes it lessens it,” said Valentine. Instead, she advocates for influencers to continue to post in a way that feels natural to them. “Nothing is better than posting how I normally post regardless of if it’s a brand partnership or not,” she added.

The need to find more natural pockets in which to embed brand collaborations has led to a rise in influencer-brand collaborations during important life events like weddings. Modern Retail+ Research found that wedding collaborations between influencers and their favorite brands were an up-and-coming partnership approach in 2023. In our index, two influencers partnered with brands on their special day: Mikayla Nogueira and Sofia Richie. 

Nogueira partnered with makeup brands E.l.f. and P. Louise to create products inspired by her summer 2023 wedding. Her limited-edition lip duo for E.l.f.  sold out in 18 minutes. Instagram posts surrounding the product drop performed very well on both Nogueira’s page and E.l.f.’s brand page. However, compared to the posts on E.l.f.’s page, Nogueira’s posts received seven times the amount of engagement, with an average of 253,000 likes on Nogueira’s page and 34,000 on E.l.f.’s. 

Similarly, as a brand ambassador for Chanel, Richie has amassed over 3 million likes on posts for Chanel. Richie often posts her Chanel outfits or attendance at Chanel events to Instagram with simple captions like “@chanelofficial day to night 🤍” or “Morning @chanelofficial” that bring an elevated tone to these luxury brand collaborations. Chanel collaborated on Richie’s wedding dress for her luxury wedding in Antibes, France in April 2023. An image Richie posted on her Instagram account of her Chanel-designed wedding dress amassed over 1.7 million likes.  

These wedding-related sponsored social posts had an average engagement rate of 13.3% on Instagram — significantly higher than the average 4% rate of engagement of all sponsored posts. Nogueira said that, along with her fans, she enjoyed this style of brand partnerships. “Those are my favorite collaborations. The ones that are connected to something more personal,” Nogueira said. “It makes it seem like more than just a money grab, and my audience was obsessed.” 

Still images and carousel ads receive more attention than Reels on Instagram

Modern Retail+ Research also examined which types of sponsored posts garnered the most attention for a brand on an influencer’s Instagram account. Sponsored still images on Instagram had the highest engagement rate, meaning the number of likes and comments per following count. Interestingly, Reels had the lowest engagement rate.

But looking specifically at the brand category for these sponsorships, those in the beauty category received a higher rate of engagement on average for posts that included a single still image. For fashion and all other categories, carousel posts had the highest average rate of engagement.

Beauty content on Instagram is largely focused on imagery. According to Valentine, that is because the beauty audience tends to be well-educated in beauty products and includes high numbers of industry professionals. “Instagram is more savvy in beauty,” Valentine said. “YouTube is more relationship-built and people are looking for more relatable content. TikTok is more education and intro to beauty.” The beauty community on Instagram may not always want in-depth explanations or step-by-step tutorials. Instead, they’re looking for inspiration or industry news like upcoming trends and events. This could be why the beauty category is able to use more single still images to promote products or brands. 

Carousel posts allow for up to 10 images or videos to be grouped together in a single post, which is helpful for displaying product details, lookbooks or event photos in a slideshow format. Carousel ads have been beneficial for categories outside of beauty, like fashion and technology, for their ability to showcase more information in a swipeable interactive format. 

For instance, Alix Earle partnered with Warner Brothers on a sponsored carousel post to promote last year’s release of the “Barbie” movie. The carousel post, with images of Earle at the movie premiere event and posing in front of multiple Barbie-themed backdrops, performed very well among her audience, garnering over 926,000 likes and over 1,000 comments. Another sponsored post from Earle that performed highly was a carousel post for Victoria’s Secret that included nine different fashion looks from a campaign featuring Earle. The post has over 658,000 likes and nearly 2,000 comments. 

Carousel ads are quickly becoming a preferred posting format for brands, especially as the feature grows in popularity and functionality. Meta recently added a helpful carousel ad feature to Instagram which Instagram advertisers can use to automatically apply custom positioning to media feeds, no matter the following size of the advertised account.

Long-form videos garner more engagement than Shorts

As people hunt for more relatable content on YouTube, Modern Retail found that audiences prefer long-form video content over short-form content. These longer videos give more insight into the personalities and lives of popular YouTubers. In Modern Retail’s index, sponsored long-form videos on YouTube received higher rates of engagement than sponsored Shorts for the second year in a row. Long-form videos may be more effective for influencer storytelling and building connections with viewers, while scrolling through Shorts creates a fleeting connection in which viewers quickly move on to whatever video grabs their attention next. “History always repeats itself,” Valentine said. “I think it’s time to bring back long-form content. There’s a lot of power in connecting with your audience for more than just a minute.”

While YouTube traditionally focused on long-form videos, it introduced the Shorts format in the U.S. in 2021 to compete with TikTok. Shorts, which are 60 seconds in length, require less time to film and edit. That’s a plus for busy content creators,  especially those who prioritize creating short-form content for TikTok, which can be easily reposted as YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels. However, viewers are aware of the extra effort influencers put into editing longer videos and they value the unseen clips and exclusive content in longer videos, which brings them closer to the lives of their favorite influencers. Additionally, influencers can avoid having their videos feel like sponsored ads with longer-form videos that extensively explain an influencer’s routine or actual use of the product being sponsored. 

According to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, when it comes to audience engagement, long-form video content has a proven track record of driving more conversions, traffic, backlinks and social shares. But, when targeting audiences with limited attention spans, like the casual social media scroller, short-form videos are highly effective in conveying quick and concise messages. 

Although beauty sponsorships had much higher engagement rates with long-form video content, Shorts performed well for fashion sponsorships and sponsorships of “other” content, including technology partnerships with mobile apps like Cash App or Google Play as well as entertainment, travel or food and beverage partnerships. In fact, sponsored Shorts for brands categorized as “other” had a higher average engagement rate (6.3%) compared to long-form videos (5.9%). 

Fashion brands have found success on YouTube Shorts since Shorts first rolled out in 2021, with many early adopters experiencing a first-mover advantage from using the format in its infancy. Shorts about fashion content, like styling inspiration or behind-the-scenes videos of upcoming collections, grew in popularity quickly. According to fashion companies that use Shorts, the short-form videos are effective at getting eyes on their longer-form content and big-investment events, like runway shows or pop-ups.   

Industries beyond beauty and fashion may find Shorts useful for grabbing the attention of audiences with shortened attention spans, when less may be more. Brands should aim for bite-size entertainment that can break through the noise of a cluttered algorithm by providing short and visually stimulating videos.

Follower engagement on Instagram is the opposite of engagement on YouTube

In this index, Modern Retail included mega- and micro-influencers. In this study, platforms with less than 500,000 followers are considered micro-influencers, while mega-influencers have an audience size above 500,000. The average sponsored engagement rates of the mega- and micro-influencer categories were analyzed to see if influencer following size matters. On Instagram, Modern Retail found that micro-influencers had higher rates of engagement on their sponsored posts than influencers with larger followings. On YouTube, the opposite relationship was true — large accounts performed better than those with smaller followings. 

Instagram micro-influencers had 12 times the rate of engagement of macro-influencer accounts with 1 million to 5 million followers, and 14 times the rate of engagement of accounts over 5 million followers. Engagement rate looks at the engagement an influencer receives relative to their total follower count, meaning the portion of followers that interact with their sponsored posts. On Instagram, larger accounts have a small portion of followers who interact with sponsored posts.  

Content on Instagram can be viewed as highly curated, therefore viewers may find more authenticity in sponsored recommendations from smaller micro-influencer accounts. “It’s crazy how we’ve evolved as a beauty community, and marketing has evolved with us, as well,” said Valentine, who has an Instagram follower count of 739,000. This is particularly noteworthy for brands when selecting partnerships, as brands will likely get more impact per spend with influencers who have niche audiences. 

However, on YouTube, the opposite relationship exists. Influencers with smaller subscriber counts showed a lower average rate of engagement than accounts with over 500,000 followers. Of note, for YouTube, engagement rate is measured by the sum of likes and comments divided by views (Likes + Comments / Views). Meanwhile, Instagram engagement rate is measured by the sum of likes and comments divided by the number of followers (Likes + Comments / Followers). This is because views do not exist on Instagram and therefore they are not measured. Additionally, the nature of content discovery on Instagram is different —  the algorithm prioritizes sponsored posts from followed accounts on a user’s main feed. 

Additionally, when we look at the average number of sponsored content views relative to an influencer’s subscriber count on YouTube, larger accounts with over 1 million followers received the highest proportion of views. Because YouTube’s algorithm recommends videos based on previous views and platform interactions,  a user who is not subscribed to a specific YouTube channel could regularly view sponsored videos from an influencer with a large reach. Therefore, general audience discovery on YouTube is not as dependent on follower count as it is on Instagram, but large followings do help break through YouTube’s noisy algorithm.

Tutorials are the most common type of sponsored post, but giveaways bring the most engagement

Influencers in this index were most likely to use tutorials followed by “get ready with me” videos for Instagram and YouTube sponsorships. The casual yet informative nature of these posts allows influencers to showcase a sponsored product or brand without it feeling too gimmicky. Additionally, these types of sponsored posts are not as polarizing as others like reviews where negative commentary can arise in the comments.

As of writing, 14 million posts on Instagram and 5.7 million videos on YouTube include the hashtag #tutorial. The hashtag #GRWM appears on 4.1 million Instagram posts and 1 million YouTube videos. Tutorials are a bread-and-butter format for many brand-influencer partnerships as the format allows brands to get influencers to talk about the products in depth. However, it can have trade-offs. Tutorials can quickly begin to feel commercial rather than authentic, especially if brand stipulations require an influencer to talk only about one brand. 

GRWM videos also bring audiences into the daily lives of influencers. Videos like “Get ready with me to go to the airport” or “Get ready with me to walk Paris fashion week” show tidbits of the lives of these internet celebrities. Nogueira is a big fan of GRWM videos when heading to brand events. “You want it to be a storyline of events where you play on this idea of ‘FOMO’ where you’re getting ready for the event and you’re talking about how excited you are while doing your makeup,” she explained.

Many influencers appreciate when brand teams give them the space to create the type of content they think their audience wants. “I find that a lot more brands are open to me telling them my idea and how I want to showcase the formula, instead of telling me how to showcase it, which I really appreciate,” Valentine said. “The consumer isn’t blind, so you can’t make things up and you can’t do something so scripted. I think there’s so much beauty in that now.” 

For fashion partnerships, outfit inspiration videos have the potential to be a natural fit for brands looking to showcase their products in a genuine yet relevant way. But, outfit inspiration videos have the lowest rate of engagement among the categories of sponsored video posts Modern Retail considered for this index. Giveaways and review videos receive the highest rates of engagement, with giveaways having double the rate of engagement of reviews. 

On average, giveaway videos garnered 60,000 likes and 17,000 comments per sponsored post. Reviews received 7,000 likes and 135 comments per sponsored post. To note, giveaway rules often require a like or comment for entry into the giveaway, which can artificially boost engagement. However, the buzz created for a brand by a giveaway is more organic when audience members are the ones reposting and sharing the content, rather than the influencer. Giveaways are also a way for influencers to give back to their communities. This can help foster stronger relationships between the influencer and their audience, as well as create an altruistic narrative surrounding the sponsored brand. 

“I want to see brands really create relationships with not only their favorite creators, but [also] their actual community, and get creators involved in that way,” Valentine said. “We forget that the most important people in the beauty space are our beauty communities. So, when brands finally take time to invest and communicate with their community, that builds stronger relationships and stronger partnerships.” 

The future of brand sponsorships focuses on community

When Modern Retail sat down with Nogueira and Valentine, we asked for their predictions on where beauty sponsorships are heading. Both believe it’s time to bring niche communities to the forefront of collaborations. For them, that means focusing on the beauty community as it relates to their local communities and building stronger relationships with brands over a longer period of time.  

“I think longer-term partnerships are next. Brands are going to stray away from one-off campaigns and build community again with their favorite creators,” Valentine said. “Whether it’s multiple posts in a year or multiple posts and then a collaboration announcement, these relationships work seamlessly through creators, their platforms and the beauty community.”  

Valentine also discussed the need to create more intimate and informative events and content for die-hard fans who are more knowledgeable about beauty than other consumers may be. “Bring back meet-and-greets, bring back masterclasses, bring back long-form content,” she said.  

Nogueira, a Boston native, also spoke to Modern Retail about her desire to do more local events like meet-and-greets in her home state. “I am so rooted in Boston and Massachusetts that I try my best to keep it homegrown,” Nogueira explained. “Anytime a meet-and-greet comes up, I always request that it’s in Boston because I know my audience is here. I know I get the most engagement from Massachusetts people.” 

With social platforms like TikTok opening the door to influencers in all corners of the world, including remote areas, brands have the opportunity to connect with numerous communities outside of their typical wheelhouses. “When TikTok came out, you could be an influencer from absolutely anywhere, versus in the past, there was this thought that you had to be in New York or L.A. But that’s just not the case anymore,” Nogueira said. “You can do it from anywhere you want. If you’re an influencer who’s blowing up in Ohio, try doing events and collaborations in Ohio. It’s interesting, but it does make a difference.”