Social media platform Instagram is trialling hiding the number of likes. We asked experts what this could mean for brands who rely on the social platform for marketing
Social media marketing is all about engaging with your customers through attractive content. Some companies therefore understandably allocate a big budget for hiring professional influencers to increase brand awareness. On platforms like Instagram the measurement of consumer engagement has been through how many likes a post garners.
However, Instagram announced at Facebook’s annual developer conference F8 in San Jose in the end of April that it will trial hiding the number of likes on photos and videos and will start a test in Canada. Likes will be removed from the main feed, permalinks and profiles. While followers won't be able to see the total number of likes a post has received, the owner of the account still can. This move is to ensure people focus on the actual content instead of how many likes a post get, turning it into a popularity contest rather than a fun way of sharing snaps.
“We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” an Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch at the time.
Instagram's test was first spotted in mid-April by Jane Manchun Wong, a tech blogger who unveils unreleased features in popular apps like Facebook and Instagram.
Instagram isn’t the first to trial taking away likes. It’s test follows a similar one by Twitter. In an experimental prototype app called twttr, like and retweet counts are hidden in a tweet’s replies as part of the company’s efforts to improve how people engage in a conversation. Twitter CEO Jack Doresy admitted on TED how Twitter needs to change and said; “If I had to start the service again, I would not emphasise the like count as much, I don’t think I would even create like in the first place.”
The big question is how Instagram’s latest may move affect businesses who massively rely on likes? “While this may look like a small change – and it’s still only being tested – on a deeper level this has the potential to completely shift the way consumers interact with – and brands derive value from – social media at large,” says Jo Bromilow, digital strategist at Publicasity, the PR agency, when speaking with Elite Business. “As a result, bigger accounts like those of brands could possibly see their like numbers drop but this will surely help them understand much more about what content actually resonates with their audience.”
Yet, forcing brands to look beyond likes and focus on those actually interested in their products is easier said than done. “The problem [is] that it's very difficult to measure something like quality and therefore it seems inevitable that brands will shift their focus to the next quantifiable metric such as engagement,” notes William Soulier, CEO and co-founder of Talent Village, the influencer marketing company. “By hiding likes on the user’s feed, Instagram is giving a chance for content to stand out for its quality and not for its engagement.”
And, this is why companies will go the extra mile to create content for its customers. “The likes may be fewer in number but they will likely be more valuable as a result, helping brands become smarter with their content strategy,” Bromilow argues. She believes removing likes might affect influencers the most as business owners will be forced to look at more tangible results. “Influencers are likely to be harder hit by this – the simple like engagement metric is how many brands will initially assess whether an influencer has the engagement needed to work with them,” she adds.
Consequently, while brands cared more about reach and the like rate until now, removing likes could force brands to prioritise who they hire as influencers. “Ultimately, with the removal of likes on Instagram already in testing, brands will need to realign their affiliation with the right kind of talent; those who match their values and have the credibility to talk authentically in this space,” Soulier says.
Apart from being able to gauge genuine future customers, many brands might benefit from this move. Eliminating likes could see consumers’ feeds fill with more qualitative posts and a chance for business magnates to understand their target audience better. “For startups wanting to really connect and engage with people around their products and services, a shift in the like landscape will hopefully clear away some of the BS that is taking up so much space in our timelines and allow for genuine businesses to be seen,” says Katie Brockhurst, a social media coach. “I hope this marks a shift in how we use these technologies and incredible platforms to connect with others around authentic businesses, their content and causes. That we really start to see social media as a source for building good relationships through engagement, over a superficial like.”
While many seem positive about this announcement by Instagram, not all are convinced. For some, likes are a portrayal of power. “The like is one of the most valuable metrics on Instagram, for both users and brands,” says Misha Sokolov, co-founder of social media marketing app MNFST. “They’re key in determining which content appears first and tell companies which ads a user is more likely to click on. The more people like posts on Instagram, the better it is for companies and Instagram’s ad revenue.”
Sokolov believes the number of likes can be the difference between a product becoming popular among millions of people or going unnoticed. “A simple picture of a plain egg against a white background became a true digital phenomenon,” he adds. This image was able to get over 53 million likes, surpassing the most liked post by Kylie Jenner which crossed 18 million showing that likes have gained importance.
Sokolov is hardly alone. Michael Fox, chief marketing officer at Culture Trip, the media company specialising in travel, too believes that eliminating likes is “an aggressive idea.” “When you think of the fundamental dynamic: post a picture, come back and check to see who has liked or commented several times over the next two, three days, this creates multiple impressions on the single posting action,” he states. “If they roll this out globally, they will likely see a reduction in overall impressions which will impact the supply for advertisers. This will hurt the cost structures for startups that rely on the media metrics they've come to expect from Instagram. Startups are most vulnerable to these types of changes as they are typically smaller in size and budgets and have greater time pressures on user growth.”
However, despite being apprehensive, Fox says in the long-term it might not be a bad decision as head honchos will still be able to get the statistics they need. “Even if the public facing likes are eliminated, Facebook will continue to provide performance dashboards that will allow both brands and influencers to continue to evaluate how well the influencer is connecting with their audiences,” he says adding that The Zuck wouldn’t make decisions like these without having thought it through. “Facebook doesn't make random decisions when it comes to changes such as this, so I suspect it fits into its long-term strategy.”
Clearly, after Instagram had a crackdown on bots and bought followers to remove fakes and frauds, this move will be an added step to help genuine brands get an opportunity to capitalise on the platform and look beyond likes. “Instagram is obviously conscious of this and while still in the very early stages of testing have already reached out to try and quell fears, explaining that it is exploring other avenues for businesses and influencers to reach their audiences,” concludes Aidan O’Sullivan, social paid media consultant at PushON, the eCommerce agency. “How effectively this will work will be interesting to see.”