Instagram is Twiddling its Knobs!

Hiding the Like Feature Might (not) Prove to be a Gamechanger for Digital Marketing

With Instagram considering hiding the like count and rolling out beta-testing in seven countries, there’s been a lot of buzz around the future of digital marketing. Those who are part of the test phase can see the number of likes their photos garnered while everyone else cannot. Instagram head Adam Mosseri commented on the development: “The big idea is to try and make Instagram feel less pressurized, to make it less of a competition” (1).

The image-sharing platform’s changing social dynamics will impact its three stakeholders differently. Hiding likes might mean better mental health for Instagram users, but for influencers and brands deploying influencers to advertise, the recent changes are seemingly detrimental.

Concerning influencers specifically, lesser engagement pushes them farther down the algorithmic feed. The like icon serves as a social-validation feedback loop for both influencers and followers alike. By liking something popular, users jump on the bandwagon and associate themselves with a majority group. There’s also a certain ‘kick’ associated with having a celebrity or influencer like your comment; forging a direct line of communication with a follower can make a user feel valued or appreciated. Influencers, in turn, use the like metric to determine what content performs best. By twiddling the knobs, Instagram’s changes will not impact an influencer’s ability to see who liked their posts, but it will rupture the social currency that a mass following leverages an influencer. In simple terms, eliminating likes means that an influencer will no longer be ‘famous’ since there’s no way to gauge who exactly is accruing more likes. Influencers may fear that a brand’s interest in them might wane since the numbers game will now be skewed.

For the second stakeholder–the user–hiding likes might nudge users to scroll through their feed less mindlessly and actively seek out more authentic content that resonates with them. Hiding likes may also make your Instagram feel more like a ghost town, dissuading you from spending too much time on the app.

“likes are a very superficial form of engagement”

Three years ago, Instagram moved from a reverse-chronological feed to one based on what Instagram thinks you want to see. While a reverse-chronological feed displays the most recent post first, the new algorithm de-emphasizes posts from brands and accounts you do not usually interact with and focuses on updates from friends and family. Therefore, the like feature has been a critical audience engagement tool for influencers and scrapping it might mean a decrease in their ability to sway followers. Influencers may argue that Instagram is essentially eliminating the bulwark of what it values: engagement. If no one is going to see your content, what is the point of an image-sharing platform?

A brand investing in influencers—the third stakeholder in this affair—doesn’t need to be too concerned with the fracas just yet. For Sideqik CEO, Jeremy Haile, the most important part of working with influencers is gauging who can build authentic relationships with their audiences (2). For Joe Gagilese, CEO of Viral Nation, brands should look past likes and analyse an influencer’s audience demographics to see the connection between the influencer’s persona and the target audience (3). According to him, “likes are a very superficial form of engagement” and that “a lot of people like stuff without even really looking at it (3). What matters for brands is that an influencer, who builds a genuine connection with their followers, is adept at pushing people to click on ads and promotions.

In the absence of trigger-happy followers, influencers will be forced to experiment with posts and focus on quality content. They will need to forge into new creative territories to gain traction as opposed to posting a tried-and-trusted update that hits the 10K like mark. Instagram’s changing social dynamics also obliterate the audience applause at the end of a ‘performance’, the adrenaline rush that a drove of likes fuels. While this may temporarily stymie an influencer’s motivation, the overall trend seems to be towards a less narcissistic, more authentic social media experience for users.

From a marketing perspective, however, it is hard to say whether an Instagram with or without likes is better. Consider the analogy of blockbuster films and cult films to comprehend this conundrum. The careful release of a big-budget movie entails heavy PR management and successfully creating a hype around a film can mean millions in revenue on an opening weekend. After the initial fuss, many of these films fizzle out. In contrast, a cult film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been showing in theatres for over forty years. The Silence of the Lambs, another cult film, was released during a ‘dump month’, a term reserved for certain months in the year when films that are expected to do badly at the box office are released. Transposing this analogy to IG’s influencer marketing would mean the difference between receiving likes from a large group from amongst a much larger group of followers in the wake of a PR frenzy and building a loyal, steady and perhaps smaller following that connects with a brand’s values on a more long-term basis.

The bottom line is this: Hiding likes from Instagram might seem like a fundamental change, but it won’t impact brands investing in influencers anytime soon. Influencers will be forced to reinvent themselves, not rely on likes and forge genuine connections with their audiences. As long as they can convince their audiences to click on ad campaigns and purchase products, influencer marketing will continue to prosper while operating within a healthier, more sustainable landscape.

 

References

  1. Abbruzzese, Jason. “NBC News.” NBC News, NBC, 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/instagram-ceo-hiding-likes-make-it-less-competition-n1061111.
  2. Haile, Jeremy. “Forbes.” Forbes, Forbes, 28 Aug. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2019/08/28/three-key-takeaways-for-brands-looking-to-use-instagrams-branded-content-ads/#39e40aa0cd5e.
  3. Yurieff, Kaya. “Koam News Now.” Koam News Now, Koam News Now, 25 Sept. 2019, https://www.koamnewsnow.com/news/shareable-stories/influencers-prepare-for-an-instagram-without-likes/1125225702.