July 23 (CNBC) – Instagram’s test of hiding “likes” on posts just expanded to more markets around the globe. For influencers, or individuals who work with brands to promote services or products on social media, this will likely mean a continued shift away from “vanity metrics” — such as likes or follower counts — and a focus on actual sales.
Facebook-owned Instagram said in April it would be kicking off the test as a way of creating “a less pressurized environment” on the app. Users who are part of the test are able to look at who liked their own post, but not a count of how many likes someone else’s post received, a way of making Instagram feel less “like a competition,” the company’s head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said at the time.
A more “healthy” environment could indeed be a result of a change like this. But marketing experts say the changes could also further incentivize brands to put paid media support behind their influencer posts, and also to focus on Instagram Stories, the video and photo posts that are only live on Instagram temporarily.
The potential change could also mean that influencer content will need to become higher quality, since users won’t be able to lean on the amount of likes their posts are receiving when a brand considers working with them. Marketers will still be able to look at an influencer’s follower count, but that metric doesn’t mean much in the way of showing how “engaged” a user’s audience is.
Influencer marketing agency Obviously conducted a survey of Canadian influencers after the Instagram “like” test started rolling out in Canada. Of the just over 100 influencers that answered, 62% said they were spending the same amount of time on content, and cited the test as a positive vote for high-quality content.
Leaning less on likes
Ryan Detert, CEO of influencer marketing company Influential, said the change may have the effect of drying up the economy for fraudulent likes on Instagram since they’d no longer be as valuable when it comes to showing engagement. But Detert said for his company’s clientele, engagement is already less of a priority. Influential has worked with major brands including Pepsi and McDonald’s.
“In the last year and a half, it’s been an education process,” he said. ”[Clients] have almost completely abandoned the idea of engagement rates being the most important piece … it’s become a nice-to-have.”
Detert said campaigns his company has been doing with clients are more focused on measuring the actual online or in-store sales driven by influencer posts. Tools can help brands determine whether clicking from an Instagram post converts to an actual online sale, or whether a consumer actually goes to buy that product at CVS or Duane Reade. He said the company is doing a lot with “paid media,” marketing industry speak for any post where a brand pays to amplify a post to a wider audience and gives them more targeting and measurement abilities.
Instagram said in June it was rolling out a change that will let advertisers promote posts from influencers. Before that, brands could also post influencer content by just posting content from influencer on their own page, or by posting them on other third-party accounts.
Bob Gilbreath, general manager of influencer and social media marketing firm Ahalogy, said more brands and agencies tapping into the paid model makes it so that Instagram can more deeply penetrate the big money being spent on Instagram on influencer marketing.
“If people go more to this paid model, that’s making it so Instagram gets a bigger [portion] of the money,” he said.
Pivot to video
Social Native founder and CEO David Shadpour said the test of hiding likes goes in line with the Facebook and Instagram strategies of pushing users to “Stories.”
“The goal of Facebook and Instagram is to push users to Stories, since they believe the future is in short form videos, not static images or [the] News Feed,” he said in an email. “Because of this, they’re focusing on strategies to increase consumer consumption rate of video, get more creators making videos, and increase ROI of advertisers leveraging video.”
Shadpour said he thinks the value of likes will disappear even if Instagram doesn’t do away with likes altogether.
“By reducing the focus on likes as an indicator of success, creators will have more creative control — focusing on content and transitioning their content towards video,” he said. “With that shift, metrics will also have to shift. Time spent on the platform, engagement, views and other metrics will prevail as KPIs.” He said this will also have the effect of incentivizing more quality content.
Some users might become disinterested in Instagram without the dopamine spike of a “like,” with some onlookers wondering if this would affect the amount of time users spend on the site. But some said this will change the relationship people have with the app. Oliver Yonchev, U.S. managing director at social media company The Social Chain, said this should have the result of Instagram users posting “a lot more.”
“One of the number one reasons why users don’t post more now is because every single time you post you’re being heavily judged by this ‘like’ metric on the quality of your post,” he wrote in an email “If that’s removed, then a lot of people won’t feel that pressure, and they’ll post more, and that’s good for the platform; that could probably lead to more time spent on the platform which means more ads served to the community.”
A deeper connection
Quynh Mai, founder and CEO at digital agency Moving Image & Content, said a future without Instagram likes could mean brands and influencers will work a little harder at creating a community on the platform.
“You see a lot more [YouTube] influencers building careers, businesses, brands, out of their influence than Instagram influencers, because that ecosystem is about building community, responding to comments, reading fan letters in a YouTube video — a deeper engagement with the fanbase — where Instagram engagement with your fan base was based on emojis and thumbs up and likes, which is a very shallow measurement of community,” she said.
YouTube stars like Jeffree Star create frenzies over their product launches or events because their audiences are so engaged.
“It just hasn’t happened in the same way on Instagram or Facebook,” she said. “By removing likes, I’m hopeful that this [would] force the brands as well as influencers to take the time to build community and not just fans. As Gen Z grows up, their mandate for engagement is so different. They want a vote … they want to be a part of the conversation.”