Analysis: Is this endless chase for 'likes' finally coming to an end?

Two years after Instagram began hiding like counts for a small group of people to understand if it lessens some pressure when posting to the platform, parent company Facebook is giving users the power to decide the experience that is best for them. This comprises choosing not to see like counts on anyone else's posts, turning them off for their own posts, or still choosing to see the number of likes. This is currently being tested on Instagram first before expanding into Facebook. The issue of like counts has been a controversial one in the advertising and marketing industry, especially since some content creators have been known to purchase likes and even fake followers. 

In 2017, Singaporean influencer Wendy Cheng, also known as Xiaxue, produced a video examining the statistics found on social media analytics website Social Blade. She speculated which influencers were buying followers on Instagram to boost their numbers. “This is a huge problem for marketers who decide to hire or sponsor largely based on popularity, which is defined by the number of followers. Even if they looked at engagement rate (amount of likes/comments) it can still be bought," she said previously.

Needless to say, this move is one that is welcomed by the marketing community. Speaking to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE in her personal capacity, PepsiCo's marketing manager (total beverage portfolio) for Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia, Brunei and Pacific Island, Jennifer Lee, said the move will provide content creators with more freedom and less pressure when it comes to publishing content," she said, adding:

Rather than chasing likes, this is an opportunity for creators to look more holistically at how engaging and enjoyable their content is and generate organic reach.

For Lee, the possibility of hiding likes also means that brands need to take into account all the other available metrics when choosing a content partner and not just the number of likes. These include comments, reach, impressions, and shares. "As the influencer-marketing has matured, the combination of these backend metrics has become more important," she added. At the same time, Lee said it was good to see social media platforms exploring ways to remove social pressure and promote better mental health.

"People will feel more comfortable expressing themselves and particularly important for the younger generation, who are growing up in a world where social media popularity is the social currency," she said.

Meanwhile, Raditya Widdy Pratama Beer, Tokopedia's head of brand and social media, said collaborations with strategic partners, including content creators, always go beyond the numbers of likes and followers.

"Tokopedia is a business of trust, so to maintain business continuity, maintaining the trust of Indonesians is the most important thing. Therefore, there are other factors that fall under our consideration as well, for example, having the same brand value as Tokopedia and positive influence on Indonesian society," he added. According to him, these elements help Tokopedia collaborate with the right partners, in this case, content creators, to stay relevant to the Indonesian market, especially Millennials and Gen Zs. 

Malaysian content creator Jin Lim, also known as Jinnyboy, agreed that this will make individuals less reliant on likes for validation. "Hopefully it will improve the whole 'Hungry for more likes to feel accepted' mentality. He does not expect this to have much impact on his following of 58,777 Facebook followers and 173.9k Instagram fans because according to Lim, consumers follow him because they like his work and not his numbers. 

Safe to say, the initial trial to hide likes on Instagram in 2019 took many by surprise, including influencer and content marketing firm Nuffnang. Nuffnang Malaysia's country manager Kausern Hieu said while the move was done in the name of better mental health, it felt like a "force down approach" on users, leaving them without a choice.

That said, Nuffnang viewed the change back then to be promising as it would bring back creativity and authenticity into the platform. The reason being, content created from Influencers is too perfectly curated and has a certain same-ness lately. "By hiding the vanity metrics, Influencers do not have to resort to posting risqué images or just copying what others are doing just to chase after the likes," he explained.

Hence, giving users the power to hide or unhide their like counts is a "more workable and balanced approach" to effectively address both the app's impact on mental health and both Instagram and Facebook as an influencer marketing platform.

No concern for brands?

Aside from mental health, this move by the tech giant also aids in an influencer's longevity. Hieu explains that the influencer community will now have to work harder at showcasing their unique personality and creativity to get their followers to engage with them in the comment box, since comments will still be available for those who choose to hide their likes. As a result, followers will connect at a deeper level with the Influencers they follow, which will ultimately benefit advertisers.

In Hieu's view, this should be no cause for concern for brands as they will, in turn, benefit from an increase in quality content from the influencer they engage. At the same time, brands will also benefit from deeper engagement metrics such as comments, saves, shares, time spent, actual online or in-store sales generated by an influencer. According to Hieu, these metrics "ultimately matter more to a brand".

Agreeing with Hieu was Isobar Malaysia's head of digital marketing Ali Hajihashemi, who said this is an opportunity for brands to tie up with passionate creators because there is a powerful desire for authenticity, simplicity and community. "Consumers increasingly want to see the faces and hear the stories behind the products they buy. Substance is style; in a world where we crave human connection, authenticity beats perfectly crafted artifice," he explained.

Also, users are no longer looking into brands’ number of likes anymore to purchase a product. Instead, a product that delivers a good user experience needs to have enough authenticity and credibility for them to eventually lead to a purchase. "Experiences differ by medium and it is time for creators to recalibrate engagement measurement to account for a 360-degree view of how individual consumers relate to brands at different moments in their journey instead of a single measure - likes," he said.

On the other hand, DSTNCT's co-founder and MD Matthew Zeng said this is going to be an unpopular move and one that brands should be concerned about, especially if they do not have a sound content curation strategy or if they have yet to try newer social media platforms. "For people who are not fans of the 'like' function, they are slowly becoming either passive users or inactive users. By removing likes on the platform, Instagram and Facebook are essentially doing a huge disservice to its most active users who are still on the platform for that very reason," he said.

With other alternative social media platforms such as TikTok and Clubhouse, Zeng said:

Content creators now have even more reason to spend more time to gain a stronger foothold on these platforms, in hopes that such platforms can become an everyday social app for everyone.

According to him, the best content creators are the ones who will stay relevant, and always find means to do so be it on any platform. If Instagram and Facebook remove the "Like" function, content creators may migrate to other platforms. Nonetheless, the fact that Facebook is allowing users to choose which experience best suits them is a great move because it satisfies everyone's preferences and essentially gives everyone the best of both worlds, Zeng said. "Content creators who need to take on a more public front with their engagement numbers for work can still do what they do best and people who want a little more privacy can opt to do so. It's an ingenious move on Instagram and Facebook's part," he said.

Photo courtesy: 123RF