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Instagram mulls removing number of likes: How will it impact influencer marketing?

Facebook has announced in a blog post that it is running a test in Canada this week that “removes the total number of likes on photos and video views” on Instagram. This comes hot on the heels of Twitter’s prototype app launch in March, named Twttr, which does not display the number of likes, retweets and replies upfront, and hides them behind a click.

With these developments, using likes as a measure of engagement or popularity is about to change for brands, and even users themselves. The company explained in the post, “We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”

But director of KRDS Preetham Venkky said currently engagement values such as  hearts or likes have already stopped having correlation to brand metrics such as awareness, recognition and share of voice. “On social media, some features have declining usage over time. We now use likes, comments and shares increasingly lesser as the years passed,” he said, adding:

The declining usage of features, when it drops below a threshold value becomes non-correlational to brand KPIs.

As such, the trend of steering away from “vanity” metrics should be encouraged rather than feared. Venkky said that deprecating non-correlational KPIs of likes will lead marketers to focus on more correlational KPIs such as awareness and reach.

Also approving the move is managing director of Reprise, Stanley Clement who underscored that the reduced attention on vanity metrics can help to bridge the disconnect on social media and reality. He said, “The generation right now is one that is vanity based, and what we see on social media versus reality is often worlds apart. I view this as an extremely good move as it helps us move away from vanity metrics that can often be deceiving.”

From Instagram’s perspective, the shift away from likes is also seen as a step in the right direction for the social media platform to build the right image for itself. With the days where Instagram could hide behind big brother Facebook “long gone” CEO of Ydigital Asia Peter Haarmark said that the media and users at large are expecting Instagram, with its mass cultural impact, to be socially responsible.

“There’s been criticism around young people feeling left out if their photos didn’t get likes, and studies citing that the same triggers in the brains are activated when eating chocolate and when a photo collects a large amount of likes,”  he added.

Instagram takes this seriously and doesn’t want to be labelled as a platform where young people measure their self-worth based on how many people double tap their photo.

Additionally, Haarmark said that he is in favour of Instagram’s increased focus on quality content.

Impact on influencer marketing

But no change is without challenge. Reprise’s Clement said that with the shift, businesses will now clearly need to think harder about what they’re trying to achieve with the content they push out, and see how it translates to measurable results for the brand. Influencers and agencies will be challenged to push the boundaries for clients in creative ways.

This will definitely affect influencers, as it will no longer just be about the influencers’ likability, but about the brand affinity that they elicit, and the talkability that they influence. The push to drive messaging will need to be a lot stronger, as will the call to action on any given post, he explained.

Venkky from KRDS added professional influencers would not need to worry about the deprecation since they will still have access to the data at their back end. But the move will no doubt ensure a reduction in bot, fake engagement and bought numbers.

While it is still unseen how the changes will impact on advertising performance, Ydigital’s Haarmark predicts spending on Instagram to be affected if brands see a drop in results but cautioned against knee-jerk reactions.

“My advice to brands would be to follow the development closely. For most brands it’s relatively easy to change spending to other platforms, but brands who’s sales rely heavily on Instagram influencers should work on a crisis management plan in parallel,” he said.

Influencers too, will be facing challenges if the function is removed without any “substitute” as their remuneration is tightly linked to post engagement. However, Haarmark is also mindful that Instagram does not implement all the tests it implements.

User feedback

The like count does present an opportunity for feedback and allow users to rate content in a way, according to Ruhana Da Silva, managing director of Lemonade, the social hub for Dentsu’s Consider iProspect.

If opportunity for feedback is cut back, content creators may feel they are publishing without their fanbases’ take and this may “dis-incentivise” creators. However, Silva suggested that influencers can place more focus on comments instead to encourage more interactions. On the users front, she does not foresee much criticism.

If followers really, really like a piece of content, they’ll engage with it authentically rather than having their initial opinion influenced by what the crowd appears to think about something.

Users can also look forward to “more thumb-stopping content” as key opinion leaders are pressured to improve their quality and competitiveness of content, said 16TWO agency director Jules Nadan. Without the like count to ride on their popularity, influencers will have to work for visibility.

Adding on, she said she does not see why brands will be deterred from engaging with influencers as a result as likes as traditionally not a “measurable metric”. This move will force brands to look beyond the likes and followers that an influencer has, and instead focus on more business-driven metrics, such as impressions or click-throughs, she said.

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