Over 3 years ago, ZINE conducted a comprehensive survey of teenagers and their social media habits. Back then, the most apparent thing was, that Instagram is great - but Snapchat is everything. How things have changed...
There were other takeaways however, and certainly Instagram mattered. Instagram was seen as a ‘holy shrine’, with everything that goes up having to be perfect; posts that don’t gather x likes within the first hour or so are taken down, who liked, commented and who didn’t is closely watched - and discussed. In short, like-count really (like really, really) matters. It sounds rather stressful to be a teenager in the age of Instagram and we couldn’t blame a girl who said she doesn’t post on Instagram anymore because she can’t deal with the pressure of striving to get enough likes to maintain their ‘standing’ among peers. Snapchat offered a stress free alternative to sharing content without the potential PR backlash from mediocre engagement and for that reason won the race during our survey.
Most influencers are not in school anymore, but the competitive drivers remain the same. A successful influencer is defined by several metrics, the amount of followers they have and their engagement. The third metric, the number of (top tier) brands they collaborate with is another goal most influencers work towards and it’s often assumed to be directly related to the former two.
“We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get. During this test, only the person who shares a post will see the total number of likes it gets.” That’s how Instagram described arguably their most momentous design change to date. While the change may be small, the effects it may be huge. Especially in influencer marketing.
As pointed out in our 2019 influencer marketing report, engagement is used as an approximation for actual reach by marketers, assuming that people would have to see a post in order to like it. In the absence of unique impressions, the industry has focussed on the ‘next best thing’. So removing likes from Instagram would surely be a bad thing for an industry that already lacks transparency and standardised reporting metrics...or would it?
The number one deciding factor for a brand to be interested in working with an influencer is brand fit, eg. how well their content resonates with the brand and their target audience (2019 Report). No matter how big an influencer and how much engagement, if the content isn’t right they won’t get the job.
Brands don’t decide whether an influencer’s content is good based on likes and followers don’t either. Removing likes shouldn’t therefore have an impact on an influencers ability to build a following, community or effectively collaborate with brands. Yet likes remain a key metric for brands to evaluate how genuine an influencer is (26% of brands surveyed base their trust in an influencers genuity on engagement) with low engagement rates usually raising suspicion around bought followers. This of course, inspires purchasing ‘likes’ to mask the presence of fake followers, participation in Instagram pods and other schemes/bots aimed at raising an accounts overall engagement.
With the recent crack down on bought followers and engagements, Instagram is testing taking yet another step towards greater authenticity and at the same time, reducing the implicit social pressure some of its users might feel from having a public likes count.
The potential move would also force the influencer marketing industry to focus on actual reach and impressions rather than on likes, which is more of a vanity metric than a real measurement. It’s forcing influencers to step up their game, provide more transparency and insights to their actual account stats and performance. Brands are left with little to go by from an Instagram profile alone and will need to resort to reaching out to influencers and request key metrics or partner with third party platforms to obtain those insights independently.
This transition will be rough and is likely to disrupt the current operations of many influencer teams in the short run. In the long run however, this is a positive move for the industry to increase transparency, authenticity and focus on engaging content rather than just engagement. Last but not least it will make Instagram more of what it’s intended to be, a platform to share content, and not a popularity contest.
I'm founder & CEO of ZINE. When I am not crusading to make influencer marketing more profitable and transparent, I am travelling the world one country at a time.