- This November Instagram announced it would start hiding the like count on posts globally. Users will be able to see like counts on their own posts, but Instagram will not be displaying those publicly.
- “The idea is to try and depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition,” said Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri.
- Instagram found the most likely platform to have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of Gen Z in the UK. However, social media influencers, argue it is paramount to censorship and could drive users away from the platform altogether
- 79% of brands prioritise using Instagram for influencer campaigns
- In 2019 brands are expected to spend $8 billion on influencer marketing, jumping to $15 billion by 2022
Like it or not, Instagram is cleaning up its image. This month the Facebook-owned social media platform announced it would start hiding the number of likes on posts globally, expanding a test first trialled in Canada last May and rolled out in Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.
Users will still be able to see like counts on their own posts, but Instagram will not be displaying them publicly. What would a like-free Instagram feed mean for brands and influencers whose fate hangs on the popularity of every post? And why is the wellness world the most likely sector to succeed or fail as a consequence?
Why is Instagram hiding likes?
If you take CEO Adam Mosseri at his word, Instagram is worried about the wellbeing of its one billion and rising monthly users.
“The idea is to try and depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition, give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love and things that inspire them,” he said, when announcing the decision at the Wired25 conference in November.
WATCH: Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announces that the platform will start hiding likes for US audiences starting next week. It's the latest step in Instagram’s quest to become the safest place on the internet. https://t.co/BGkMG57rdk #WIRED25 pic.twitter.com/WNTyAPVhaD
— WIRED (@WIRED) November 9, 2019
The move has been applauded by some as a measure to address Instagram’s negative impact on the self-esteem and mental health of its users, with the channel increasingly seen as a glorified popularity contest rather than social network as initially intended.
Others, most notably social media influencers reliant on the platform, have voiced concern that hiding like counts is paramount to censorship and merely a measure to reel in the unchecked world of influencer marketing.
Even more cynically, some industry experts insist this is simply a tactic to distract from Instagram’s waning user engagement and monopolise access to user data.
“By hiding likes, Instagram will help alleviate the negative backlash that comes from declining organic engagement on the platform as well as protect their reputation as Facebook’s more engaging social media platform,” wrote Eduardo Morales, an independent analyst who specialises in building businesses on Instagram.
Morales highlighted a study by marketing and consulting firm Trust Insights that found an 18% decline in average Instagram engagements – mostly likes – from January to June this year. “Monopolised access to our data is great for business, not necessarily for our mental health,” he added.
Either way, marketing departments have been left scrambling, unsure how to adapt to the changes and unclear how to measure the success of partnerships with influencers.
Why should the wellness world take note?
Social media is the battleground on which wellness brands can win or lose the hearts and minds of their most valuable demographic: Generation Z.
Born between 1997 and 2001, Gen Z is driving the majority of trends across the spectrum of wellness, from eating less meat, prioritising mental wellbeing, working out at home using fitness apps and showing a willingness to pay a premium for healthy, convenient and sustainable products.
In the US, Gen Z is the largest demographic, due to make up 40% of the nation’s consumers by 2020 and estimated to wield $143 billion in spending power, while influencing another $300 billion in indirect spending in the US alone.
Social media is the primary channel to reach, engage and influence them. Research from Lincoln Financial Group on Gen Z financial mindsets found 71% discover new fitness opportunities and healthy restaurants on social media, compared with only 25% who find them on TV commercials.
And yet, as Adam Mosseri is quickly learning, with great power comes great responsibility. More than any other social media platform, Instagram is having a profound impact on the mental wellbeing of young people, with 72% of 13-17-year-olds and 64% of 18-29-year-olds using it regularly.
A 2017 study by The Royal Society for Public Health, which questioned 1,500 people aged between 14 and 24 years old in the UK, found Instagram is the platform most likely to have a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing.
Instagram is also by far the leading platform for influencer marketing, a personality-led brand advocacy strategy that has propelled boutique fitness studios such as Barry’s Bootcamp, protein businesses like Optimum Nutrition and most recently and rapidly apparel brands such as Gymshark to worldwide fame in record time.
Nearly four in five (79%) brands use Instagram for influencer campaigns, compared with 46% for Facebook, 36% for YouTube, 24% for Twitter and 12% for LinkedIn, according to the Influencer Marketing Hub.
With so much riding on that little heart-shaped button, it’s little wonder Instagram’s plans to shake up its feed has caused such a stir.
How would a like-free feed change consumer and brand behaviour?
A recent survey from The Manifest, a business news and how-to site, which polled 502 US consumers on the move to hide likes, found of every five people, one supported the decision, one opposed it and three were ambivalent.
Much ado about nothing? Not so for Harper’s Bazaar’s social media editor Natalie Salmon, who has suggested hiding likes could turn users away from the platform that has always been driven by interactions.
“I worry about people turning away from the platform if the likes go away,” Salmon wrote. “Almost like a mobile game, the addictive quest for likes gives users an incentive to come back for more.”
By contrast, Emily Benwell of Liberty Marketing, online marketing specialists based in Wales, doesn’t expect hiding likes to cause much disruption, especially within the wellness industry.
“We’ve long disregarded the ‘vanity metric’ of likes,” she says. “A community isn’t measured by likes, but by trust, loyalty and engagement, which can be measured by comments and shares.
“If anything, this move by the social media giants will help businesses uncover false and fraudulent accounts who rely on purchasing likes as a method of engagement.”
Alexis Davis, founder of the Texas-based social media agency The Content Plug, predicts hiding likes will be embraced by some wellness brands but exploited by others.
“I feel yoga and mental health brands will champion this move because they encourage their followers and customers to not obsess or become addicted to things that cause unnecessary stress,” she says.
“But fitness and apparel brands will probably begin to post more because, with likes gone, they will no longer be concerned about irritating their followers with multiple feed posts in one day.”
Davis fears the switch to remove likes could trigger business users to focus too much on paid ads and not enough on organic social posts that are essential when building brand loyalty.
Sonika Phakey, digital marketing manager at creative agency The Digital Fairy, has gone further, suggesting brands will be forced to divert revenue from the pockets of influencers and instead to fund paid campaigns on Instagram’s official advertising platform: Facebook ads.
“The removal of ‘likes’ seems to have more business intentions than user considerations, as it targets influencers,” says Phakey, who has worked with brands such as Cult Beauty, Nike, Adidas and Boots.
“Without likes it makes it more difficult for businesses to compare influencer engagements and may impact the income of influencers by shifting more money into the hands of Facebook and Instagram.”
So is this the end of lucrative deals between influencers and wellness brands?
Not likely, insists Phakey. “Brand appetite for influencer marketing is not going anywhere and peer-to-peer marketing will always positively impact a brand’s bottom line.”
In fact, by 2022 brands are expected to spend as much as $15 billion on influencer marketing, up from $8 billion in 2019, according to recent forecast data from Business Insider.
Influencers are simply following the money. A Mediakix study found Instagram clocked 3.7 million #ads in 2018. That’s 43% more than the year before. The study projected that number would jump to 6.1 million in 2020.
However, Phakey believes the concept of what it means to be an influencer and the platforms that deliver the greatest reach is shifting. “Instagram has been subject to fee inflation and we are seeing much better rates for the same reach on platforms like YouTube and TikTok.”
She also suspects Instagram is developing its own platform to connect brands and influencers, while taking a chunk of the profits, in a bid to claw back some of this market share.
“I don’t see hiding likes changing anything we do at 1Rebel,” says Michelle Stoodley, brand manager at the boutique London fitness studio that emerged in 2015.
“For us and any brand in a similar space, Instagram is a really important tool for brand awareness. It’s a great place where you can build a community, engage with them and stand out from your competitors,” she says.
“Our aim is to use social to post really innovative, different, scroll-stopping content. If people like it then brilliant but it’s about keeping that brand awareness going, keeping top of mind and connecting with our community via Instagram stories. None of those things will change when our users can’t see how many likes there are.”
But what about creating content with influencers and trusting who will be best for a brand in a post-like Instagram world?
Liberty Marketing’s Benwell believes best practice is and always should be to disregard the like count. “Businesses should instead request the influencer’s ‘insights’ information and analyse their comments for sentiment,” she says.
“Brands should have been behaving this way from the get-go, so selection processes shouldn’t change and influencer incomes shouldn’t be affected.”
What will hiding likes mean for wellness brands in the long run?
Harper’s social-media minded Salmon hopes it forces the industry to up its content game.
“What’s my advice to brands and influencers worried about losing likes? Maybe it’s time to give people something to talk about and start racking up those comments instead.”
Social media specialist Davis believes it would level the playing field for businesses, especially smaller ones. “If likes go away permanently, the pressure to get a certain number of likes will disappear and brands can then focus on creating quality content that encourages interaction through comments and that will help them attract more paying customers.”
More holistically for both brands and their followers, Stoodley of 1Rebel hopes the obsession with perfection on the platform will make way for a more authentic user experience.
“If likes become less of a thing we all care about then hopefully people will start posting less polished and more real content,” she says, highlighting the #instagramvsreality trend as evidence this mindset is starting to shift.
“With the removal of likes we’ll hopefully see a lot more people posting what they love,” she adds. “For the everyday person, there will be less pressure to always show the most ideal you, and more acceptance towards showing the most real you.”
BEST PRACTICE IN A POST-LIKE INSTAGRAM
Don’t panic, says Michelle Stoodley of 1Rebel
“Don’t over-prepare. Until we have a better idea of how these changes will impact user behaviour my advice is to keep doing what you’re doing. Keep using the channel in the best way for your business. As with social, we all have a rough strategy for what we’re doing but you have to go with the flow. I’ve never started a strategy at the beginning of the year that I haven’t updated by the end of it. Be aware that this is happening, keep up to date with it, keep monitoring your content and look for learnings as they come.”
Focus on the comments, says Alexis Davis of The Content Plug
“Brands should focus on getting more comments and driving more customers to their website or email newsletters as brands can actually own the latter in case Instagram decides to disappear one day. A brand’s goal should always be to turn Instagram users into followers and followers into customers so creating converting content that informs, educates and entertains should be the priority.”
Stay on message, says Emily Benwell of Liberty Marketing
“Instead of the vanity metric of likes, wellness brands should focus on building trust, loyalty and engagement, as measured through comments and shares. They can do this by remaining focused on their brand message.
Keeping a tight and consistent wellness message will retain like-minded people. You should engage with people who engage with you to build a tight-knit community. And always prioritise top-quality content. Don’t post for the sake of posting. Have a well-thought-out strategy behind what’s posted, keeping everything unusual and unique, but always tied to your brand message.”