Instagram hiding likes: Everything influencer marketers need to know

Influencer Marketing

Canadian Instagrammers may have noticed that their 'like' counts have been disappearing from their posts recently. It's not an error; Instagram are officially testing hiding likes from photos on the app, ostensibly to mitigate 'engagement anxiety' for users and to respond to calls for companies to do more to address the impact that social media has on users' mental health. 

So, where are my likes?

Instagram are doing away with likes from the public feed, but they're not gone completely! Users can still see the number of likes they received on their own posts, but it's one step removed; you'll have to tap on 'Liked by @XXX' to view the total. So, whilst the information is still there, it's easier to ignore if you want - or need - to do so. 

At the moment, the test is only running in Canada and it's not been confirmed how many users are part of the trial. 

Why, though?

In the world of social media, likes are the go-to indicator for the performance of a post, so it may seem antithetical for Instagram to be hiding them. However, social media platforms are increasingly under fire for impacting the confidence, self-esteem and mental health of users, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Instagram, where popular users put forward a seemingly perfect life in return for the biggest engagement. 

Instagram started as a creative photo-sharing platform and whilst it's come a long way from its humble roots, this test is in keeping with their original philosophy; they claim that they want users to focus solely on the content they're producing rather than how many likes they (and others) receive. By removing the public like tallies, they remove the pressure on the poster and encourage others to interact with a photo in a more 'natural' way without being influenced by how many others have already done the same. 

Although this hasn't been touted by Instagram, this trial could also be an attempt to quash the growth of bots and users looking to game the system buying likes and followers. Whilst Instagram has attempted to address these issues before, online feedback suggests that the problem is only worsening with each algorithm update. However, if likes are no longer a 'status symbol' on the app, there's nothing for users to gain by gaining them through less-than-honest means. 

What about Stories? 

Instagram Stories seems to have had a big role to play in influencing this trial. Unlike main feed posts, Stories have no publicly visible engagement metrics and are displayed, for the most part, chronologically, which puts less pressure on performance. The pick-up for the Stories feature has been huge, with 500 million people using Stories daily vs 300 million in 2017. 

The thinking behind it is that users feel free to be more authentic in the Stories format, which first gained popularity on Snapchat. When Stories disappear after 24 hours, they don't impact on an otherwise perfectly curated feed and lack the gravity of a permanent post that you may be held accountable for in the future. However, this perceived freedom may also mean that users are less worried about their engagement - it is already more difficult to see who has watched your Stories than to see who has liked your feed posts - so it seems very likely that the growing use of Stories amongst Instagram users is a factor in this test. 

What does this mean for marketers?

Whilst for users this could be a positive change, for influencer marketers, it does pose a potential challenge. Whilst they're not the only factor, likes are a commonly used measure for engagement, which is what influencer marketing really comes down to. Average likes per post, as well as comments, give a better idea of how much actual visibility and influence the Instagrammer you might be thinking of working with actually has with their followers. 

Without immediate and visible access to an influencer's stats, outreach research suddenly becomes more long-winded, although with bought likes, bots and 'like pods', it could be argued that the age of likes as an accurate measure was already coming to an end. 

So, what could Instagram hiding likes mean for influencer marketing?

Better communication with influencers

With the only way to establish an Instagrammer's engagement being by actually asking them, there will be a need to open the lines of communication earlier. But, if you're already getting in touch, there will be an opportunity to get more information, too. Audience insight, previous collaboration performance and sales driven are often readily available in an influencer's media pack. 

Increased focus on content

It's easy to focus on the numbers and forget to focus on the content itself, but on such a visual platform, the style and quality of an influencer's content is key. Influencer marketing isn't just about getting in front of the right people, but also about getting the right content which conveys your brand identity. So often, brands miss the mark with a poorly thought out image, but this could be an opportunity to get the content right first before worrying about the stats. 

Refreshed KPIs

Compared to other areas of digital marketing, influencer marketing has limited tracking capabilities and has, so far, mostly existed in the same realm as TV and offline PR, where brand exposure and authority building are the key metrics for success over direct traffic or sales. But, as the industry matures and costs increase, brands are, understandably, looking for more in terms of ROI. 

With a decreased focus on likes, influencers will be pushed more to deliver on actual sales (or equivalent KPIs). Reach, positive comments and saves will still have their place as valuable in-app metrics, but influencers are likely going to be called upon to live up to their name and prove they can actually influence consumer behaviour.

This is already happening in certain spheres, but will only become more important as Instagram makes more and more changes to support the growth of influencer marketing within the platform. For example, the new branded content ads, which enable brands to promote influencer content in the same way they would with their own posts, and Instagram's new shopping tool for creators, a beta test of which was recently announced with a select number of creators. For those with real authority, the ability to sell directly to their followers within the app will give influencers leverage with brands, and provide marketing teams with a powerful ROI to prove the power of influencer marketing once and for all. 

The result of Instagram’s hiding likes test is yet to be revealed, but what is almost certain is that the age of likes is over, and it’s time for a new approach.

Kate Moxon is a Digital Marketing Manager at Engage