How hidden likes could improve influencer marketing

Likes have become a key form of social—and monetary—currency over the past decade, but some Canadians are now guinea pigs in a new pilot project by Instagram, which is hiding like counts on videos and photos.

The Facebook-owned platform says that the move was undertaken to get followers to focus on the photos and videos on the platform, not the number of likes they receive. The change was announced at Facebook’s F8 developer conference this week.

But the experiment represents a fundamental change for the fast-growing influencer community which has leaned heavily on likes to attract lucrative brand deals. Their importance has led some influencers to resort to paying for likes and followers in order to artificially inflate their numbers, a flaw in the influencer system that marketers and agencies have been eager to see corrected.

“On the whole, we are optimistic that this will have a positive impact on influencer marketing,” says Megan Page, director of influencer strategy at Edelman. “It won’t be a silver bullet, but it may help mitigate the problem of people looking to boost their metrics through purchasing fake engagement.”

The Message reached out to several PR, social and media professionals to get their assessment of the Instagram changes, and possible implications for brands who spent approximately US$9 billion on the platform in 2018.

In addition to portending a likely, and almost universally welcomed, shift away from vanity metrics, a key theme among respondents was that the change could ultimately produce better content, with influencers forced to place a greater emphasis on the quality of their posts to attract consumer engagement.

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“The biggest challenge, and opportunity, will be for content creators, who will have to find another way to merchandise their now-private engagement data to potential brand partners,” says Kyle Brown, vice-president of insights and analytics for Weber Shandwick Canada.

Brown says the test introduces a compelling social question: Why do people truly like things on Instagram. “There is an element of ‘riding the wave’ at play when likes are public,” he says.

He predicts the test will have a “minimal impact” on brands’ Instagram accounts, since consumer engagement will continue to be tracked via back-end analytics platforms. It will impact how marketers identify and evaluate potential influencer partners, however, since the technology used to help in that process pulls engagement data from Instagram’s public facing elements.

Matt Ramella, managing director of Reprise and digital partnerships at IPG Mediabrands, says that removing visible likes is a “refreshing step in the right direction and a positive development” for the marketing community. “Likes shouldn’t matter as much as they do,” he says.

The race to generate likes has led to fraudulent activity as influencers buy bots and fake likes to juice their numbers.

“Reframing value around authenticity and high quality content is a good thing for the health of social platforms, brands and the influencer community,” he says. “The number of likes a piece of content gets should always be secondary, and that has at times gotten lost in the race for likes.”

Victoria Freeman, senior vice-president, social media and digital strategy at North Strategic/MSL Canada, says that influencers who have not yet moved to business accounts—which is most of them, she says—stand to be most affected by the change if it is implemented on a wide scale.

“They have traditionally been able to set their price on these vanity metrics, so the real work might have to begin with focusing more on the content that can truly influence business metrics to be able to measure the equity of their communities,” she says.

Freeman predicts that a new set of “metrics that matter” will emerge, with vanity metrics such as likes falling by the wayside. “Hopefully they are based on how influencers influence action and intent in their followers,” she says.

MSLGroup senior vice-president Nadia Beale says that shift to higher quality content will improve brand recall and increase top-of-mind awareness. But while the change will discourage influencers from paying for likes, a renewed emphasis on followers and comments as barometers of engagement could also lead to a spike in their purchase.

Jeremy Singer, associate digital director with Citizen Relations, says that influencers will be forced to “carefully consider the quality of the content they publish and how they engage with audiences using Instagram’s tools.

“This new update may also push brands to focus more on the impact influencer programs ultimately have on business results and less on content engagement within the platform,” he says.

But Rizer Social’s managing director Tristan Rahman calls the move “counter-intuitive,” and says that hiding like counts has the potential to drive influencers from the platform, since it lessens their ability to prove the strength of their audience’s engagement.

Rahman says that influencers are the key to drawing “massive” audiences and users to the platform. Likes, he argues, encourage influencers to “differentiate their content strategy where validation in the form of likes helps them find their core audience through cadence, tonality and personal brand identity. ”

He likens Instagram’s decision to marketers removing click metrics or conversions from reporting of their ad campaigns for fear of not meeting expectations of their boss.

Breanne Morrison, group director of paid social at Publicis Media, expects the changes to lead to a slight uptick in cost per engagement for brand marketers using Instagram. “People are influenced by their peers, so if they’re not seeing that as many people are liking it, they might be not be inclined [to engage with a brand],” she says.

But Morrison also says that the change aligns with an industry-wide trend of moving away from vanity metrics such as likes. “It’s just not a metric that drives business results,” she says.

“I think this is going to help refocus on paid media metrics that are ultimately going to matter. It’s going to level the whole industry and make it come to terms with more universal metrics that tie back to advertisers’ business objectives.”

Morrison says that that change could ultimately produce a societal benefit, particularly as younger people are engaged in the constant pursuit of affirmation and view likes as a reflection of their self-worth. “I think it’s going to do good things for people’s personal development and maybe help them step away from these platforms and refocus.”

What’s not to like about that?

—With Files From David Brown





Chris Powell