Instagram hiding likes could have ‘massive’ impact, early research suggests

As Instagram extends its experiment of hiding likes to six new markets, preliminary evidence hints at the possibly huge effects it could have on influencer marketing.

Facebook-owned Instagram announced this week that the test, which was piloted in Canada, is now being expanded to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.

The move is generally viewed as an attempt by Instagram (and Facebook) to address rising concerns about the harmful effects of excessive social media use and, more specifically, an unhealthy fixation on likes.

But if it is made permanent and extended to larger markets like the U.S., U.K. and rest of Europe, the change would undeniably affect the influencer marketing system as well.

That latter hypothesis was borne out in early research from Toronto-based influencer experts #Paid (Hashtag Paid). It surveyed the influencers it works with and found that many of those that had likes hidden reported a significant drop in engagement overall.

“We found that the impact is fairly massive,” said Andrew McWhaw, a senior manager overseeing market researcher at #Paid. Of the 192 participants it surveyed, 55% reported a reduction in likes, and a third reported a drop in comments. Follower growth was also down. Hashtag Paid believes that’s likely a consequence of the change: If hiding likes means the number of overall likes declines, the Instagram algorithm shows the posts to fewer people—and fewer potential new followers.

“Our working theory is that you’ve essentially devalued the like itself. If it’s not been shown, people are less interesting in liking,” said McWhaw. “There’s also… a pile-on effect—without being able to see what the total likes are, there’s just less incentive to join in.”

The findings point to just how much the value exchange for influencer marketing could be reset by downplaying likes—although that change has been underway for sometime.

When news of the experiment first broke in April, Elle wrote an article with the headline “Instagram is experimenting with hidden likes, which would make it much harder to be an influencer.”

In a way, however, that is one of the potential benefits of hiding likes. There is no shortage of experts who believe the entire influencer ecosystem needs cleaning up, and that it should be tougher for people to be qualified as truly influential, rather than buying likes and followers—a well documented problem in the sector.

It’s too soon to say if the experiment is having an effect on the fascination with likes, said Nadia Beale, an influencer expert and senior vice-president of MSL Group. “I think it’s worth noting that over time, the desired effect will be to reduce the amount of fraudulent followers and engagements,” she said.

“By hiding their engagement on posts, influencers could find it harder to get deals with businesses for sponsored content,” said Elle writer Alyssa Bailey. “Those companies like to see engagement on content before tapping an influencer to rep their product.”

But that take misses the changes being made by the growing numbers of vendors, agencies and rapidly maturing service providers in the space. Most now say “likes,” while still a useful indicator of reach, are a poor metric of the quality of the consumer engagement.

People who were overly reliant on likes, and not using any of the new advanced software systems designed to measure influencer effectiveness, will have to fundamentally reset, said McWhaw. “[They need to] figure out exactly what is good performance and what is bad performance, because everything they would have known for the past several years would go out the window on this.”

Instagram’s experiment to hide likes has been a “really healthy move for everyone,” said Victoria Freeman, an influencer specialist and SVP with North Strategic. “I think it’s opened up a really great conversation about creative and the impact of the story versus how many people liked a photo. Most people who view content don’t always engage with it anyway, so view through metrics and reach are still very important to measuring the success of a piece of content.”

David Brown