I, like many others, let out what could only be described as an audible gasp on the 18th of July upon waking up and preparing to greet the dawn of a new day the only way I know how (with a customary morning perusal of Instagram) only to be greeted by the ‘hidden likes’ update.
The update (rolled-out in countries such as Canada, Japan, and Australia) sees the number of ‘likes’ on a post being hidden from public view, with users only able to see the number of ‘likes’ on personal posts while ‘likes’ on posts from other accounts are shrouded in mystery.
The reasoning straight from the horse’s mouth, as declared by Facebook Australia’s head of policy, Mia Garlick was that Instagram is, “rethinking the whole experience … to address issues around wellbeing and to ensure the Instagram community has a positive experience on our platform.”
Despite these philanthropic motivations, it stands to reason that commercial interests likely played into this decision as well. If such is the case, these interests certainly bear discussing.
If Instagram may be considered the metaphorical tree, an Instagram-influencer would be the abundant fruit it bears. Their use of the free social media platform is well-documented and lucrative; firms have latched onto the targeted marketing opportunities influencers provide to access around a billion active users and drive sales.
Social-media analytics firm Captiv8 estimates a monthly US$255million is spent by big brands on sponsored posts, with influencers earning on average US$150,000 per sponsored post.[i] Any discussion of Instagram’s operating changes will ultimately lead to an examination of its interaction with the influencer community. Despite being the platform upon which such targeted marketing takes place, Instagram is able to tap into very little (if any) of this lucrative and now commonplace marketing mechanism.
By hiding ‘likes’, Instagram has eliminated one of the most widely recognised gauges of customer engagement. After all, brands will now struggle to use the ‘likes’ to gauge how well their products are received by target demographics. Similarly, brands will not be able to use public ‘likes’ to assess whether a prospective influencer partner has the level of engagement and exposure they need.
One suggestion is that Instagram’s mammoth decision also serves the purpose of pushing brands to pay for Instagram’s official sponsored post format, which allows brands to boost sponsored posts and advertisers to promote these posts just like they would with any other advertisement on the platform thereby amplifying exposure and overseeing engagement.[ii]
Instagram may indeed be intentionally (or inadvertently) breaking up the chain of influencer-domination, however, the possibility exists that Instagram is also closing the loop on another one.
Consider this, according to Instagram 60% of people claim to discover new products via the platform, 70% follow a business account, and 75% take an action (such as visiting a website, shopping, or telling a friend) after seeing a business post.[iii]
Instagram is uniquely well-positioned by its inherent design advantages for consumer expenditure. It facilitates many stages of the shopping process, “what the internet hasn’t been particularly good at is solving for discovery and window shopping … Instagram is starting to help fill that need for shoppers,” said Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at eMarketer. [iv] In that way, provided there was the appropriate mechanism, Instagram would theoretically be able to lock the inspiration, aspiration, and then the eventual expenditure all within its own circle of operations and thus with it the sales.
In fact, earlier this year Instagram unveiled its new shopping checkout function, allowing users to spot an item they like, purchase it, and checkout without leaving Instagram. This new feature allows for Instagram to snatch back a slice of the pie they have had such a significant hand in preparing. Indeed, Deutsche Bank has predicted Shopping off Instagram could be a $10 billion market by 2021.[v]
When all this is considered, the suggestion exists that perhaps the ‘hidden likes’ may form a part of a grander plan for Instagram to funnel more potential customers through their own consumption channels.
Looking even further ahead, one may query whether Instagram is investing in a valuable long-term commodity in modern-day businesses: authenticity. Instagram can tout their rhetoric of mental health responsibility whilst simultaneously shaking up influencer-produced content. It would likely prove challenging for Instagram to ignore the overwhelming (and well-reported) public opinion regarding its influence on mental health, especially among younger users. Social media is often regarded as vehicles for vanity, bullying, depression, and anxiety, criticisms which have only gained momentum in recent years (Time Magazine declared Instagram as the “Worst Social Media for Mental Health” as per a 2017 survey). [vi] The ‘likes’ system facilitates much of this, especially feelings of “compare and despair” where unrealistic (and potentially manipulated) images become the norm that few can truly attain. [vii]
However, given the platform’s livelihood relies upon its community, it is unlikely that Instagram would deign to alienate its users by completely overhauling the engagement system, however, this trial of ‘hidden likes’ may be a happy medium.
Zoe Marans, vice president and general manager of influencer marketing agency MediaKix has suggested that the move may combat problems rife in the Instagram community such as bots and fake followers. Marans further suggests, changes in vanity metrics (such as ‘likes’) may shift influencer tactics to value other behavioural metrics in deciding what content to create and potentially lead to more quality content rather than content devised for the sole (or primary) purpose of gaining the most ‘likes’. [viii]
Much has been said of the long-term business value of customer trust and authenticity and indeed, meaningful engaging content, social responsibility and strong commercial potential all seem to align with this. [ix] Perhaps the move, though seemingly innocuous at first glance, is a small stepping stone to reposition Instagram. Readying the troops for the next stage of a social media domination strategy, so to speak.