'It's demotivating for me': Influencers and agencies react to Instagram hiding 'likes' count

ABC NEWS 18/07/19

BY JAMES PURTILL

In three years, Jem Wolfie has amassed 2.7 million Instagram followers and claims to rake in millions of dollars a year across all her platforms.

The Perth-based fitness and food influencer is enough of a big deal that before Instagram announced to the general public it was hiding the number of 'likes' on posts for all Australian users, she got a personal heads-up.

"It's something they do for the larger accounts," she told Hack.

"They said they're doing it to take the competition out of posting - I'm not in competition with anyone on Instagram, I'm here to run a business.

"They're taking a tool away that's really important for us.

I'm still going to keep posting as much as before, but it's demotivating for me.

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Aussie users will now notice that posts will show a user name and "others like this" below a post instead of the number of likes.

Users will be able to see the number of likes received on their own posts, not others'. If you really want to know who exactly liked someone else's post, you'll be able to click through to bring up a list of the users who liked the post.

Instagram says this will take the "competition" out of posting and ease the "pressure" on users to post the kinds of photos that get lots of likes (e.g. selfies and sunsets).

This, in turn, could improve user's mental health, and improve the quality of content.

But how will it affect influencers, who have learned to convert each tiny red heart into money, and now rely on this for their livelihoods?

'I think it'll be really hard to start being an influencer'

The answer is complex. Hack has spoken to influencers as well as social media agencies, and there was a wide range of responses, from cautiously optimistic to outright negative and cynical.

Several wondered whether the changes would make it harder for up-and-coming influencers to make their mark, as they would be unable to advertise their popularity through the easy-to-see metric of how many likes each post gets.

Jamey-Lee Franz, the client services manager for The Influencer Agency and an influencer himself, told Hackthe changes would benefit established accounts.

"It's going to be really hard for anyone who's starting their account from zero or from a small following," he said.

"For brands, they're not going to be able to easily see that this person has this many likes and this much engagement.

"There'll be no base to work with upcoming influencers."

Zak Hasleby, an influencer with over 90,000 followers, said the changes would take away the "backbone" of assessing influence, at least for anyone without an established reputation.

"I think it'll be really hard to start being an influencer," he said.

You won't have any backbone to show you have heaps of likes, and businesses won't be able to see the likes.

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'Instagram is becoming one of most powerful e-commerce platforms'

Despite the changes, influencers with 'creator' accounts will still be able to see how many people like their posts as well as other measures of engagement.

Of these metrics, likes is one of the least useful, according to Jules Lund, founder of the TRIBE, which runs a platform connecting influencers with brands.

"The likes is one of the most insignificant of all metrics," he said.

"How many times do you look at a piece of content and absorb but never press the like button?

The real metric sits beneath the surface.

Key metrics include the post engagement rate (post interactions divided by follower count), impressions (the total number of times your content was served to users), and reach (the total number of unique accounts who saw the content).

Jules says his company, which has a particular focus on "micro-influencers" is "hugely supportive" of the changes. In fact, he said, they should be seen as part of the trend away from big-name celebrities and towards allowing anyone to be a 'creator' who gets paid for content.

TRIBE, which began in Australia, has just opened a New York office, and in the last two years has tripled the number of influencers who use the platform, to about 60,000 - evidence of growing demand from brands for access to micro-influencers.

Then there are the changes to the Instagram platform that are arguably more important and far-reaching than removing the 'likes' count.

Since 2017, Instagram has allowed users with 'creator' accounts to add a 'paid partnership' tag to posts that funnels the post analytics to the tagged brand, making it easier for these accounts to measure the value of influencer marketing.

In March 2019, it launched a beta in-app Checkout feature, which allows users to buy items from participating brands without leaving the app.

"It means Instagram is opening up to become one of the most powerful e-commerce platforms on the planet," Jules told Hack.

"And what's necessary to make this possible is content.

"Influencer marketing is enabling brands to turn influencer posts into advertising ... I allow my content to be turned into an ad.

"In many ways [this week's change] puts the focus back on content. It will create less pressure for users to post content and they'll feel less judged.

They're still being assessed and judged and scored but other users aren't seeing the vote.

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'The appearance of equality, but they're hiding their cards'

In her first post after the changes, Jem Wolfie told followers, "Please show your love and support after @instagram took away the LIKE button."

"Comments keep me motivated," she continued.

"I know it takes a little longer to comment than it does to double tap but this is my business and numbers help me gauge what you like and don't like.

"All your comments and love mean the world to me."

She told Hack the number of comments would be the new public-facing metric (the other one, follower numbers, can be gamed by just buying more).

The 'likes' count had been her "shopfront" where companies instantly judged her popularity. Now they'd have to contact her for stats, or she'd have to approach them herself.

"Companies won't be able to come onto my page and see, 'Oh her last video got 10 million views let's grab her quickly now'."

An agent for big-name influencers anonymously told Hack he was cynical about Instagram's 'mental health' justification, and suspected removing the 'likes' count would give the company more freedom to change the algorithm and "roll-out aggressive marketing tools."

In 2016, Instagram replaced the old reverse-chronological feed with an algorithmic feed similar to Facebook, opening up the reach of influencer marketing.

Removing the 'likes' count gives the appearance of equality, but what they're doing is hiding their cards," he said.

Jamey-Lee Franz, the influencer manager, said today's removal of the 'likes' count was a direct consequence of getting rid of the chronological feed.

"We noticed that after the 2016 change people weren't liking what they usually would.

"They're being very selective with what they're liking now.

"Otherwise you like one post by Justin Bieber and your feed is full of Justin Bieber."

"I'm assuming because they're not letting users see the likes, the likes are also not going to affect the algorithm as much anymore."

"Only time will tell."

Credits

TIA Perth TIA Perth