Ditching Instagram 'likes' will require brands to become more sophisticated at influencer marketing

If Instagram decides to remove likes - as it is trialling in several markets - influencer marketing will need to become more sophisticated and higher quality, rather than chasing vanity metrics.

Could Instagram's proposed removal of 'likes' be a positive for the industry? (Photo: Getty Images)
Could Instagram's proposed removal of 'likes' be a positive for the industry? (Photo: Getty Images)

That’s the verdict of several experts in influencer marketing, who view the move more as a growing pain in the evolution of influencer marketing, rather than a significant shift. However, not everyone agrees.

Agency 'thrives' after ditching social media and influencers to focus on traditional PR

Edelman’s head of influencer Philip Trippenbach told PRWeek that it’s important to look at this move in the wider context of influencer marketing.

"The future of the industry is wider than Instagram, even though that platform is a huge part of the influencer marketing industry right now, as it should be," he said.

"The platform has been monetised and is an important part of marketing certain categories, such as travel, fashion, food – categories that are highly visual. But there are other areas of influence, such as CSR, venture capital and important, but less visual, human endeavours that don’t work as well on Instagram.

"Instagram ‘likes’ is a big change on that platform, but if you look at human influence globally, this is just a slice of the pie."

Trippenbach said influencer marketing is a field that is rapidly changing and likens it to how social media marketing was ten years ago. 

"There’s a lot of hype and interest, for good reason, but we can’t let the hype blind us to what’s going on," he said. "What we’ve seen in the past two years is a very rapid rise of a new wave of how influence can be exerted."

What has happened, he explains, is that social media’s mass audiences and ability to market to niches within it, has democratised the ability of people to create and distribute content.

Successful influencers manage two things well – a genuine passion and the ability to create content; and the ability to attract and maintain the attention of a large audience.

However, the second part of this equation is difficult and can incentivise "bad apples" to game the system, such as buying followers, likes and other vanity metrics, which Trippenbach said is "focusing on the wrong thing".

"The problem with that is those few limited bad apples out there is where you are starting to get a backlash," he added. 

"The figures I’m seeing is that there is [a backlash]. People think that influencer content is over-saturated with brands, and there’s call for stronger regulation."

This has been driven by high-profile scandals, such as Logan Paul’s terrible spoof of a Japanese forrest location known for suicide, and the Fyre Festival debacle.

'The influencers became the influenced' - an industry on Fyre

"We have to get much more sophisticated…a colleague of mine says that change will never get this slow again," he said. "[Removing Instagram likes] is going to change the way that we think and change the way my colleagues that deal with social media strategy do certain things, but when it comes to the practice of ‘influence’ – I don’t think it is hugely significant."

'Brands will need to work smarter'

It’s a view shared by other experts PRWeek approached. While this could have an impact on tactics, there is an upside.

"For influencers, or individuals who work with brands to promote services or products on Instagram, this will lead to a shift away from vanity metrics and place more focus on time spent on the platform, engagement, views and actual sales," Frank’s head of social, content and influencers Jennie Thompson said.

"These changes will further incentivise brands to put paid media support behind their influencer posts, and also to focus on Instagram Stories. Influencer content will need to become higher quality, since users won’t be able to lean on the amount of likes their posts are receiving when a brand considers working with them. Brands and individuals will have to work harder at creating and building an engaged community."

Karmarama’s head of social and influence Katie Hunter believes removing likes is "undoubtedly a positive step in the right direction towards making social media a much more inclusive, less competitive place". 

"With potentially positive outcomes for everyone’s wellbeing," she said. "For brands and influencers, it means new challenges. It will definitely make it harder for influencers to build their brand and audience, and for brands to measure their own success. 

"One upside I see is that we’ll be forced to think harder about creative and what is going to resonate with audiences, driving quality over quantity from a content perspective."

Paul Greenwood, head of research and insight at We Are Social, agrees. He said this move will help combat influencers posting content simply to chase likes and instead allow them to focus on what they think is "interesting, useful, entertaining or of value to their followers".

"It's not about ditching the 'like' completely, but just their 'vanity' use and as a result, it should give influencers more creative freedom," Greenwood added.

What is an influencer? (Even the PR industry can't seem to decide)

"Influencers with business accounts will still have all the other metrics in the back end (such as reach and impressions), as well as views and comments to judge how well their content is performing. Brands will be able to use this data to evaluate how to work with influencers, as well as the qualitative element of whether they fit with the brand values, campaign or product."

However, he said: "there's also the possibility that comments will become the 'new' likes, opening up more contest-style content, or influencers looking to stray into more controversial topics in order to evoke an emotional response (and therefore engagement) from followers".

Some commentators are more cynical about the move and believe Facebook’s intentions are to drive marketers towards advertising on its platforms.

Australian celebrity chef Adam Liaw believes removing likes could be an own-goal for Facebook.

Also read: Agency thrives after dithing social media

Yet to receive the results you'd like from your influencer marketing efforts? Learn how to choose the right influencers, create and maintain long-lasting relationships and discover best practice for measuring campaign success at PRWeek's Influencer Breakfast Briefing this September.

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