Good riddance to Instagram likes: Now brands can focus on real marketing

Martin Hong is head of social and digital at Magnum & Co, and Instagram likes are his "lifeblood". So, personally, he was affected by yesterday's removal of his "digital report card". But professionally, the change will allow marketers to stop focusing on vanity metrics and get to the real work of marketing, he argues.

If you heard a shriek yesterday morning, it was the sound of me finding out that Instagram has removed public like counts from posts. As an (elder) millennial, I’ve been dreading this news since whispers of it emerged in early April, and finally confirmed at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference by head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri. 

For a generation raised on constant feedback, where everything is measured and praised, likes are my lifeblood. My digital report card. We don’t just want to excel at taking photos of our lunch – we want proof that we did it better than anyone else. 

Yet this digital one-upmanship is exactly what this change is designed to combat. 

In the announcement, Mia Farlick, ANZ director of policy at Facebook, said the test is aimed to “help people focus less on likes and more on telling their story”. According to Mosseri, the test was inspired in part by the popularity of Stories and aims to refocus Instagram on self-expression instead of being a popularity contest.

From a cultural and sociological standpoint, initiatives like these are important. A March report released by the American Psychological Association found a link between the increased time spent on social media with a significant increase in rates of depression, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts and actions among people 26 and younger. A study by the Royal Society for Public Health damningly concluded that “social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis in young people”. 

If comparison is the thief of joy, then removing public likes will ostensibly make us less likely to fall into the envy-spiral said to be the root of all this anxiety and self-loathing. 

But what does this mean for people whose very livelihood is a popularity contest? 

For more than 500,000 active influencers, likes are their bread and butter. Next to their follower count, marketers and agencies like us use these like counts to gauge their typical engagement rates before we even consider reaching out. 

For brands, public like counts are even more important. Trust is the biggest hurdle in the digital space. With so many lookalike products and services, likes is a form of social proof. Is your product or service safe? Does it really live up to its hype? Has anyone else tried it? 

On this, my reaction is more sanguine.

Firstly, Instagram has assured us that the change is only a public one. A post’s creator can still open the likers window to see the names of everyone who hearted their posts, and the test will not impact measurement tools like Insights and Ads Manager. Plus, the overall like count will still impact how the algorithm ranks a post in the feed.

On the back end, nothing’s really changed.

But this de-emphasis on raw numbers could be a lifeline for marketers caught in the current obsession by well-intentioned, yet misguided, boards and senior leaders to blindly chase vanity metrics. 

For marketers, proving ROI is important, but separating the meaningful from the measurable is still a battle. Just because a “like” is an easy metric to track, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one to focus on. 

Aside from being riddled with complications like bots and fake accounts, engagement metrics don’t actually correlate with your ultimate objective of sales. 

A study conducted by Facebook and Nielsen looked at the relationship between clickthrough rate (including likes, comments and shares) and Nielsen Brand Effect Metrics (purchase intent, brand awareness and advert recall) across hundreds of brand campaigns. The results showed no significant effect of these engagements with purchase intent.

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At first blush, these results would seem to conclude that likes are pointless, though the real story is much more interesting.

Social media is far more sophisticated than just a direct-marketing channel. Smart marketers know that its power is in building relationships. This requires a full-funnel approach of creating awareness, building genuine engagement, and crafting relevant sales messages – delivered at the right time – all working in harmony (and in sequence) to drive action.

With the removal of public likes on Instagram, we will hopefully see a decline in the reposting of like-baiting memes or quotes that exists purely so the agency can maintain an ‘average like KPI’ at reporting time. 

Now, we can focus on using Instagram the way it was intended: to give your audiences a direct line into your brand’s story. To give them exclusive access, show them the people who make up your business, paint a picture of the lifestyle surrounding your product… and then earn the right to market to them through a complementary paid program or other channels and touchpoints further down the customer journey.  

As Mosseri said, removing likes from Instagram is “about creating a less pressurised environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts. 

If this means it will also remove the undue pressure of marketers chasing vanity metrics and instead focus on building genuine relationships with their audiences, then I just might be willing to let go of my personal need to compete with my partner over who had better holiday photos. Maybe.

Martin Hong is head of social and digital at Magnum & Co


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