It was the spring of 2019 when Instagram decided to try this out; a controversial experiment in seven countries that involved hiding how many likes a photo has from everyone except the user who posted the photo. Later the same year, the experiment expanded globally and the number of likes began to disappear from users around the world. Of course, it’s a big shift. In its aesthetic language it promises us a much more inclusive, less competitive digital space. It reminds us about the intimacy, authenticity and the ‘getting real’ moments that we have neglected. For brands and influencers however, the monotonous digital heartbeat of the platform has gained a different kind of currency: a quantitative metric for success, credibility and validation.
But if every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then every decision made by a big tech company must have an ulterior motive. So, are we supposed to LIKE or disLIKE what Instagram are doing?
What does ‘Like’ mean to us?
At first, a ‘Like’ was simple. It expressed genuine emotions towards a post; a way to say ‘this is cool’. Today, it has become many different things, moving far beyond the lines of ‘this is cool’ thanks to Instagram’s algorithm and the rise of influencer culture. For regular users, the ‘like’ functions as a digital approval, a form of unpredictable reward for their digital selves, proliferating the culture of validation with the platform’s algorithm slyly encouraging us to ‘double tap’ on everything it wants us to. For brands, it has become a digital metric for its success and quality, almost a scientific predictor of how well a given product will perform. So, it’s not overly surprising that the platform wants to strip off some of its power... or is it?
The motive behind the change
Instagram says that this new approach is a positive one. A step forward to a more inclusive, less insecure, digital environment, and a new way of making the platform look more responsible. As the Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said: “The idea is to try and depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition, give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, and things that inspire them.” It all sounds very kind-hearted in theory, but it can be argued that it’s also a move against falling engagement and an act of encouraging users to spend more time on the platform, therefore being exposed to more ad content. The question, however, remains how will this sudden change influence brands?
What does it mean for brands?
Instagram claims that, if anything, the new feature should improve brand engagement. The shift could be a new wave of a more authentic engagement, with higher-quality content and greater brand transparency, but it’s a challenge. One that requires brands to stop chasing the vanity metric of numbers of likes, and instead step back and revisit their engagement and content strategies. So, how will brands adapt to a post-like Instagram?
Sophisticated Creativity: Brands will need to think harder about what resonates with the audience and get smarter about the content they publish. The days of capitalising on the hive-mind mentality with the aim to generate likes when designing content will be over; more meaningful, authentic and compelling content that sparks a two-way communication is more likely to dominate the brand and audience ecosystem on the platform. In the property industry, we are expecting to see more community-focused content in a form of videos and interactive conversation-sparking Instagram Stories.
Interruption of Aspirational Feeds: The brand influence is more likely to lie in the art of relatability. The deceptive concept of ‘more inclusive, less competitive’ Instagram combined with Generation Z rejecting ‘the perfectly curated feed’ is more likely to result in the Instagram aesthetic slowly disappearing. We are expected to see raw, unfiltered, conversation-driven content with comments more likely to be replacing likes. Moving away from perfectly positioned bedroom images to a more relatable, educational and informative content, that generates discussion in the comments section, might be the next Instagram aesthetic of housebuilder accounts.
Measure and Investment of the Digital Pulse: This move away from vanity metrics offers opportunities for brands to reconsider an audience’s involvement and investment. Without an obvious engagement metric for validation of ideas and content, brands will need to start setting more meaningful business objectives around actions that indicate engagement and focus on better measurement - comments, shares, ‘swipe ups’, saves, clicks, mentions and time spent on the platform.
From Digital Likes to Digital Communities: Brands will need to work harder at creating and building an involved Instagram community. They will need to incorporate strategies that focus on organic relationship building, prioritise content and messages that create meaningful and long lasting connections as well as posting more frequently. In the property market, the community of new homeowners on Instagram is growing everyday, and finding ways of how to nurture and engage with them should be the leading strategy in a ‘like-free’ Instagram.
Let’s ‘double tap’ for this change
This change can only be understood in binary terms. It has the virtue of being both, an overly exaggerated and merely misunderstood matter. While there is undoubtedly a corporate motive behind this move that’s being justified with mental wellbeing concerns, it’s also virtue-signaling, a small acknowledgment from the platform to say that there is hope. Perhaps changing the act of liking something into an intimate experience will create a more positive digital space for everyone. For a while, the corporation-driven narrative of a digital like will find its way to dictate the success and validation of influencers and users. But for brands, it seems an exciting way forward, so let’s raise our phones and double tap for this change one last time.
Zane Osina - Social Media Executive