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Goodbye, Instagram Likes! Hello, Real Social Proof!

The news broke late in April that Instagram is likely hiding the public “Like” count from posts. The plan is being tested in Canada, in which only users can see how many Instagram likes a post earns from followers. It’s causing an uproar among popular influencers and the companies who sponsor them. This leads us to a discussion of what genuine engagement looks like, and the importance of social proof in business and sales.

What We Know So Far

This article by Later.com summarizes what is known about the program so far. If you’re an Instagram user, you will be able to see how many likes your posts receive, but your followers won’t. Even then, you’ll need to click an additional link under your post to see your likes total.

Mark Zuckerberg himself, CEO of Instagram’s parent company Facebook, has said he wants users to post authentic content without dwelling on the number of likes, which are inauthentic and draw users into a competition; “We want people to be less interested in how many likes a post gets, and focus more on connecting with other people.”

Reactions

The biggest block of users affected by this change, from a business standpoint, are the “influencers.” Influencers are the ones who build huge followings, then land sponsorships from companies to recommend their products. Almost everyone agrees that the Like count on posts are easy to fake, and don’t fully reflect what followers really feel about them. However, they’re the easiest metric to measure.

The Later.com article goes on to say:

“In 2019, brands care more about reach and engagement rate than they do followers, so without the ability to publicly view an influencer’s likes (aka their engagement), it could make it harder to gauge how engaged their community is. Suddenly, a good influencer media kit is now deemed essential.

Lia Haberman, formerly VP Audience Development at Livestrong, notes that hidden likes could result in a spending shift away from influencer marketing and towards paid advertising on Instagram. ‘This will likely increase the amount of ads as brands look for more exposure and make it difficult for anyone but established influencers to get a foot-hold.’”

In my previous article about Instagram marketing, I emphasized that paid advertising and sponsorships are only beneficial to large companies, and that small businesses and the self-employed are better off using organic reach. I also cautioned, referencing some experts, not to “buy” followers or likes, because such metrics aren’t real and will disappear once you stop paying the companies providing them.

Indeed, when I search for “Instagram likes” in Google, over half of the first page results are for those sketchy firms selling likes. Instagram and Facebook have long wanted to crack down on the practice, and the new change is probably the way they do it.

Reactions from users other than influencers are very positive. Social media has long been blamed for self-esteem problems. From a CNN article: “‘Likes are powerful because they are immediate feedback,’ said Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. ‘In a way, likes give you the same kind of hit like a gambler gets at a slot machine.'”

Comparison, envy, and insincerity are facts of life on Instagram. Although its content is overwhelmingly positive compared to Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to feel inadequate looking at someone else’s beautifully presented feed. It’s easy to forget that everyone cherry-picks the best parts of their day, and their best selfies, to share on the network. The rest their everyday lives may be filled with struggle and heartbreak.

Also, without the pressure to compete for likes, users will be free to post more authentic and creative posts. I first heard the news about the hidden likes from YouTuber Roberto Blake. Blake feels that followers’ comments are a much better indicator of a post’s influence. There is much more information in comments than in likes. Influencers can still share their profile analytics with brand sponsors, so they needn’t worry too much about their careers.

Blake also says removing public likes will make it easier for smaller users to break out. Often, if users see that a post has a huge number of likes already, it will gain even more through a bandwagon mentality. It’s too easy for a lucky few influencers to dominate the platform. This opens up a discussion about social proof that I’ll get to later.

“Likes” On Other Platforms

Blake goes on to suggest that YouTube get rid of its own likes display in key sections of its site. When visitors see that a video has a large number of likes and views from the homepage, they judge it to be quality content before actually viewing it. It’s a lazy way to search for content, and punishes newer, smaller channels trying to break out in the same way it happens on Instagram.

Let’s go over likes, as well as reviews on other social media platforms and online marketplaces. As a WordPress user, I see reviews all the time when I’m looking for a new plugin to use. Plugins are made by 3rd party developers and are available in the WordPress Repository. They add functionality to the sites I make for myself and clients.

Plugins in the Repository have scores, written reviews, and numbers showing how many times they’ve already been downloaded. I confess, I’ve sometimes chosen one plugin over another because more people use it, but it’s beneficial to look at the scores and read what other people say about them. Some plugins become runaway hits thanks to word of mouth and the social proof shown in the repository display.

Amazon works in much the same way. It allows for customers to write reviews of products. It’s good marketing to convince initial users to write favorable reviews, which encourages more people to buy that product and tell Amazon’s algorithm to feature higher in the search results, or even the homepage.

How Social Proof Helps Your Business

When you launch a product or service, you need an initial marketing push, then you need early customers and reviewers to say nice things about it. Since the start of 2019, I’ve studied why certain companies become huge while most others struggle. I’ve learned that the successful ones create a feedback loop of satisfied customers, good reviews, increased trust in the brand, more satisfied customers, and on and on.

What Businesses Should Do

With Instagram hiding the public likes from its feed, marketplaces should now reconsider what kind social proof is presented. Whether on Amazon or in YouTube, it doesn’t always benefit the customer to see what’s popular. A product or article should meet customers’ individual needs. I feel Google Search is better at finding relevant content for users. And content is the key. Going back to Roberto Blake’s preference for user comments, we can learn much more about creation from the audience’s words than a binary response such as like or dislike.

User reviews tell us the “how” and “why” of business’ benefits. If you’re having a website built for your small business or your digital product, get some testimonials from previous clients, or ask them to review you on Google or Facebook. There are WordPress plugins that let visitors write reviews right on your own site, or import them from other platforms.

Fighting The 80/20 Rule

There is a lot of talk about income inequality and what to do about it. Political commentators fret over how to increase opportunity for everyone besides the “1%.” The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, says that 80% of wealth is held by 20% of people. That 20% are the ones who stumble on just the right feedback loop to grow their customer base. I don’t agree with wealth redistribution because it’s code for communism, but I do feel that regular folks need a better chance at prosperity. Without the strict number value of likes, and more focus on qualitative comments, we can promote individualism and diversity in the marketplace.

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