Micro Influencers see a bumpy road ahead to monetizing a like-less Instagram

In an effort to improve user experience, drive a content-focused mindset, and make its platform more transparent, Instagram is hiding its ‘like’ feature from viewers in certain countries. They are currently believed to be testing this out in India. While this development may leave many users indifferent, it seems to have polarised the influencer community.

In December 2019, 80db-Mavericks partnered with Eleve Media, a brand advocacy platform, to administer a survey amongst a cohort of 100 influencers. In order to capture an unbiased perspective of influencer sentiment towards this decision, the survey targeted a range of respondents, diversified by the type of content they post, the number of followers they have, and other platforms they operate on.

Primarily, one major group of influencers agree with this course of action and feel that likes are not an integral part of their personal brand development—tech influencers. There is a vast contrast here when we compare this to the attitude of other types of influencers such as those covering parenting or food. 

One hypothesis for this finding is the differentiated style and presentation adopted by tech influencers. This could potentially drive a content-focused approach and leave the influencer unimpacted—or even standing against—the concept of obtaining social approval through a ‘superficial’ metric of engagement such as likes.

Here’s where the core of our argument sets in. Can we actually consider likes to be a genuine indicator of influencer engagement? Or does it take away from the transparency of quality content? Here, we must factor the impact of another party that plays a critical role in the ever-growing influencer community—brands. Influencer marketing has been on a steady upward curve over the last few years, which has led brands into dedicating significant portions of their budget towards this approach. In addition to the monetary incentive, influencers also benefit from these collaborations through improved visibility.

Hiding the ‘like’ feature creates a considerable impact on brands and influencers alike. On one hand, it could provide brands with the opportunity to engage with higher quality content. On the other hand, in a data-hungry market such as India, many influencers feel that they will now have to rely on their follower count to demonstrate engagement levels and appeal to brands, thus implying that content quality takes a backseat.

The data already indicates subsequent signs of dependence on follower count after the concealment of likes. More than three-quarters of the micro-influencer group (defined here as those with less than 50,000 followers) are heavily dependent on likes and feel that the progression of likes on their posts will ultimately determine their growth curve, as well as demonstrate higher levels of engagement to brands. However, macro-influencers (defined here as those with 50,000+ followers) seem to be significantly more indifferent, as they already have their follower count to fall back upon, which in itself would showcase high engagement.

We can thus surmise that while Instagram planned to hide likes with the intention of encouraging expression and enhancing content quality amongst its users, launching this feature may not necessarily be the planned ‘step in the right direction’ for the influencer community in India. Brands play a major role in defining engagement levels, which has been heavily reliant on likes till now. A significant 64% of the influencer population feel that their negotiation with brands could be impacted by the perceived absence of likes. Thus, an underlying fear of losing out on visibility with brands has translated into a perceptible hesitance towards embracing a like-free Instagram.

Furthermore, as boosting engagement metrics—and consequently appealing to brands—moves higher up the priority list for influencers in India, diversification of social-media platforms is an anticipated trend following the rollout of a like-free Instagram. TikTok is expected to be frequented the most amongst multi-genre influencers, and a significant proportion of lifestyle influencers, while twitter appears to be a likely choice for tech influencers. That being said, most influencers plan to remain loyal to Instagram, even after they announced this initiative. This suggests that diversifying may purely be precautionary, or to make use of a secondary platform with a higher display of engagement metrics.

So, what can we expect from brands in a future with hidden likes? Brands in India would probably place new value on followers, comments, and hashtags. The lack of a fixed engagement marker such as likes may lead to a shift towards a loyalty-based model between brands and influencers, where long-term partnerships are formed on the basis of perceived engagement.

In an idealistic scenario, some would still like to believe that original content will become the top priority for brands, where genuineness and transparency trump everything else. Needless to say, the prospect of a like-free Instagram has certainly divided our influencer community and is likely to be a heated subject of debate over the coming months.

The author Rohan Modwel, is research specialist – Mavericks