Instagram threw the world of influencers into tizzy this week when it announced that it may no longer publicly display how many likes each post gets. Some Canadians get to be the guinea pigs, but this initiative has a chance to go systemwide.

“We are testing this because we want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get,” an Instagram spokesman told TechCrunch.

Beyond The Like

Well, good. For once, something from Facebook that I can applaud (sigh, it’s been a while). In this case, it’s time we moved beyond the Like stage in our increasingly complicated relationship with social media. And I’m not alone in this thinking.

“We’ve always seen likes as the least interesting metric,” said Beca Alexander, president of Socialyte, which represents about 100 mostly Instagram influencers, and also advises brands on influencer strategy. Alexander has been around social media since 2007, about as long as social media has existed. And yes, the Instagram change means a couple of Socialyte’s clients “are freaking out. They get a lot more likes” than other signs of user engagement and reach.

They need to get over it, and so does the rest of the Instagram universe. I mean, have you seen the way a teenager goes through her Insta-feed? As Alexander put it, “scroll, double-tap, scroll, double tap.”

This is not what any rational human, or brand marketer considering ponying up big dollars for an influencer deal, would call substantive engagement.

In part, the change is a result of what Alexander calls “a wall between content creators and their audiences,” erected by Facebook and Instagram to basically kill off organic reach and extract more ad dollars from brands. Likes don’t matter much if you have to pay Instagram to reach people anyway.

But it also means Instagram is silently acknowledging the deeply corrupted ecosystem of fake followers, fake likes, and fake comments that’s accreted around the yuckier corners  of its red-hot platform, as well as on other major influencer site.

Engagement. Engagement. Engagement.

Donald Trump, for instance, met last week with Twitter CEO Jack “One Meal A Day” Dorsey on a range of issues, but mostly ended up complaining about why he doesn’t have more followers. Dorsey got to explain how many fakes, bots, and other fraudulent followers are infesting the president’s feed. As Twitter keeps zapping them, Der Donald doesn’t get the follower growth he considers commensurate with his august personage, but hey, it beats having to answer a bunch of subpoenas.

It’s not much better on Instagram, which is far larger than Twitter, but no less infested. Like most brands and other reputable influencer-marketing consultants, Alexander is quick to say her agency won’t work with influencers who puff up their followings with fake accounts, use chatbots to generate faux comments, or otherwise try to manipulate perceptions of their popularity.

So, let the likes go, and while you’re at it, get rid of the public follower counts, and dump the comments too. From a brand standpoint, most IG comments are worthless, or at least off point, Alexander suggests. A photo of an influencer in jeans spawns few comments about the jeans, but plenty about how pretty the influencer is, how great her hair and makeup are, or questions about where she got her blouse. Useless for the jeans maker.

“Followers is not an important metric any more because what’s really important is how many people view the content and how many people actually engage with that,” Alexander said.

Brands care far more about how many people are saving the image, because they’ll keep seeing the image over and over, or are swiping up to actually buy a pair. Marketers call this return on investment.

Netflix’s Ongoing Relationship With Displaying Audience Engagement

Of course, subscription-driven Netflix is considering going the opposite way, experimenting with Top 10 lists to signal what everyone else is watching. Long tight-lipped about viewership, even to its shows’ creators, Netflix is also talking more about its biggest hits in news releases and earning calls.

Netflix executives said they’re trying to capture that group of audience members who decide what to watch based on what’s popular. That encourages more viewership of Netflix blockbusters. More importantly, it probably builds a sense of event programming/zeitgeist surfing/water-cooler sharing that’s otherwise almost absent when you’re flailing about in the streaming giant’s vast library.

But as in so many other areas, Netflix isn’t representative of general trends. Online publishing seems to be shifting away from scale for scale’s sake, spending less time pursuing likes and shares and more time building tightly defined audiences willing to buy a subscription, go to live events, purchase merchandise and otherwise directly support a site.

A Potential Future That’s More Likable With Less To Like

A smart Medium piece a couple of weeks back suggested that in the early gold-rush days of the current Internet era, many publishers were distracted by the huge influx of venture capital that fed many upstart sites.

Vice, Vox, Buzzfeed, Mic, Gizmodo, Gawker, Recode, MCNs like Maker and Machinima, and other sites fattened up on cash from Hollywood strategic investors such as Disney, Warner Bros., NBCU, CAA, WME, and UTA as well as more traditional Silicon Valley venture-capital funds. But to reach scale and lock up readers, sites gave away the news stories, videos and other content they so laboriously had created. They were all betting that ad revenues would eventually scale up and pay for everything.

That hasn’t happened. The only platforms scoring big in the free-content era were Google and Facebook, and their subsidiaries YouTube and Instagram. Now, more sites are trying to connect directly with audiences, providing far more of what those readers want, for a reasonable price that sustains the best and smartest of the content creators.

All of which brings us back to Instagram and those in-a-tizzy influencers and brands. It’s time to focus on more important metrics, like saves and swipe-ups, that show people really care enough about your brand (or your client’s brand) to maybe buy something.

Accept that the process of finding online partners will be more complicated, and involve a lot more sharing of back-end data not available directly to outsiders. And accept that future influencer deals will probably come with contract provisions for minimum performance, and the possibility of make-goods, the way old-school broadcasters have been doing for decades.

And give thanks that we’re finally taking a step forward in our relationship with social media and influencers, toward more honesty and a clearer understanding of who’s doing what for whom, and  what really matters. That can only be a good thing.

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