What motivates someone to like something on Instagram? On a very basic level, a person taps “like” or “thumbs up” to show support or encouragement.

But researchers at Pennsylvania State University suggest there's more to be said about who we follow and what we like on social networks like Instagram — and that there is actionable information for marketers to learn from the data.

The importance of affirmative support from customers and potential customers can't be overestimated, Dongwon Lee, an associate professor at Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology told CMSWire.

“Once we understand better how likes are being made and when and why, businesses can use such findings to improve users experiences or to design better social network sites,” he said.

The Value of Social Relationships

In research called Likes R Us, Lee and his colleagues are working to understand the mysteries of the social media "like" buttons.

social media relationships

"In particular, the Like-mediated interactions imply personal preference or interest to the contents. Unlike the friendship- or followship- based relationships ... they do not necessarily require a pre-existing relationship, which can be initiated by anyone who accesses and has interests in any types of media posted by others," they explained.

Lee has found likes or interests around similar content create valuable (commercially) social relationships.

“Part of the goal in my Likes R Us project is to understand human behaviors through the lens of 'likes' in particular,” Lee said.

This is perhaps where marketers see a lot of success in influencer marketing or endorsed products on social media. Since its founding in 2010, for example, Instagram has built a social media channel that draws more than 400 million active users who share some 80 million photos and videos a day on average.

Not only is that a lot of content, but that means a lot of engagement, interactions and relationships.

Instagram On Top?

This month, we covered changes Instagram has made to its algorithm to display important content at the top of users’ feeds — which means the power of likes and shares has magnified.

Theoretically, posts that see a lot of activity get placed higher in users’ news feeds, giving businesses and brands greater incentive to produce quality, engaging content on a consistent basis.

Yet the latest numbers from analytics firm Quintly show likes and comments on celebrity and brand accounts dropped by an average of 27 percent between March 2015 and March 2016. Videos fell by 39 percent in that same one-year period. Some attribute it to a growing user base and more competition to attract likes and comments.

The Likes R Us Project

Lee’s group collected behavioral data on Instagram and tracked likes, follows and followers, comments and tags. But it also looked at Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr and a few other platforms.

Lee said it focused on Instagram because of its popularity, activity levels and easy-to-access API for data collection.

“While prior research has studied human behaviors in terms of how users make friends, how to follow others and what content to generate, our project is the first to study the focus of likes, (as well as) how and why users like (and differences in) behaviors across age groups triggered by likes and how to improve applications by exploiting likes,” Lee said.

According to the findings, about 50 percent of likes a user receives are from strangers, with the rest coming from his or her followers or followers of followers.

Lee’s team also discovered a positive correlation to the number of likes and the number photos a person posts, how many followers he or she has and the level of interaction. However, there was no correlation with the number of people the person follows.

“When one wants to increase his or her number of likes, following other famous Instagram users probably won't help increase the number of likes,” he said.

Instagram habits vary by age. According to Lee, teens — those ages 13 to 19 — like and interact very differently from adults ages 30 to 39. Because of that, Lee’s team was able to predict a user’s age with up to 82 percent accuracy.

On average, teens post fewer photos than adults but interact more frequently, leaving comments, liking and using tags, Lee said. Adult users, on the other hand, tend to post photos of more diverse topics than teens, he added.

And this may not come as a surprise, but research also found teens are more likely to delete photos with fewer likes than adults.

Title image by Braydon Anderson