neon sign, zero like count
PHOTO: Prateek Katyal

Instagram made waves in the social media marketing world when it announced it would expand its experiment to hide like counts from its users. The decision marks a significant shift in social media analytics, one in which basic vanity metrics can no longer be the driving factor for analyzing customer acceptance of a brand, product or service.

What's Instagram Without 'Likes'?

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri explained the decision at Wired 25, the technology magazine's two-day leadership symposium held in San Francisco Nov. 8 – 9. Mosseri said some users, through a gradual rollout across the US, will no longer see the "like” counter. The experiment is intended to improve the engagement quality of the platform and address some mental health issues potentially related to the overuse of social media. "The idea is to try to 'depressurize' Instagram,” said Mosseri, "make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them."

Some influencers and celebrities have been vocal against the experiment, stating that hiding the likes count may reduce engagement. Instagram has previously experimented with private like counts in other countries. 

The value of vanity metrics such as likes has been questioned over the last few years, punctuated by decisions from social media platforms to limit fake accounts and fake news in the wake of the 2016 US elections. 

Instagram is certainly not the only platform working to change. Twitter went on its own campaign to suspend abusive accounts. In a 2018 television interview on CNN, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stated that Twitter is "ready to question everything," noting how the choice to show the number of people following you on the platform — a choice that felt "small ... and felt obvious at the time" created an incentive to grow that number. He asked "is that the right incentive? ... I don't think it matters as much as how many conversations you have or how much you contribute back to the network."  

Related Article: The Rules of Social Media Marketing Success: Relationships and Trust

What Can Marketers Infer From a Like? Turns Out, Not Much

Removing likes from view has turned social media analytics on its head. Social media may only be 10 years old, but likes are well established as a social currency. The number of likes has been used as a proxy to answer the question "Should I be doing more of this kind of post or less?" But that proxy was flawed.

Likes have significant limitations as an engagement measurement. Yes, they can be a useful proxy in the very early stages of a marketing launch to gauge how an intended media — website or app — is accepted by the public, showing a degree of acceptance among people. But likes are superficial in interpreting online behavior against sales influence. They don’t explain much more than that someone responded to a given post. And in some instances, knowing the degree of that sentiment would be more helpful. Does the like signify that person is ready to buy now, or are they planning a later purchase? A like can't answer that question enough to guide any meaningful messaging strategy.  

In comparison, advanced analytics tools can apply iterative steps and inferential statistics to discover customer behaviors and opportunities richer than a like. The analysis relies on exploration of what behavior is associated with the activity. Thus developing a correlation of platform engagement to other areas of interest — such as online purchases or service requests — becomes more important for determining the value of an engagement. The wide variety of advanced analytical platforms, from SPSS to open sourced dependencies from R and Python, make such complex analysis relatively simple to implement.    

Another welcome outcome of Instagram’s decision is it discourages the questionable practice of selling likes and followers. These bad sales have dogged every one of the social media platforms, encouraging wanna-be influencers and bad entrepreneurs to buy influence instead of earning it. Hiding likes diminishes its social currency, reinforcing any "buy likes" scheme as an unethical practice. 

Most basic analytics for social media platforms offer a snapshot of visitor characteristics — which demographics are arriving on site or using an app, or where they are coming from. To take the step beyond just collecting vanity metrics, consider using those metrics to generate questions about the customer persona you seek for your product or service. Framing these questions allows you to dig deeper with advanced analytics to find answers.  

For example, let’s say Twitter analytics tells me I am attracting a Twitter following within a certain age range who share a specific interest. A next level idea is to create a sentiment analysis in R programming to see what emotion-heavy words are being said around my product (you can learn more about sentiment analysis in a previous post). Adding an advanced analysis reveals more nuanced customer behavior than would results from like counts.

Related Article: 8 Ways to Justify Your Social Media Marketing Program

This Doesn't Spell the End of Social Media Engagement

People will continue to like images, comment on posts and share videos — it’s part of a decade-long love affair the public has with social media.

But today's marketers are learning to truly separate the value from that behavior. The ultimate impact of the Instagram like experiment is brands will look to update their measurement strategy to better represent the connection between customer and brand on social  media. The recent platform adjustments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram not only signal how vanity metrics failed in that area previously, they also signal an opportunity for brands to improve their social media interactions by measuring the activity that can really inform marketing strategies.  

That opportunity is a change that everyone will probably like.