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How an Instagram Design Change Could Impact an Entire Industry

By Alex Colletta

Instagram is testing a new design in Canada. The photo sharing app has grown in popularity in part by allowing users to click Like on a photo. The new design would hide the number of Likes on any given post. But those Likes have become a kind of currency, giving rise to an entire industry of professional instagrammers—or influencers. Some estimates say the influencer marketing industry will be worth $10 billion by 2020. Alex Colletta has more on how the new design could disrupt that industry.

COLLETTA: An event launching is about to start at the Times Square Edition hotel. A horde of stylish men and women surround the black marble bar. On the other side of the room, shelves with crystal decanters filled with whiskey. A group sits on a leather couch to the left, discussing a deal that’s almost closed. It smells like money and perfume. Instagram personality Gergana Ivanova is here. As a fashion blogger, she wears a lot of different hats—no pun intended.

IVANOVA: Influencer, blogger, there’s so many different titles going around. I also do consulting and I’m getting into fashion design. (0:09)

Ivanova is based in New York and says she’s been a full-time influencer for the past two years. Her instagram profile—@fashionismyfortee—has 230 thousand followers. Brands like Neutrogena, Coach, and Pantene pay her to promote their products. In a recent photo, she displays a leopard-print high-heeled sandal. The photo is tagged with the brand Steve Madden. It has 2,400 Likes.

IVANOVA: I pretty much spend all day, seven days a week doing it. (0:03)

The influencer market has exploded in the last few years. Ivanova says she can’t disclose her rates. But the job of an influencer can be an attractive one. According to Statistica, the market size has more than doubled since 2017. Hiring influencers has become a marketing strategy for all sorts of brands, including fashion, cosmetics, travel, and more.

IVANOVA: A lot of times it’s more about awareness because it’s hard to measure directly how many pieces sold or how many people engaged with it. (0:08)

Now, measuring the success of using an influencer might be even harder. That is if Instagram moves forward with its new design, which hides Likes from users. The only person who can see the number of likes is the one who posted the content, which might make it more difficult for brands that partner with influencers to track the success of a post.

Amy Marietta is an influencer but she prefers the term content creator—she feels it’s less pretentious. Like Ivanova, she partners with brands like Johnnie Walker and the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.  She’s based in LA and her account—@amy underscore marietta—has 133 thousand followers. She says someone with her following can expect to make about $20k a month from sponsored posts, commercials, and event appearances. She says brands aren’t too concerned about Likes. They have other ways of getting the data they need.  

MARIETTA: I don’t think that’s really important to them, to be honest. Because I always have to report after with a screenshot of my impressions and reach and saves, all my insights. And I think the reach is what they care more about, like how many people saw it. (0:16)

Reach refers to the number of Instagram users who see a post. Impressions means the number of a times one person sees a post.

Instagram already has a feature where users are unable to click Like. Stories—a post with a photo, video, or just text that lasts for 24 hours. Instead of Likes, brands track how many users click to their websites or profiles. But that’s for brands. For new influencers, losing Likes might have a bigger impact.

MARIETTA: I think if they’re not already working with brands, it could be difficult. (0:05)

Instagram wants to determine how engaged users are with photos. One way to do that is measuring Likes. The more engaged users are with a post, the more likely Instagram is to put that post at the top of other user’s feeds. But the formula for Instagram’s algorithm is a secret.  Marietta, an established influencer, says that’s what she struggles with most.

MARIETTA: It’s like so annoying. It’s like the first fifteen minutes, and if people comment more than four words, it shows they’re engaging so it’s better for the algorithm. (0:13)

The most important part of her job is engagement. If Likes are taken away, how would Instagram’s algorithm change? It’s already a mystery.

MARIETTA: There was no pressure in the beginning to post every day. That’s another thing about the algorithm, you have to post every day to stay relevant and you basically get penalized if you don’t.

COLLETTA: So you like can’t take a break then?

MARIETTA: No, not if you want your numbers to keep going well. (0:20)

Sarah Stannard is a social media manager for Lafayette 148, a fashion company based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard called Lafayette 148. She hires a lot of influencers for her company’s marketing campaigns. First and foremost, she looks for personalities who are a good fit for the brand and will engage a lot of users. Engagement rate determines how much interaction users are having with the content, like photos of the thousand-dollar leather jackets or three-hundred dollar sweaters her brand makes. She says Likes are only a small part of that equation—and there actually is an equation.

STANNARD: It’s Likes plus Comments divided by Following times 100. And that’s how you get the percentage of engagement rate. (0:09)

So, what happens if Likes are taken out of the equation? Stannard says that advertisers, brands, and markets would have to think of other solutions.

STANNARD: I think as a brand you’ll probably just ask influencers for more information. Screenshots of their analytics or something. I just think it’s going to be a little more work on both ends. (0:12)

If it does become harder for influencers to grow without Likes, female entrepreneurship could take a hit. Stannard says Instagram has been instrumental in empowering women in business.

STANNARD: It really has encouraged women specifically to kind of follow what they want to do and become entrepreneurs and start businesses because they don’t have to depend on investors or VCs or anything to fund something now. They have a following to be able to help to do that. (0:20)

But still, Stannard says that hiding Likes is a good idea for influencers and regular users. She says it would take some of the pressure off worrying about how posts are received.

STANNARD: People are kind of revolving their lives around likes and acceptance from other people from your phone screen and it’s not necessarily healthy. And even being involved in it, I think everyone knows it’s not how we should be living our lives. (0:08)

Gergana Ivanova, the New York City influencer, agrees. She says hiding Likes would give Instagram users a more genuine experience.

IVANOVA: Maybe if likes weren’t there, more people would actually follow you for you and not because someone else is following you or not because this account’s famous I have to follow it. (0:08)

Instagram did not respond to a request for comment. There’s been no word on how long the design test will run—or whether the company plans to test it in the United States.

Alex Colletta, Columbia Radio News.

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