Influencers prepare for an Instagram without likes

(Carl Court/Getty Images)

With over 23,000 followers on Instagram, Sam McAllister may not have quite as big of an audience as influencers like Kim Kardashian or Lele Pons. But one of McAllister’s major selling points has been his number of likes.

It’s not uncommon for an Instagram post from McAllister, a 23-year-old photographer, to rack up more than 1,000 likes. One breathtaking photo of a Venice, Italy canal shot from above received nearly 6,000 likes. Another shot of the Eiffel Tower topped 4,000. With that level of engagement, he’s managed to build a side hustle, doing work on paid campaigns for companies such as airline Aer Lingus and an energy drink maker.

But now, he’s wary that brands could pass him over for opportunities. In recent months, Instagram has been testing hiding likes in several countries, including Ireland, where McAllister lives, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

“The fact that my posts are massively engaged has paid off for me,” McAllister, whose day job is working at payments startup Stripe, told CNN Business. “My main concern right now is that the number of followers a user has now defaults to be the main metric.”

Instagram has framed the move as an attempt to “reduce pressure” on the platform. The thinking: not getting enough likes can negatively impact some users’ self-esteem. But with this one tweak, Instagram could rattle some social media influencers like McAllister who’ve worked to build a business on the platform, forcing them to adapt and make changes to their strategy.

“We understand that the number of likes is an important metric for many creators, and while this test is in exploratory stages, we are thinking through ways for creators to communicate value to their partners,” a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, told CNN Business.

Inside this still-nascent industry, influencers and marketers are now openly debating how detrimental the impact of this change could be. Some, like Kamiu Lee, CEO of influencer marketing platform Activate, expect it will initially create “confusion,” but she predicts the industry will “figure it out” in the long-term. Others, including Felicity Palmateer, a professional surfer from Australia with 184,000 Instagram followers, said hiding likes could make it that much harder for aspiring influencers to break into the industry.

“It sucks for people who have [high] engagement, but not as many followers,” she said. “I’d be pissed off.”

How the Instagram influencer industry works today

In just under a decade since Instagram launched, a growing number of celebrities, fitness gurus, fashion bloggers, interior designers, authors, and more have turned to the photo-centric social network to build a following and a new revenue stream. Once established on Instagram, many influencers branch out with branded content, product lines, podcasts, books, and even their own online courses on how to build a social media following.

At the heart of this industry is a simple premise: people can turn their popularity into profit. Sometimes, a lot of profit. The most highly-paid influencers such as Kylie Jenner can make more than $1 million per Instagram post, according to one report.

Brands will often partner with social media stars on sponsored Instagram posts to reach that person’s unique audience. When brands consider partnering with an influencer, they take into account factors such as likes, comments, followers and what type of content they post.

Before working with an influencer, brands typically will ask for screenshots of the influencer’s back-end Instagram analytics, which offer more in-depth information such as the age ranges and gender breakdown of their followers, which countries their audience is located in and how many accounts a certain post reached.

Lee’s firm calculates engagement by adding likes and comments divided by followers. If likes go, then the value of them will be “devalued,” Lee said. Hiding likes could create “near-term inefficiencies in how some of these deals get done,” she said.

Not all influencers are worried. As Roz Purcell, an Irish influencer with nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram, put it: “We’re all just going to have to evolve.”

Life after likes

As with so many changes in the tech industry, Instagram’s move could have wide and unknown consequences. That may range from people possibly “liking” fewer posts to making it harder to discern who bought fake followers.

Several influencers and marketers told CNN Business there is concern that hiding likes will make it harder to sniff out which accounts have bought fake followers to fraudulently inflate their popularity. Previously brands — and average users — could see that an account with one million followers only received 50 likes on a photo, and determine that its follower count was probably fake.

Instagram has been working to crack down on this practice, which is against its policies.

“When we find spammy activity, we work to counter and prevent it, including blocking accounts and removing violating content. We’re also constantly working to improve our technology in this area. … Every day we block millions of fake accounts at registration,” the Facebook spokesperson said.

Still experts see reason to be optimistic about hidden likes.

Joe Gagliese, CEO of Viral Nation, a firm that connects companies with influencers for deals, said brands should be looking beyond likes anyway. He argues they should take into account information such as the influencer’s audience demographics and how well their persona matches with the brand and its values.

“That vanity number isn’t a representation of how powerful someone can be,” he said. “Likes are a very casual form of engagement. A lot of people like stuff without even really looking at it or they’re so used to tapping the like button.”

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.