Instagram has grown into one of the most popular social media platforms in recent years, and now boasts a billion monthly users. Part of this success is due to the method and options for promotion and advertisement that the platform gives brands.

However, this could be about to change in a substantial way.

Currently, Instagram users see a running "like" counter below a post. However, an on-going trial that’s being run across several countries is testing whether the removal of this total helps to ease the social pressures that these kind of ‘vanity metrics’ place on users.

The changes aim to promote greater authenticity on the platform and move towards an increased use of intent and impact metrics as measurements of user engagement. It’s what Mark Zuckerberg describes as more ‘meaningful interactions’.

The full effect this ‘Instagram blackout’ will have on both brands and influencers is uncertain, but it’s already looking set to change the way in which influencer marketing operates.

The difficulty for micro-influencers

We think there is definitely a risk that this step back to ‘pseudo-private’ social networking on Instagram will make it harder for influencers to get brand deals. The blackout could essentially eliminate the social proof of engagement. However, it is important to remember that influencers will still be able to view the like tally.

Going forward, influencers may have to provide this statistic, (together with insights such as story views, post impressions and post interactions) to brands to demonstrate their levels of engagement. This could become a standard approach, though if using the Brand Collabs Manager, this data could be available directly to brands.

The blackout isn’t likely to affect levels of engagement for influencers with an established following, as their audiences and brands will already be aware of their presence in the social media sphere. It is the long-term impact on micro-influencers, however, that would be far more pronounced. Without the upfront like metric, it’s becoming particularly difficult for brands to gauge the impact less-well known influencers are having.

Will content creation be prioritised?

The move also has the potential to affect how brand and influencer relationships are established.

With the blackout in place, brands would have less information available to evaluate whether an influencer is suitable, creating a shift of power from influencers to brands. Instead of always being approached by brands, influencers may decide to go to the brands themselves and pitch, evidencing their engagement. The current trend of using influencers as a form of advertisement for products could also start to see a loss in its effectiveness.

Instagram has also introduced branded content ads. This enables brands to use the Ads Manager and promote an influencer's branded post, allowing the brand to scale posts beyond the influencer's audience. Brands could choose to redirect their budget to Instagram advertising in order to increase transparency and benefit from the detailed analysis that the branded content Ads Manager provides.

Brands may also subsequently look to realign themselves with talented content creators, rather than influencers with large followings, in order to be able to scale well-designed and engaging content.

Changing the rules of engagement

So, will this mean that influencers are expected to diversify the content they post to encourage more genuine user interactions through comments (which many brands want), as well as providing a better user experience?

Prior to the blackout, any form of engagement either in the form of a like, comment, or follow equated to an individual's success or popularity. Therefore the overall consensus of placing less emphasis on the likes counter is only a good thing from a mental health point of view.

We know that Instagram heavily relies on the number of likes to run algorithms to predict how much users cared about a post. When a post received a large amount of likes and comments, the algorithm identified it as an engaging post. Without the likes counter, there is a lack of visibility as to how posts will be prioritised in a user's Instagram feed. This is concerning for brands and influencers who depend on reach for advertising, and they may now feel forced to use the branded Ads Manager in order to continue to influence a wide audience.

An emerging market leader?

As we saw with Myspace and Vine, platforms can come and go and businesses such as Instagram need to constantly reposition themselves to stay current.

Looking forward, it is clear that Instagram's e-commerce capabilities are beginning to thrive. The branded content Ads Manager is intended to benefit brands, which may be able to edit the content creator's caption or even target the influencer’s audience specifically when using Ads Manager in the future.

The platform is also looking at introducing "creator accounts" for influencers, which will offer more insights about its audience. Furthermore, a checkout feature is being trialled to sit within the creator account profile (this has only been made available to brands up until now), which would allow users to buy products directly through an influencer's post. As a result, the relationship between influencers and brands may shift again and click and sales will be the metrics that matter.

If Instagram's plan to create its own e-commerce platform is successful, it could become more popular than brand-owned sites for online shopping and impact the way users shop online.

We think it is crucial that brands and influencers diversify the methods by which they advertise and use Instagram to their full advantage.