A digital frontier
I tried to picture clusters of information
As they moved through the computer
What do they look like?
With the circuits like freeways
I kept dreaming of a world
I thought I’d never see
And then, one day
I pulled out”
While being a quick adaptation of a sci-fi movie score, it fits the last few weeks of social media news.
Mark Zuckerberg started his keynote on Facebook’s F8 with a mantra: “The Future is Private”. He went on explaining how Facebook was created to be a digital representation of a town square. In them, people are able to share their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs.
But the truth is, no one wants to be “that public” anymore. Conversations have been shifting from the town square to the living room, as Mark puts it. The analogy refers to the private conversation apps available in the Facebook ecosystem. These are Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, and WhatsApp.
The theory, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism says, is simple. Over time, Facebook networks have become so big that people no longer feel comfortable sharing content openly. Mark also thickens the plot by saying that people prefer ephemeral content (stories) and private feedback.
So, the claim is that the future is private, cool. What do likes have to do with it?
Rings a bell? Adam Mosseri is Instagram’s CEO, a former high-rank product exec at Facebook. He was Instagram’s VP Product before taking the company lead.
There’s a big advantage of having a product person on stage, despite their current title. They speak to and for the user.
Adam started by following Mark’s approach to private communication. A good insight was that people really valued stories (ephemeral content) due to private feedback loops. You see, when you reply to a story you’re privately messaging to someone. The feedback is private, it’s a safe space, it’s people first.
These smaller spaces feel much less pressurized than previous formats, the town squares. In fact, users in close-knit groups (close friends) share more and their stories get more responses.
The winds of change blew when Adam mentioned likes and follower counts. He said they’ll be testing hiding the “like” count from photos and remove viewership numbers from videos. The goal? One, to get users to pay more attention to the content itself. Two, to rein in competitive tendencies and make the experience a little “less pressurized.”
So, moving forward, if the test goes as intended, as you scroll through your feed, you won’t see like counts. You’ll see that Anna and others liked your photo, but now many of them.
The year was 2009. Tesla had just released its first car. DNA tests began being sold retail. Uber was founded. iPad didn’t exist.
Neither did Instagram. But Facebook did.
On February 9, 2009, the like button was launched. The purpose was simple: to allow users to easily and quickly interact with updates, comments, photos and videos of their friends.
Beyond a button, the like was basilar for the newsfeed algorithm development. Amongst others, it was a primary social signal of whether the content was engaging or not.
And brands and publishers understood quickly understood that. Soon, every social marketer, every audience developer, every person with a social presence was fighting for likes.
Presentations, reports, investment pitches, all of them had some sort of “social validation” to them.
The like was important, it still is. But what if it disappears? What if news articles are liked by people and not by 14,000 people?
What happens when a video has views instead of 1.4M views? Is it still viral then? For whom?
Replacing or removing engagement metrics will only be a blow for those who still look at it as a social media success.
If we continue to think that most sharing occurs privately, we come to a very simple conclusion. There are no likes in private conversations. The person on the other side is validation itself.
In a newsfeed scenario, I may need the wisdom of the crowd (and of the feed) to verify the relevance of a piece of content.
However, if Sophie shares that same content privately to me, I’ll consider such share already vetted. I’ll consider that Sophie believes that I’d be happy to know/read whatever she’s sharing.
Ultimately, a close friend is still going to beat the best feed algorithm available.
But in a world where the like disappears, how does social distribution work?
It’s very common to look at social analytics platforms and identify the #1 metric for success: engagement. Most of these platforms gather and aggregate platform data and present some sort of insights from it.
But in a post-world where engagements are hidden, which metrics should marketers look at? How do we measure social media success?
Our vision relies on loyalty. Loyalty to brands, to their content, by their users. And to track loyalty one cannot depend on publicly available data.
If social is going private, a good place to start is by understanding private social engagement. We’ve written extensively about dark social, what it is and why it is important to track.
Understanding user recirculation is another very good sentiment for loyalty. Identifying which content pieces drive your audience growth is fundamental in a like-free world.
Finally, we must look at platforms are the sparkles, not the fuel of digital conversations. We now know that conversations are happening 1-to-1 or 1-to-few in these silos. WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, millions of very active (yet small) groups.
However, content discovery still happens elsewhere, normally in a public setup. So what’s our suggestion? Track, understand, automate.
To start a buzz in private messaging apps, you first need to identify the best possible content to feature in your public channels. Understanding how many dark social & private shares your content has is crucial for this analysis. Tracking the impact of those shares provides you better answers even.
The second thing you must do is to find engagement patterns and get timely information on what’s getting viral. A notification/alerts system is the best way to achieve this. Define what success looks like for you and make sure you get a notification when something’s picking up.
In a post-like world, managing social profiles will be a task of the past. Instead, make sure you have the processes for #1 and #2 streamlined and automated. Start by having 2-3 posts per day automatically distributed on your social profiles. These posts should be the ones who are most likely to drive private conversations. Don’t forget to track impact along the way.
The future of social is private.
We must understand and accept that conversations are shifting from public to private. We shouldn’t panic: plan, adapt, overcome.
If likes disappear from social, the paradigm shifts. We need to create new metrics for social media success. Recirculation, user loyalty, and dark social sharing are good places to start.
You can win the private conversation game in three steps:
Other great posts about the end of likes on Instagram:
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