Industry commentators: Why brands, consumers are well-rid of Facebook likes

Social media marketing and industry commentators share their thoughts on Facebook's trial to remove like counts from Australian consumer feeds

News of Facebook trialling the removal of ‘likes’ counts from user feeds has come as no surprise to local social media experts and industry commentators, who welcome the move as recognition of the negative impact these platforms are having on society globally.

On 27 September, Facebook confirmed it will conduct limited tests removing visibility to like/reaction counts and video view counts from the platform, choosing Australia as its first trial market. The move sees counts restricted to the author of a post.

According to the social media giant, the trial is aimed at improving user well-being and shifting the focus from quantity to quality of interactions.

The latest test takes its cues from a similar trial announced by Facebook’s sister platform, Instagram, in July across Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Italy and Ireland. Facebook said the experiment received positive responses from users, encouraging the latest step on its core platform.

Yet as the social media company itself noted, Instagram and Facebook are different surfaces and skews in consumer data and feedback are likely. The big question is whether hiding reactions on Facebook helps people feel more comfortable sharing while not limiting their interactions.

“We want to understand from people whether removing the total counts improves their experience, while also not limiting any positive interactions,” Facebook Australia director of policy, Mia Garlick, said. “We want our platform to be a place for meaningful interactions with friends and family, and continue to invest in tools that support people’s well-being. In this test, people, businesses and creators can still see how many likes their content receives, but they will not be able to see how many likes others’ posts have received.” 

KPMG Australia Social Media Advisory co-lead, Louise Pogmore, said Facebook’s ‘thumbs up’ symbol has become synonymous with social approval and popularity, making online interactions a competition to secure the most likes, clicks and views. And it’s not a good thing.

“Social media platforms can no longer ignore the potential negative impact that level of public approval and validation can have on people’s mental health,” she told CMO. “By removing the likes, Facebook is demonstrating it is placing more value on meaningful engagement as opposed to vanity metrics.

“While there’s a lot of debate surrounding Facebook’s intent, if it helps people have a more positive experience, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Pogmore noted Facebook’s latest step comes off the back of last year’s decision to change the algorithm to favour posts encouraging meaningful interactions between people. “Removing likes is another step towards that, and businesses will have to adapt and focus on pursuing content that drives engagement, instead of chasing likes,” she said.  

Digivizer CEO, Emma Lo Russo, saw Australia as a great environment for social platforms to test the close relationships between users, influencers and brands, within a relatively small population, in order to understand the impact of changes to algorithms and information design. 

“The main thing for everyone is to understand social and digital is an ever-changing landscape, and one that will always reward if you provide your network and followers with value,” she said.

Ogilvy head of social, Alex Watts, was equally optimistic about Facebook’s test, seeing it a great move for brands and advertisers if it sticks.

“It signals a platform-level move away from vanity metrics and reinforces the future is about impactful reach, not mindless engagement,” he said. “It’s also good for consumers, because the heart of the platform isn’t the surface-level engagement we see in feed, but the strong relationships it seeks to facilitate. Whether or not that is entirely true remains to be seen.”

Hootsuite general manager for APAC, Heather Cook, was unfazed and unsurprised by Facebook’s decision to follow Instagram’s lead and hide likes on social media.

“While there will be early opposition to the move, social media content and interactions will be better for removing them,” she said. “Many industry leaders are now moving towards a for-purpose approach to business, realising commercial gains in raising the profile of corporate social responsibility initiatives through social media.  

“And while companies may continue to crave those little thumbs or love hearts for a little while longer, the value of a more meaningful approach to social media engagements will soon be clear.”  

Measures of success

Pogmore also saw it as a step in the right direction from a measurement perspective for both brands and influencers, pushing them more firmly towards sales.

“This shift further empowers marketers to stop reporting on vanity metrics, and tell more compelling stories about the actions taken from their social campaigns, and the contribution towards their business results,” she argued.

Head of social and creative at digital and social advertising boutique agency, The Wired Agency, Shae Boyer, described taking likes/reaction counts off Facebook as a bold move exhibiting some genuine sincerity to better address consumer wellbeing.

 “As a performance agency, however, we do see Facebook as a tool to drive conversions, leads and revenue. The results we are seeing for our clients on this platform are definitely strengthening, as the algorithm is refined. It is our hunch removing likes also aligns with how the platform is naturally evolving, as a place for businesses to drive ecommerce,” she said.

As a result, Boyer predicted Facebook becoming more and more of a performance marketing platform.

“Instead of brands and influencers encouraging their fanbase to comment, like and react, the use of discount codes and call to actions to drive sales, for example, will become more of a focus. When amplifying content, instead of bidding on an engagement objective, brands and influencers will be bidding for conversions,” she said. 

Initiatives like more comment/tag a friend fuelled competitions could also come to the fore, Boyer said. "We also see that brands will start benchmarking success with comments as the standout metric for engagement."

Business impact

But could it be too late for Facebook to reverse what has become a part of digitised culture? Watts doesn’t think so. He noted many people already have meaningful interpersonal interactions on social media.

“There are many brands working to create meaningful interactions with their consumers beyond that,” he said. “That means Facebook has a reasonably strong starting base in refocusing the platform. That said, removing likes is just part of the puzzle – changing the algorithm, focusing on the messaging the platform spreads, and ensuring there’s a strong emphasis on relationships in the platform, are required too.”   

Cook described a like as a reactionary, “almost ephemeral process”. “Rather than encourage discussion or sharing, the like model has instead encouraged provocation and antagonism,” she said.  

“By removing likes, how we engage with posts begins to change. The substance of an update moves front and centre. And what was a popularity contest becomes an opening for meaningful engagement." 

Whether this results in more meaningful interactions is still up for debate, but Boyer saw it as a step in the right direction, particularly when it comes to the effects of social media on mental health.

“For this reason, we don’t feel it’s too late for Facebook – a step in the right direction, is a step worth making,” she said.  

The wider social trend

Meanwhile, while hard facts about the impact of Instagram’s similar trial are yet to be released, industry commentators are not witnessing any overtly negative side effects. Pogmore, for one, saw it leading to more authentic and engaging content. Watts also reported little positive or negative impact on brands in losing the Instalike.

“The social norming effect is still in place – people can see friends who’ve engaged, as per the past – and instead, there’s more of a level playing field from a numbers perspective,” he claimed. “Beyond brands, I think anything that has a positive impact on the mental health of the user is positive. It’s just hard to tell at this point if anything has actually changed.”

There’s also the question of how other social platforms, such as Twitter, Linkedin, Tiktok and Pinterest, will be impacted by Facebook’s about face on likes. According to Watts, Facebook’s latest test in fact moves it closer to the behaviour of users on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn.

“Engagement on these platforms has a much more direct impact on how things are experienced – again, linked to the algorithm, but also to how these platforms are used,” he said. “Conversely, TikTok still has likes at the core of its platform, but it is a platform focused on play – I think it’s right for TikTok at the moment. If I were TikTok, I’d wait and see what results Facebook saw before diving into any significant changes. Facebook is the king. Everyone else is a challenger right now.”

Lo Russo also hasn’t seen any great change off Instagram Likes being removed in the usage of Instagram or in user behaviour.

“I suspect the same will happen when rolled out on Facebook. The main value is in the relationships, comments and engagements that a single post or update can create, and that is still available to the individual who posts,” she said.  

For The Wired Agency's clients, losing the like count on Instagram has actually seen positive results for engagements, Boyer noted.

"Instagram comments are now the focus, and if consumers likes a piece of content, they are more likely to comment and have their say, instead of just liking/reacting," she said.

Pogmore noted Pinterest already removed likes in 2017 after users found it confusing to distinguish between ‘like’ and ‘save’ buttons.

“The ubiquity of social media will continue to provide platforms for people to engage and interact online. The features when these platforms first launch, may become different over time,” she added.

“Like all brands, there’s a need to continue to understand and improve the user experience. It’s no surprise Facebook’s followed Instagram’s removal of likes. If the changes are done in a way that genuinely serves the wellbeing and interest of the users, then they will be for the better.”

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