The End of the Instagram Influencer (As We Know It)

Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, has had it with influencers, at least as many of them stand on the service now. They’ve taken strong action to nullify the automated tactics of many Instagram influencers. The collateral damage? Like its parent, Instagram will be far more pay-to-play for brands and businesses. The free ride is over.

The situation today

Today’s Instagram influencers are driven by the same primitive social media metrics as early influencers on Twitter and Facebook were driven by:

  • Big follower counts
  • Simple engagement numbers like Likes

As a result, software developers began to game the system:

  • They wrote bots that automatically like any photo with certain keywords and hashtags.
  • They created scripts that leave templated responses – sometimes deeply inappropriate – on posts, without taking into account context
  • They download data and then resell it against Instagram’s Terms of Service

Most of all, today’s Instagram influencers commit the greatest sin in social media marketing: they don’t give Mr. Zuckerberg his cut of the proceeds. Instagram influencers charge thousands, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to work with brands, but less-than-above board tactics like the aforementioned automation use the service without paying back into it.

Facebook has had enough.

What’s changed?

In developer notes release, Facebook announced changes to the Instagram API, that involve the removal of many features of the old Instagram API including:

  • Follower List – to read the list of followers and followed-by users
  • Relationships – to follow and unfollow accounts on a user’s behalf
  • Commenting on Public Content – to post and delete comments on a user’s behalf on public media

These first removals took place on July 31, 2018.

Additional features were removed on December 11, 2018:

  • Commenting – to post and delete comments on a user’s behalf on owned media
  • Public Content – to read any public profile info and media on a user’s behalf
  • Likes – to like and unlike media on a user’s behalf

These changes to the Instagram API take a square shot at every influencer who is using today’s crop of extensive automation to artificially boost their following without paying Facebook for the privilege.

History repeats

Facebook also added tons of new features in its new Instagram Graph API to force influencers and brands to use Instagram Business accounts:

  • Analytics and metrics for Business Pages will receive priority in the Insights API
  • Content publication and automation will be available to Business accounts first, with individual accounts receiving some features in 2019
  • Business discovery – search – via API will be available only to Instagram Business accounts

Does any of this sound familiar? This is history repeating itself. Facebook pushed businesses from using personal profiles into Business Pages, then changed the game on businesses to force them to a pay-to-play model. They’re doing it again with Instagram by pushing brands and influencers to Business Accounts – and bet a thumb-shaped doughnut that down the road, the algorithm will ratchet down Business Account visibility without pay.

Influencers who want to remain relevant need to switch to Business Accounts and begin paying to play earlier rather than later. Those using automation tools to artificially increase their visibility will find that capability severely diminished in July.

What should brands do?

First, if you rely on basic influencer analytics such as number of followers, immediately stop. These numbers are, in many cases, artificially inflated, and when the Instagram API changes, many influencers will be left without viable tools if they want to keep using the service without paying.

Second, demand better metrics from influencers you work with today, such as clickthrough rates. Influencers who adopt Facebook’s rules and begin using paid promotions will be able to deliver robust analytics through the Insights API, so the sooner you start asking for more meaningful influencer metrics, the better.

Third, consider opening up a separate Business Account today. Do NOT convert/delete your existing personal account – as we saw with Facebook Pages, that personal account may come in handy down the road when Facebook changes the Business algorithm to penalize unpaid posts. Open a Business Account and give it a distinct purpose from your current personal account. Perhaps reorient the existing personal account as a company culture account, while you use the Business Account (with enhanced metrics and publishing tools to come) for marketing and advertising.

What should influencers do?

If you’ve got legitimate influence – meaning you’re not just paying bots $29/month to spam the daylights out of the service – there’s little to worry about. Consider opening that separate Business Account as above, then carry on with both accounts.

If your influence is largely artificial, enjoy the party while it lasts, but recognize that Instagram as it is today is coming to an end, and July 31, 2018 is last call.

The final lesson

The final, most important lesson is one I’ve personally reiterated for over a decade: don’t build on rented land. We don’t own our social media accounts, and services like Facebook are under no obligation to give us a free lunch, or to keep things consistent.

Build on what you own. Invest in your website. Invest in your email list, in your mobile list, in your mobile app, in the things you control. In the long run, investing the most in yourself (rather than a social network) always pays the biggest dividends.

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