Eunika Sot

@eunika

How We Lost the Battle for Instagram Engagement and Other Tales

Nintendo’s Super Mario makes a heroic jump for that IG coin.

I write articles when I get really, really mad. And now, I’m once again seething with rage, sitting by my keyboard in my jammies and with a cup of coffee, so fasten your seat belts. For months now, I’ve been explaining to people why their Instagram engagement is dropping. Yesterday, I was trying to find some more info about this for my company’s investor pitch deck. Because, you know, there are things I can see happening across social media and then there are sources.

Lo and behold… nothing. When you search for “Instagram engagement decline,” the front page of Google is filled with well-wishing bloggers giving each other inspirational style tips on how the new Instagram algorithm update favours meaningful interactions and how you have to be sparkly and true to yourself like a mythical unicorn to engage with your audience and make it. Yay! We have found a cure. The ONLY thing you need to do is to:

  • never have a bad hair day because you need to be posting ALL THE TIME
  • stay positive and reply to EVERY comment your followers leave until your thumbs bleed (but don’t post controversial photos, truth is a no-no in the world of Insta-love)
  • stop worrying that only 1 in 10 of your followers actually see what you’re posting — the new algorithm is all about MEANING.

The End <glitter bomb>

Now that you’ve cleaned up all the sparkles from the floor and we’re back in the real world again, let’s dig deeper into what’s going on and find out the truth behind all this. Although I’m sure that the above is exactly what people at Instagram want us to believe in (after all, their own jobs depend on it), there is an ugly side to the changes they have been making.

One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve ever read in my life was in a Terry Pratchett book (I don’t remember which, but it was in the Discworld series). I’m sure this has been repeated many times by many authors, and it might as well be apocryphal, but nevertheless I will credit Terry with giving me this insight back when I was twelve years old. The advice is this: if you don’t understand what’s going on, then find out where the money is.

I’m not going to say that this is the only advice you’ll ever need to understand people, but we do, after all, live in a capitalist society, driven by profits, growth, and the constant need for more, more, more. Instagram is no different.

Instagram’s Business Model

Selling display advertising space has been a standard revenue model for most social networks out there. The way this works is pretty simple:

  1. Create a free app
  2. Get a lot of people to join the app, talk to each other, and post content
  3. Get businesses and brands interested in selling their stuff to people on your app
  4. Sell advertising space
  5. Get really good at showing people the stuff they WANT to buy

I’m trying to purposely delay telling you why your Instagram engagement is dropping because I feel like with enough tips, everyone familiar with the platform should be able to get to it themselves. After all, nothing beats the impact of your own a-ha moment. (I promise, I will try to do my best to show you, not tell you.)

Even now, most people agree that the above is a respectable business model. Display adds have been ubiquitous on the internets for a long time now. Also, everyone knows that trying to sell online software is harder than selling Christmas trees in July.

Sadly, the free-for-all business model tends to result in the abuse of consumer data. I wrote about this at more length in my previous article (How Internet Behemoths Are Keeping Millennials Poor). Here, I’m going to focus on what the freebie model means for a company whose value proposition to its users is being able to share creative content to their followers.

Instagram’s Feed

This brings us to the second part of this equation. Like any company selling advertising space, Instagram reserves the right to show you relevant ads in your feed. This wasn’t the case back when they started — because when the platform is small, the advertisers are unlikely to be interested in it. As the app grew, the ads started popping up.

Although many people get annoyed by ads, they still intuitively understand that the life-cycle of most apps includes the money-making stage. You can’t just suck your VCs dry forever. When apps reach a certain maturity, they have advertisers wanting to pay them for the opportunity to sell products.

Now: I want you to do something for me. Go to your Instagram feed and count the number of posts between each ad. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? If so, that number is 4. I’ve performed the same exercise in the last six months many times. Even two months ago, this number was 5. Before it was 6–7.

As Facebook saw the growth of the time users spent on their app decline, they purchased Instagram and tried to convince us to spend time there instead. According to the company, the average time spent on Instagram is now 53 minutes. Although I’m sure they can try to increase that further, people have only 1440 minutes in a day. See what I’m getting at?

If you’re on Instagram passively consuming content, then for every four posts from your friends and the creators you follow, you see an ad.

Here is your engagement drop. Additionally, Instagram ads are optimized so well that I have sometimes problems telling if what I’m seeing is a paid ad or simply a piece of content from people I follow. See two examples below.

Example 1

I use my Instagram to follow niche fashion designers and artists. These two pictures appeared right beside each other. Even the pose is similar.

Example 2

Again, the second image could really be from Dolls Kill, the alternative fashion site I follow on Instagram.

Instagram ads are working and I have to admit that I’ve been engaging with them because they are cool, relevant, and visually appealing. However, the underlying truth remains — Instagram is hurting its own content creators by showing users so many ads. No wait: I will take this statement even further. Instagram’s revenue model works directly against their users. The end result of what they are doing right now is making their users pay for traffic. So, something like Facebook’s Boost The Post. Soon enough, content creators on Instagram will face the reality of paying to reach their own followers.

Masters and Servants

Facebook’s main function is to allow people to keep in touch with those they already know. Some could argue that Facebook became a platform where people consume content quite by accident and that it has the right to charge pages for having their content viewed by others.

Instagram’s main purpose is to connect likeminded individuals (friends or total strangers) through content they find appealing. Sharing a sense of aesthetics can be a strong factor in forming communities. How could a network that was designed to feature content now start charging those who create it to share it with their followers?

In a word, what Instagram won’t do, Facebook will. In April, Zuckerberg (did you know his name means Sugar Mountain?) added a level of management between himself and co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, effectively downgrading their positions within Facebook’s monolithic structure. As a result, in September 2018, the founders left the company they’d grown for nine years. Whatever vision those two had for Instagram is long gone under the absolute rule of Facebook.

As John Naughton pointed out in the Guardian article

Facebook is a data vampire; the only thing it does is suck people’s life data in order to paint targets on their backs for the benefit of advertisers.

I couldn’t have said it better. Facebook’s main purpose is to create big data silos so they can sell, sell, sell. Whatever Instagram was meant to accomplish has been pushed aside so that the company can become another cog in Facebook’s data churning machine.

All social networks that operate this way have an expiry date. They work directly against their users, and their users are what makes them appealing and relevant. Facebook’s pursuit of money and data is what will stifle and eventually kill both brands (oh and WhatsApp — remember how they said they don’t want your data? that’s out the window too) but not before they turn us all into bloodless zombies.

Facebook has already proven that their success isn’t dependent on their ability to run their own company, but on a successful acquisition of key competition. They groom those companies like pigs for the slaughter until they become rich and fat with more users, only to start cutting off their flesh piece by piece for their own use.

Another element in that machine are Facebook’s partners — those on the receiving end of the data. According to The New York Times exposé Facebook gave extensive data access to their partners and provided them with ways to to read, write, and delete users’ private messages, and to see all participants in a thread.

In the same article, we read:

Facebook has never sold its user data, fearful of user backlash and wary of handing would-be competitors a way to duplicate its most prized asset. Instead, internal documents show, it did the next best thing: granting other companies access to parts of the social network in ways that advanced its own interests.

The only correction I would make at this point is that “not selling data,” really isn’t the “next best thing.” It is THE BEST THING. It allows Facebook to stay in control and capitalize on the use of data by their “partners” in ways that go way beyond simple sales agreements.

At the end of the day, Facebook will need to acquire, develop, and subsequently kill many more companies to keep its data-gathering machine well oiled. Only time will tell if people can stop being “Dumb f*cks” as Zuckerberg calls those who trust him.

About me:

  1. I’m a COO-COO of Yuser — a gamified social network that distributes blockchain-powered rewards. You can now download Yuser for both Android and iOS and find out more about Yuser here. We want you to become a part of our community so: Telegram and Twitter — you know what to do!
  2. I’m a writer and part of an art collective called “I publish my fiction on sites you’ve never heard of.”
  3. I’m a Jack-in-a-Box of all trades (I have a short attention span, but you’ll still be surprised).

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