Yesterday, in Australia, we woke to a new Instagram.

This Instagram looks just like the old one, with one notable exception – the likes were gone.

We are now part of an ever-growing trial which started in Canada in May and is now expanding to New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, Italy and Brazil.

The Facebook Australia and New Zealand director of policy, Mia Garlick, said Instagram should be a place where people feel comfortable expressing themselves, rather than judged.

“We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love,” she said in a statement.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal. Huge, in fact.

What Does This Mean?

As an Instagram user, I think it’s fantastic. I have three young children including two girls. My eldest is now 12 and rushing quickly into her teenage years. The idea of her growing up in a heart-free Instagram world is refreshing. I don’t want her believing that her self-worth is in any way linked to how many people double-tap her photos. This latest update just eliminated that concern.

On the other hand, as a marketer, I’m horrified. We’ve lost a very useful source of data.

So what does hiding Instagram likes mean for businesses, brands and social media managers?

1.Engagement Always Wins

I’ve maintained for a long time that comments are worth a lot more than likes. When someone takes time out of their day to leave a thoughtful comment on one of your pictures or videos, this means a lot.

Now, that likes have disappeared, these comments become even more valuable.

It’s no longer enough to post an image that people will like.

Your posts need to inspire people to leave a comment. It’s a much greater ask of your audience but it’s the direction you should be heading.

2. Hashtags Are Even More Important

When people scroll through their feeds, they’re processing a lot of information quickly. They’re scanning pictures, browsing comments, captions and, up until yesterday, they were checking the number of likes.

People tend to like images that other people have liked. With likes being removed, we’ve lost a very useful source of data.

As we lose indicators for what is good content, I believe people will go searching for other ways to find popular posts. The clear standout is searching hashtags and selecting the “Top” tab.

This means you need to make sure you’re using the right hashtags for your posts so you can be seen among the popular posts. There a useful summary of this tactic here.

3. Influencer Marketing Just Got Harder

This is probably my biggest gripe with removing likes and it will hit small and medium sized businesses hardest.

It’s a lot more difficult for brands to assess the engagement of influencers.

Let’s not forget the influencers themselves, many of whom will now find it extremely difficult to advertise their popularity.

Sure, we can still look at the comment count but, by losing visibility of likes, we’ve effectively lost one large and useful source of data.

Part of the process of selecting influencers is sorting out the real ones from the fake influencers. I have always examined engagement, a combination of likes and comments. Follower count means little to me because anyone can buy fakes followers. Now all I have to assess engagement is comments.

Will we see the proliferation of shady businesses selling “comments”? Will this bring in the age of comment bots? I hope not.

What’s more, I fear the practice of buying fake followers suddenly became more attractive since this metric remains visible.

Of course, anyone planning to engage an influencer should ask them to supply their analytics data to substantiate their engagement but this put an additional burden on businesses to engage with influencers to gain visibility of data that was previously visible simply by browsing.

4. Think Outside Instagram

Instagram has been the darling of social media for a number of years because it commands so much consumer attention. I’ve seen many brands throw all their energy and online marketing resources into this platform, often to the exclusion of others.

This decision to remove likes demonstrates how vulnerable we are to the platforms. They write the rules and, as we’ve seen time and again, these can literally change overnight.

Let this decision be a warning indicator for anyone who has gone all-in on Instagram, or any platform for that matter. If you’ve neglected your email lists, your blog, LinkedIn, Snapchat (remember Snap?), even Facebook, now is a good time to get back in the habit of creating content for all distribution opportunities.

You need to build audiences everywhere you can.

So What’s Behind the Change?

It could be a ploy by Zucks to bring everyone back to Facebook. Sure he owns both but I’m sure he would prefer to see the platform he started to outperform one built by other developers. Right now, as a type this blog, Facebook is still showing likes.

This is also a bet by Instagram that in order to keep growing, they need to address the issues on the platform that are keeping people from engaging with it. While Instagram is largely viewed as a success in terms of its growth and revenue, it also has a dark side. It’s focus on image sharing has created a focus on perfection which has been linked to low self-esteem and depression.

While Stories has gone some way in removing the pressure to post perfectly polished content, this move to remove the like count could herald in a massive shift in perception of the platform away from perfection to reality.