A few weeks ago I was sifting through the crowd of press releases littering my inbox, when a message from an address I didn’t recognise stopped me in my tracks. “Social media, as we know it, is dead” the subject line declared. Intrigued, I opened the email immediately.
It was a press release from PR agency, The Atticism, who have offices in Sydney, Australia, and Oxford, UK. According to The Atticism’s email, they’ve been “actively rejecting” clients coming to them for social media management since the beginning of 2019. Why? “Because social media as we know it is dying,” The Atticism’s Director, Renae Smith, writes.
“As an agency, we cannot simply continue to work in the way we always have and expect our clients to achieve the same results. Consumers are experiencing brand fatigue, a lack of trust and way too many marketers competing for their attention,” Smith continues, in the email.
Social Media “Is Dying”
The Atticism quoted research conducted by Trust Insights, a data and analytics consulting firm, who, earlier this year, analysed 1,430,995 Instagram posts (Stories excluded) from 3,637 brand accounts, to ascertain an average engagement rate. The results of the report were, indeed, pretty damming – particularly when it comes to the influencer landscape. And they definitely add weight to The Atticism’s standpoint.
The Trust Insights report states: “Since the beginning of May, average [Instagram] engagements have declined over time precipitously and now hover around 0.9%, a decrease from earlier this year of 1.1%.”
“Fashion influencers go from a maximum of 4.3% engagement on February 17, 2019 to a minimum of 2.4% on June 20, 2019… they’ve felt a stronger impact from the recent decline.”
“Since the beginning of May, average Instagram engagements have declined over time precipitously and now hover around 0.9%, a decrease from earlier this year of 1.1%.”
Now, as you’re well aware, I earn a living from creating sponsored blog and Instagram content for brands. (I wouldn’t ever call myself an “influencer”, as I hate that term, but I’m aware that’s how others would describe me.)
So, you may think that I would be quick to argue against these statements. But, actually, in many ways, I agree.
Instagram engagement has dramatically decreased this year. I’ve seen a drop in the amount of likes my Instagram posts receive, as have the majority of my peers working in the industry (trust me, if you fill a room with a group of digital influencers, they will do nothing but complain about the Instagram algorithm and their decreasing engagement).
I think The Atticism team are spot on when they state consumers are experiencing “brand fatigue, a lack of trust and way too many marketers competing for their attention.”
In recent months, many of my friends who do not work in social media have deleted their Instagram accounts. For some, they noticed it was having a negative affect on their confidence and self-esteem, whilst others felt it was distracting them from their “real lives”. But everyone I know who has deleted Instagram has made the same comment: “I don’t miss it at all. It was getting really boring, anyway.”
So, yes, maybe social media, as we know it, really is dead.
But before we completely write off digital influencers, citing their diminishing influence, I think there’s something we should first consider…
What if we’ve actually been measuring “influence” incorrectly?
What does “Influence” Really Mean?
Currently, the marker of “good” Instagram engagement is thought to be a healthy number of likes and comments. And the higher your engagement, the more influential you’re thought to be.
But what does an Instagram like really mean? Does it signify the viewer has absorbed all of the information being shared in the post? Does it suggest they’re now going to act on that message, and purchase that product/replicate the experience showcased? Or, does it simply mean they think it’s a pretty photo?
When I consider my own Instagram habits, I have to admit there is no real logic behind my liking patterns. Sometimes I’ll like a post because I’m genuinely excited and engaged in the story being shared, other times I’ll like something purely because it was posted by a friend, incorporates an eye-catching colour, or features a cat. Nine times out of ten my likes mean very little.
“We’re not measuring influence correctly”
I recently spoke to my friend Jennie Hogg, founder of Lois Avery, a small accessories brand specialising in Italian cashmere scarves, about social media. Jennie admitted that whilst Instagram continues to be an important tool for her business, her most engaged Instagram followers are rarely her most loyal customers.
“My view is that the people who like and comment on the majority of your posts might not be your best customers,” Jennie tells me. “I often receive DMs from Instagram users who I have never noticed before, because they don’t actively engage with my posts. But they share how much they love their Lois Avery scarves, and some of these customers have purchased three or four scarves over time without any visible Instagram engagement.”
I asked Jennie what she thinks this means for social media. “I don’t think that social media is dying,” Jennie responds. “But I do think we’re not measuring its influence correctly. There is a presumption that all social media users consume in the same way – liking and leaving comments on posts. But I think this presumption fails to consider the varying personalities out there. In my experience, there is a large group of social media users who are influenced without actively engaging in the platform. They enjoy scrolling, and use Instagram more like a magazine.”
“There is a presumption that all social media users consume in the same way – liking and leaving comments on posts. But I think this presumption fails to consider the varying personalities out there.”
I’ve noticed this with my own audience too. Earlier in the year I was invited on a press trip to Fes, Morocco, to create content around a hotel’s new wellness package, and an airline’s direct route to the city. Less than six weeks later I received a message on Instagram from one of my followers. They weren’t someone I recognised as being heavily engaged with my content – in fact, I’d never noticed this specific user liking or commenting on any of my posts before. However, it turns out they’d been there all along, absorbing everything I was sharing. Because they wrote to tell me that, thanks to my Fes posts, they’d booked a trip to the Morrocan city, and they were there right now, having a great time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: in many ways, influencing people is my job, and that’s why I was invited on the trip. But, with likes decreasing on my Instagram posts, I’d begun to question my own influence.
But I’m starting to suspect Instagram likes ultimately mean very little at all. And, if Facebook and Instagram ultimately choose to hide like counts across the platform – as they’re trialling in various territories across the globe, right now – likes really will mean nothing.
“Collecting likes is not influential”
“Collecting likes is not influential and we try our best to explain this to [our clients],” Renae Smith states in The Atticism’s email blast*. “Unless someone actually influences an industry, a subject or a group of people, they have no reason to be called in influencer.”
So, if Instagram likes aren’t actually a reliable metric for influence, what is? It’s a question everyone working within the digital-sphere is grappling with, right now – from brands and PR agencies to bloggers and influencers.
It doesn’t feel like anyone can agree on one solid answer. But, for me, influence lies in connection and authenticity. And that’s why those are my two buzzwords, going forwards. I want to stop focusing so heavily on the number of likes my work receives, and instead lean into the conversations and connections it generates. That’s why I’m planning to host my first IRL Coco’s Tea Party Book Club meet-up, later this month. And I hope to work on more community-focused projects going forwards.
Do you agree with The Atticism’s statement that “social media as we know it is dying?” If so, how do you foresee the industry progressing? And do you think influencers are losing their influence? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment below…
*I reached out to Renae Smith, and asked whether she’d speak to me for this piece, but I didn’t receive a response. Hence why I’ve only quoted directly from the email, throughout this post.
Photo by Lydia Collins