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With Privacy Changes, Instagram Upsets Influencer Economy

As the Facebook-owned platform works to lock down its privacy policy amid mounting public pressure, some fashion apps and social media influencers are left scrambling.
  • Maghan McDowell

SAN FRANCISCO, United States — Less than a week before Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg donned a suit to testify before the United States Congress, influencer monetisation platform sent an email to users: "As of today, you will be able to shop Instagram content exclusively with a screenshot, as like-based shopping will no longer be supported due to changes in Facebook/Instagram's third-party access to likes."

It was a short message with big meaning.

The Instagram shopping service could no longer use the "likes" on influencer posts to send registered users emails with associated product information and buy buttons. It was one of the unexpected repercussions from Instagram parent company Facebook's tightened privacy policy amid a cascade of criticism in the wake of the platform's Cambridge Analytica data privacy debacle. An April 4 announcement from Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer entitled "An Update on Our Plans to Restrict Data Access on Facebook" mostly focused on changes to Facebook — including changes to how outside apps can access events, groups and pages — with just one sentence announcing a decision to effectively shut down Instagram's existing application programming interface, or API.

The move means that, for example, third-parties can no longer access follower lists, relationships information, see which posts users have “liked” or receive notifications when media is posted. Analytics companies that provide follower demographics will no longer have access to Instagram data and people can no longer use “bots” to follow accounts or “like” Instagram posts.

To put it plainly, many businesses that aggregate data about influencers are dead in the water, said founder Amber Venz Box. She added that while (and parent company RewardStyle) had leveraged Facebook's developer tools, she always knew it was possible they might change or disappear, so the company began removing its reliance on these tools in 2015 (one year after the venture was founded). A year ago, introduced a way to shop influencer content using a screenshot or directly within its app, rather than through Instagram likes. (The company reports that, last year, users purchased more than $270 million in products using this technology.)

Many businesses that aggregate data about influencers are dead in the water.

But many influencers who have eschewed traditional blogs in favour of Instagram are still left in the lurch, says Texas-based influencer Ashley Robertson, who blogs as The Teacher Diva. “It definitely has shaken up the influencer industry, especially the people who rely on solely. They don’t have another platform to provide affiliate links or generate sales, so they are just scrambling,” she says.

In building her brand, Robertson says that she tries to prioritise her own site rather than other platforms, in an effort to insulate herself from situations like this. Still, she adds, represented about 30 percent of her business. “We don’t want to neglect that. Do we put our trust in this app? How do we get users who aren’t normal blog readers? We are still trying to navigate that — but I know people from groups that I’m in, girls who are honestly just freaking out.”

Robertson is still able to pull her Instagram content into her blog, reflecting what to many is a confusing set of changes combined with a reticence on the part of the company to address what to expect and how to adjust.

Rent The Runway, which lets users log into its app using Facebook, reported that they had seen no effects from the changes. Rocks Box, a jewellery rental subscription service, has a feature that lets users comment on the brand’s Instagram posts with “#wishlist” to have the items added to their queue. This feature also appeared to still be intact.

An Instagram spokesperson said that in place of the old API, the company is expanding the new Instagram Graph API, which is designed for business profiles, including metrics on content performance and comment moderation. Still, the changes to the old API still apply — to both personal and business accounts.

“My guess is that influencers are likely racing to convert their accounts to business profiles,” says Toni Box, who is group director of social and content at digital marketing agency PMX. “Less data to work with is always going to create a challenge. When you’re a business that’s focused on finding an influencer based on metrics like reach and impressions, the waters might become a little cloudy.”

She sees potential on Instagram as an opportunity for other platforms, like Pinterest, to “up the game on organic reporting capabilities, either natively or through third-party tools.”

It's one of the unexpected repercussions from Instagram parent company Facebook's tightened privacy policy.

Jon Biron, who is head of sales at influencer marketing software provider TapInfluence, said that because influencers on the marketplace choose to “opt in” to its network, it’s not facing the same challenges as companies that “scrape the internet and find anyone with a social media following.” He said that already, about 85 percent of the platform’s active users have switched to a business account on Instagram, and the company is encouraging the remaining 15 percent to get one.

Most agree that, in the short term, the changes in Facebook’s policies create obvious challenges for the influencer industry, as access to data declines. But, points out HYPR Brands founder and chief executive Gil Eyal, “We have to remember that Facebook’s main business driver is its ability to sell data-related advertising to its customers. These businesses will not go away. They’ll find a new, proper balance that protects the privacy of secondary users [who did not opt in] while allowing Facebook to operate as a business.”

As this week's Congressional hearings seemed to suggest, one solution might be something that resembles the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation law, said Launchmetrics chief executive Michael Jais. He also reports that about 85 percent of the influencers in the company's network have switched over to business profiles, which require the user to link an Instagram account to a business page on Facebook.

“All in all, I think the change is positive and will give brands the opportunity to leverage ‘true influence’ and the real capacity of content that can engage audiences, versus an analytical approach,” Jais said.

For now, many engineers are left to crunch the numbers manually, like at beauty subscription service Ipsy, where executive vice president of media and partnerships Spencer McClung said that the problem, while “solvable,” is taking more engineering resources. He added that companies like Ipsy that built internal apps are likely the most affected, as companies who use third-party services can depend on them to fix it.

Ultimately, McClung, like many others, has a rather optimistic outlook. He reiterates that Facebook is an important partner to the Ipsy business — and acknowledges that ultimately, with enhance privacy measures, Facebook is doing what’s right for its own platform and user-base.

“It’s like the security lines at the airport,” McClung says. “They are a hassle — but necessary.”

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