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Where is the love? Can brands still make an impact without 'likes'?

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It’s pretty hard to picture social media without likes. Facebook’s thumbs-up is probably up there with the Golden Arches for recognition among millennials, and double tapping on Instagram is basically a biological reflex. Likes seem indispensable in the platforms we use daily; influencing the content their algorithms present to us and how we judge that content as we scroll by it.

When they flood in, they’re responsible for those sweet dopamine hits that supposedly keep us scrolling and sharing. But they also often take the blame for the negative effects on our mental health. As digital influencer Jade Darmawangsa puts it, “When you post something online, you feel really nervous and you get anxiety about how many likes it’s going to get… If you just don’t hit a certain number, you question who you are.”

As founders have tried to 'fix' their platforms lately, likes have come into the firing line. Instagram announced a trial in Canada where the number of likes on a post were hidden, explaining “we want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.” Before that, Twitter launched a prototype in which likes, retweets and replies would only be visible “behind a tap.” The new update would make it a lot harder to judge “The Ratio,” a Twitter rule of thumb for identifying a bad tweet if its replies far outnumber its likes or retweets. Most recently, YouTube looks to be making similar moves with its subscriber count: exact numbers will no longer be visible, which means subscriber count battles, previously a source of drama within the YouTube community, might cool off.

The consensus is clear: slapping a number on a piece of content (or a person) to determine their online popularity is a recipe to turn social media into cocktail of toxicity and self-consciousness. And while there are no signs they’ll be fully retired, diminishing their presence looks to be a popular tactic in the latest wave of platform shakeups.

So now what? If these new updates are rolled out, . This sounds like it could spell disaster for brands’ engagement rates. But it’s also an opportunity to rethink what engagement means. Likes might be an easy way to judge performance, but they don’t necessarily mean your audience is all that engaged. Without them, the relationship between brands and creators and their audiences has to evolve to the next level. Here are a few ways to get sparks flying.

Use stories to get playful

Stories are being pushed left, right and in most cases, bang in the centre of social media platforms. From the user’s point of view there are no likes or metrics in sight. Instead, they’re about fast topical content that encourages users to react with emojis, vote in polls, and altogether have a bit more fun. Brands like Pret have been quick to take advantage of formats like the question sticker to get their audience chatting about sandwiches, taking their content from broadcast format to a back-and-forth conversation.

Make creation a two-way street

User-generated content is nothing new, but there are new ways to get consumers to care about creating it. Instagram now allows third parties to create their own GIF stickers that users can search for and add to their stories. This means brands can produce relevant, usable assets, and hand the reigns over to their audience to distribute them. Influencer networks make it easier for businesses to create a community that’s an extension of their brand, like clothing brand Nasty Gal. Their hashtag #NastyGalsDoItBetter has been used over 50 thousand times, kick-started by fashion bloggers and picked up by shoppers who identify with the confident female aesthetic it represents.

Create really good content

Research has shown that peer pressure plays a huge part in whether we believe a piece of content deserves a like from us. We’re more likely to double tap if we see a post is already popular or our friends like it. When this bias is removed, the content has to be relevant and personal enough to speak for itself, which requires brands to know their audiences inside out. US clothing brand Outdoor Voices does this by tapping into a whole host of things that matter to its audience besides products: like body positivity, outdoor inspiration and the environment. In a very British take, Greggs’ Twitter strategy uses current events and memes to champion the national obsession with sausage rolls.

Find influencers with influence

For influencers selling themselves to brands, likes and engagement rates are big business. But likes alone don’t translate to trust. Truly influential creators are those that have one-to-one conversations with their followers via comments and DMs, and know what their target audience wants inside out. A recent article by The Atlantic proclaimed that the Instagram aesthetic is over, and photos of avocado toast are no longer cutting it, with influencers favouring messier feeds where the pictures themselves matter less than the chance to open up a dialogue in the comments.

It’s easy to see social media as a place of endless brand messages shouted into the void, but there are a whole lot of ways for businesses to chat rather than shout. Whether or not likes are ever fully killed off, thinking beyond them sounds like a pretty good place to start regardless.

Nicole Forster is social media executive at Communicator London