Instagram Just Axed Its Best Feature for Customer Research
Here’s what marketers can do instead
I joined Instagram in 2012. Back then, it was a safe haven for small businesses and brands looking to build authentic connections with their audience. But over time, the platform has become more difficult for small companies and one-person-shows to use.
First, they swapped a chronological feed for an algorithm. Then they began running ads…and then more ads. Like everyone else, I wasn’t thrilled.
But through all of this, there was one feature that I held on to. One thing I consistently told my clients to use, that I really liked. It was easy, you didn’t have to download any extra apps, you didn’t have to spend extra money. One feature that was great for marketers and small businesses.
That feature was the “following” tab under the “likes” menu.
Then, in the second week of October, 2019, Instagram killed it.
Facebook, IG’s parent company, has been under more than enough fire for their egregious privacy issues and they have a history of conducting behavior experiments on users without their knowledge. So I certainly understand why they killed the feature that became known as “the creeper page.” But that feature was the one thing about IG that made it worth it for me as a business owner. It was also the one reason I gave my clients why they should create an account.
Many marketers and business owners I know say that the secret to their content is just trial and error — testing out different themes and images to see what sticks. However, by using this feature, the smart marketer didn’t need as much trial and error. It was possible to see exactly the kind of content an ideal customer wanted to interact with and how they interacted with content. It could help small businesses to decide their color palette, the length of their captions, the focus of their imagery. Now that it’s gone, small businesses will be left to continue to waste time, taking a shot in the dark about what their customers want to see.
When I taught this method to my clients, I also encouraged them to have formal conversations about it with the people they were targeting, so the people they tracked were aware, and so my clients could interact with their ideal customers on a higher level, test out content with them, send them images and captions ahead of time and ask “What do you think about this?”
I promote a really strong individual relationship with customers and I find that in return, those customers get excited about being included and become even stronger ambassadors of the brand.
I also encourage a major amount of creativity and individuality for my brands and clients, but I want them to understand their customers without having to guess. This feature allowed them to work with their customer’s actual interests and engagements and understand them better. Not by interviews or guessing, because a lot of times when we’re being asked questions directly, we’re more likely to be on our best behavior. This method allowed small businesses to get to know their customers easily, realistically, and in real-time.
So, what does this mean for small businesses?
Honestly, it’s just another reminder of how Instagram is a business and you’re not their #1 priority. That means you need to focus on reaching your customers in ways that do prioritize you.
Imagine, for a moment, if you delegated the attention you or your company spent on Instagram to your SEO, podcast interviews, your email list, or any of the other things you could be doing to strengthen your marketing.
Putting that time and energy back into your brand in meaningful ways is probably the best thing you can do for your company.
So what kinds of meaningful ways am I referring to?
Get to know your audience on a deeper level
A few months ago, I did a photoshoot with a company that I wanted to work with because I liked their founder and I thought they had a good product.
Their marketing needed a lot of help. They didn’t know who their true customer was, or what their customer needed from them. They didn’t know what problems they were solving. They were just creating a product they wanted to create. It seemed to me that they were focusing 70% or more of their marketing energies on Instagram, and it was getting them nowhere.
They had two staff members who were both entry-level and didn’t have a lot of knowledge in building marketing campaigns that would convert. As a result, their brand and their message were unclear and they had a hard time selling any of their products.
But what they were doing was so cool. I mean, this was a brand that turned old, dead couches into gorgeous briefcases. They had stories…they just don’t have the knowledge or direction to build them into a usable communication strategy.
If they redirected their energies to picking a specific client, researching that client, learning about their real problems and needs, and developing true strategies to serve them, their entire company would change. If they redirected that time and money spent to simply taking people out for coffee and talking to them, getting to know them, learning from them, they’d do better than they are currently as they continue to waste time on IG.
Invest in What You Own
Instagram, Facebook, and any of the other social media sites out there — your content there isn’t actually yours. I mean, yes it’s yours, but that social media site is really allowed to do anything they want with it. It’s up to them to showcase it — or not. You can’t actually get too mad at them for running their business like a business. You’ve got to understand that if you’re a small brand, you’re probably not their ideal client anyway. That’s why they’re not meeting your needs — they’re setting out to solve someone else’s problem, not yours.
That’s why the best thing you can do is invest in what you own. Your website, your email list, your relationships, and building your brand in person. These are the things you should focus on while getting started,
Investing in social media is important, sure, but you should do it at a point in your company when you know your audience well and don’t feel like you’re taking a gamble in content creation. Build out the entire buyer’s journey and follow their lead, so you’re not caught making incorrect assumptions.
Build Trust so You Have Something to Launch With
It’s said that our personalities are the medium of the five people we spend the most time with. Your business is just the same.
If you really want to come across as a trustworthy company that a new customer wants to work with, learn who they already trust, and build a strong relationship with that person.
Relationships will make or break you, almost every single time. Whether we’re talking about relationships with other professionals, your customers, investors, or your team, you shouldn’t be looking to play the role of the lone entrepreneur who did everything by themselves. Trust me, that story is lonely and doesn’t actually end anywhere you want to be.
Focusing on how you can build mutually beneficial relationships across the board is much more likely to aid in growing your business than flashy Instagram content is.
Interestingly, this is what brands originally flocked to Instagram for. It used to be great at helping small brands build relationships. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Build Stories That Are Worth Sharing
Part of building your brand, your buyer’s journey, and truly understanding your customer, is learning the challenges they struggle with and the stories that compel them.
This is trickier than it sounds. As business owners, we tend to find the stories about the product that are meaningful to us first, and then find out how they’re useful for customers. Really, it should be the other way around. We should be looking at our customers and finding what stories are valuable to them, regardless of what our product offers (or doesn’t).
Here’s why: this is the point at which you distinguish the difference between your obsession with the customer (and their problem) and the solution (your solution).
I’ve seen a lot of businesses go astray for this reason and often it’s the kind of thing where the business owner is in too deep to see that the real issue is that they’re missing the point. They’re more interested in showcasing what they’ve built and how it’s the answer to the customer’s problem than they are in the customer themselves. They end up telling the wrong stories or building more solutions that end up being just surface-level.
Once you build stories that the client is really interested in telling, they’ll pick it up and run with it. That’s where user generated content comes in.
The best brands build stories that are easy for users to run with and they don’t do it by guessing.
They do it by asking the client what they care about, what their problems are, what their most embarrassing stories are. They don’t start with “here’s our product, what do you have that’s related to it?” Instead, they start with questions like, “What’s are the three most important things in your life right now?”
They break down what’s important to the customer, and then compare it to the stories that the brand cares about. That relatable common ground becomes the foundation for viral stories. If your brand has a hashtag before you’ve even got an Instagram account, you’re off to the races.
Here’s an example.
One of my clients, a very active woman who was a regular at Barry’s Boxing, started an activewear line after realizing that the majority of her workout clothes were made of plastics. This is a problem because our pores are like little mouths, and whenever we sweat, they open up and eat whatever is on our skin. Plastic (polyester, for example) isn’t the healthiest option for your body.
That’s why she created her line of Tencel activewear. Tencel is a non-plastic organic fiber with a host of benefits for working out. It’s naturally sweat-wicking, odor-resistant, antimicrobial, and super soft and flexible.
But as her product sold, her clients consistently told her that the product was so soft and nice, they didn’t want to wear it during their workout. Why get such a great pair of leggings all sweaty? Plus, it turns out that women don’t want to feel soft while they’re at the boxing gym.
So we rebranded and learned to tell stories that the client needed to hear, and resonated with them. During our last meeting, she told me “I’m having a hard time letting go of the active part of the company.” I looked at her lovingly and said, “I don’t care. This isn’t coming from me, it’s coming from your customer. You’re solving their problem, not your own.” Yes, she started the brand for a specific reason, but her customers partnered with her to create a solution to their problem. Further than that, she’s not letting go of the active part of her company, she’s just telling the story her customers are asking her to tell instead of the story she wants to tell. Now, she’s developing client obsession, where she is more interested in finding out what her customer needs than forcing her own way of seeing things.
That flexibility is vital if you want to own a profitable business.
Your time and your customers are too precious to simply get onto Instagram and start posting random stories to see what sticks. Don’t guess — know.
Ultimately, I’m disappointed in Instagram for getting rid of this feature, but I’ve been disappointed in them before (and I’m sure you have too). The truth is, it’s just not my platform. And for millions of small businesses who are creating new accounts each year, it’s not their platform either.
Instagram, Facebook, or any other social media platform, have their own goals as a business, and if you don’t fit into their idea of the Ideal Customer, then it’s likely you’ll be lost in the fold. And that’s ok, it just means you have to build authenticity in a more creative way.
For now, that won’t include creeping on your client using the “Following” tab on Instagram.