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Double-tapping an Instagram photo still illuminates a red heart below it to show a user’s approval, but the social media giant piloted a change for Canadian accounts in early May where it removed the total number of likes previously visible under the photo.LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been three months since Instagram removed “like” totals for Canadian users, and the change is causing small-business owners and managers to rethink how they reach potential customers on the social network.

Double-tapping an Instagram photo still illuminates a red heart below it to show a user’s approval. But Instagram piloted a change for Canadian accounts in early May where it removed the total number of likes previously visible under the photo. Users can still see how many people liked their own photos, but nobody else’s. In July, it expanded the test to six other countries.

Instagram heralded the change as one that would benefit users’ mental health, because they could stop worrying about others’ perceptions around the number of likes their posts receive.

But the removal of likes also affects how many people see a post, some social-media professionals say. Kelly Samuel, managing director of Toronto-based Qode Media Inc., who looks after businesses’ Instagram accounts as part of her job, said she noticed a significant drop in their normal reach (the number of people that see a post) and engagement (how many likes or comments a post receives) numbers after Instagram hid likes.

The decline could be because people may be less inclined to tap the heart button without a gauge of how many other users have already done so, according to digital-marketing strategist and keynote speaker Dani Gagnon. Fewer likes could give posts less momentum to show up in followers’ feeds.

That matters because not all posts make it into users’ feeds. In 2016, Instagram switched from showing posts in reverse-chronological order to using an algorithm to determine which posts make it to the top, depending on various metrics such as how recently a photo was posted or its popularity.

In order to keep popping up in followers’ feeds without buying ads through Instagram, businesses need to make their content appealing enough to spark conversation and drive engagement, according to Ms. Gagnon.

“It puts an onus on businesses to produce good, engaging content that’s not sales oriented.”

Ms. Gagnon advised businesses to post two photos a week to spur conversation, and consider buying an ad for a third post.

Ms. Samuel thinks Instagram removing likes could be part of a broader shift intended to reduce organic, or unpaid, reach by business posts in order to encourage more spending on paid ads through the platform.

That would follow its owner Facebook’s lead, she said. When Ms. Samuel was a teenager with a wedding photography businesses, she was able to expand it and get new clients for free by posting on Facebook. Now, more than a decade later, free posts wouldn’t get nearly enough traction to do that, she said.

“It’s getting harder and harder for smaller businesses that don’t want to put ad spend in to actually be seen,” Ms. Samuel said.

She thinks the change could disproportionately affect small businesses who don’t have as large budgets for social-media marketing.

Seif Yousef, an account executive at Winnipeg-based marketing agency Vantage Studios Inc, echoed that sentiment. He says he believes large companies are going to funnel more money into their social strategies in the next few years, which could drive up the price of buying ads on the platform.

Sarah Landstreet, chief executive of Kitchener, Ont.-based Georgette Packaging Inc., which makes branded boxes, cups and containers for small businesses, said she’d rather spend resources making her Instagram more educational than buying ads.

For example, one recent post explains why buying biodegradable packaging isn’t always a good investment if your city doesn’t accept polylactic acid plastics.

“We think of Instagram as an alternative to a newsletter,” she said.

Sara Peacock, marketing manager for Vancouver-based wedding dress maker Oremony Design Corp., said using Instagram to talk to clients in a direct message, or answer their questions in the comments, rather than to push products at them is what keeps their page popular.

“Our audience of brides is pretty engaged. … So those outward-facing numbers matter a little less to us,” she said.

Ms. Gagnon is interested to see whether Instagram makes the hidden-likes test permanent. She views it as a challenge for businesses to determine whether posts are valuable because they’re meaningful, or just because they’re popular.

“I think people tend to blame Instagram and Facebook, saying they’re trying to put businesses in a position where they pay more,” she said. “But the real reason behind these things is they want to favour the consumer, and give them the best experience so they stay on the platform.”

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