Instagram was a key part of the marketing strategy for Dinoski, a children's outdoor wear brand, until around February of this year, when co-founder Will Chapman started to notice something odd. The brand's post engagement and impressions had dropped to less than 20% of what they'd been previously – something that's continued ever since. ‘We have 23,000 followers – the last post we did had 20 likes, compared to the 200 we'd get before.’ He wasn't the only one to notice a drop in engagement.
‘No one could have predicted how catastrophic this crash has been – we see clients that are down 90% engagement across the board,’ says Aime Cox-Tennant, founder of small business consultancy Studio Cotton. ‘The real power of Instagram was the social side, the interaction and repeated contact between a person and a brand. That return is so diminished because you can't reach people and build that relationship.’
Brands left reeling
Instagram has long marketed itself as a tool for small businesses – and, for a while, this proved true. Instagram has more than 200 million business accounts, and 90% of users follow at least one brand, with 70% of shoppers turning to the platform to look for their next purchase.
But what Will, Aime and other brands are experiencing is just an acceleration of a long shift at Instagram that's forcing small businesses to change their strategy – or risk becoming invisible to the audiences they've built.
Social media marketing firm Later found that engagement on feed posts (both photo and video) has decreased 44% since 2019. What happened in the meantime? Reels was introduced in 2020 and Instagram prioritized the video feature – Later found that its engagement increased more than 500% when it added Reels to its strategy. While Instagram tried (and largely failed) to justify the shift to video a few weeks back, the outcry was strong enough that the brand said that it's rolling back some changes. But many businesses – burned by a drop in engagement that keeps on dropping – aren't waiting around to find out what's next.
Change the channel
From here, brands are scattering to new platforms and strategies. Some are headed to TikTok, where the smart use of trending sounds and user-generated content has catapulted some brands to viral success (if they were lucky enough to catch the algorithmic wave). Will's moving resources away from Dinoski's Instagram toward a business WhatsApp account, where he shares product updates and other offers for the company's top fans, and he's also exploring sponsored posts on community platform Nextdoor and Web3 experiences – something he says he may not have done if Instagram hadn't changed.
Martina Schwarz, founder of refillable handwash brand Blackmarket, has put more focus on LinkedIn, where she shares business updates – 13% of pledges for a recent crowdfunding campaign came from the platform. She's also trying out long-forgotten marketing methods – such as posting an ad in her local newspaper. ‘Performance wasn't what we were expecting, but it allowed us to test on a small scale, where the fact that it didn't work wasn't a big problem,’ she says.
There's also the option to stay – either put in the extra resources to create Reels, put even more money behind ad campaigns or focus on one of the other areas that Instagram is prioritizing. Menstrual health supplement brand Guud's Instagram strategy is partly focused on engagement through Stories and getting customers into its DMs – it now manages 60% of its customer chat volume via the app.
Aime hopes that the shift will get business owners back to focusing on the online-retail basics that have a far more consistent return on investment, such as an updated website, clear user experience, strong SEO and email marketing. ‘It's somewhat a wake-up call that we can't rely on these channels, or at least channels where we don't own our own data,’ she says.