Facebook is arguably in the midst of its biggest crisis in company history. In March 2018, a New York Times investigation revealed that voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica accessed and used the user information of approximately 50 million Facebook users to deliver targeted ads to influence voting behavior in government elections. Facebook has since said that the information of up to 87 million people may have been compromised. Instagram is one of the social apps that Facebook owns (the other major social app Facebook owns is WhatsApp).
The data breach is the biggest in Facebook’s history and highlights the platform’s failure to protect personal data. It also raises questions about the longevity of Facebook’s business model. Can a company safeguard its users’ data when that user data is central to generating revenue?
In the wake of the disaster, Facebook is overhauling the ways it manages user information. Most recently, the company altered Instagram’s API (application programming interface) — the software system that gives third-party apps and developers access to user information.
Many in the influencer industry — influencer platforms, influencers, and more — depend on user information accessed through Instagram’s API to conduct business and gather audience intel. These companies use the API to gather influencers’ audience data, demographics, follower count, engagement, etc. As such, the change has had a significant impact on the influencer marketing ecosystem overnight.
Here we’ll outline the timeline of Instagram’s API changes, discuss the significance, and hear from industry insiders to gauge what the future holds.
2010: Facebook launches the first version of its API, giving outside app developers access to Facebook user data.
March 30, 2018: Without warning, Instagram lowers the rate limit on its platform API from 5,000 calls to 200 calls an hour (1/25th the previous volume). During the weekend of March 30 and April 3, numerous third-party apps break unexpectedly. The change severely limits the user data that developers can pull from Instagram and threatens the functionality of several third-party apps.
April 4, 2018: Five days after drastically reducing its API rate limit, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer announces that Facebook is making drastic changes to protect personal user information and limit the user data that apps can access when connected to Facebook.
In a Facebook blog post, Schroepfer outlines nine major changes to Facebook’s events API, groups API, pages API, Facebook login, search and account recovery, call and text history, data providers and partner categories, and app controls.
In regards to Instagram, Schroepfer announces the accelerated decline of Instagram’s API and links to an official Instagram announcement.
April 4, 2018: Instagram officially announces the accelerated decline of its API and outlines two API changes effective immediately. Firstly, developers can no longer read public media on a user’s behalf. Secondly, developers cannot read a user’s own profile information.
Instagram had previously planned to switch the Instagram API Platform to the Instagram Graph API in two phases occurring on July 31, 2018 and December 11, 2018.
Instagram API’s new rate limit decreases access to user information by 96%. Such a drastic decrease is substantial and significant. Undoubtedly, the API changes will affect business decisions within the influencer industry, perhaps most for influencer tools/software that are built around Instagram API access.
According to the Business of Fashion, third parties operating on Instagram can no longer access user follower lists, relationship information, post “likes,” or receive notifications when Instagram media is posted. Analytics companies that aggregate follower demographics can no longer access Instagram user data. Users have also been impacted, and can no longer use bots to “follow” or “like” on the platform.
Influencer platforms and third-party apps are most likely to be affected by Instagram’s API changes. The former relies on Instagram’s API to access influencer information and provide insights to brands. The latter aggregates Instagram user data accessed through the API to provide a service to consumers. Instagram’s API changes have already hindered or completely stopped the ability of some to run business.
Take for instance LIKEtoKNOW.it, an Instagram shopping service that allows registered users to like an Instagram influencer’s photo in order to be sent an email with product information and buying options. Instagram’s API changes have disrupted the service because third-party apps can no longer access user likes.
Instagram’s API changes mean that developers now have limited access to Instagram user information. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that brands and influencer platforms will turn their marketing efforts to other social platforms with greater access to user information. Instagram’s popularity and subsequent marketing potential is driven by its audience. The app remains as popular as ever among its nearly one billion users, and as such, it remains a powerful platform for advertising, regardless of its API changes.
Some companies that depend on Instagram user information as a central part of their business model have already prepared for the removal of Instagram’s API. LIKEtoKNOW.it founder Amber Venz Box reported that last year the company changed its Instagram shopping service so that registered users can take a screenshot of an influencer post to receive product information. Previously, the company had relied on accessing user likes through Instagram’s API to deliver registered users product information and buying links.
Apart from third-party apps and developers that haven’t changed their business model in anticipation of the new API, influencer platforms that have failed to prepare are also poised to be negatively affected by the API changes. Platforms are online databases that brands use to find and vet influencers for campaigns, and in some cases use to work with influencers directly. Many use Instagram’s API to gather intel on an influencer’s demographic as well as influencers themselves.
We asked Gil Eyal, founder of the successful influencer platform HYPR, how Instagram’s API changes have impacted HYPR’s business. Eyal had this to say, “HYPR does not use the impacted APIs, and as such was not affected by the restrictions. As a data company, HYPR has a diversified set of resources, all of which are publicly available.” Evidently, platforms that have prepared for Instagram’s API changes are the least likely to be affected.
Murray Legg, co-founder of the influencer platform Webfluential, echoed Eyal in saying his business wasn’t negatively affected. In considering those that may be most affected by the changes, Legg says, “Influencer marketing is really in its infancy. Some companies have taken the angle that they want to have the most granular insight into reporting, so naturally, API changes will affect them. Others have focused on being productive and creative agencies, so they will be less affected.”
Another influencer platform representative, James Winner Director of Marketing at Revfluence, points out that young influencer platforms may have difficulty building their database because they didn’t have greater access to Instagram’s API to establish their business. Winner says, “In general, it will be harder now to get started in the space. Established companies like Revfluence can rely on our brand and existing database of influencers to continue to reach a large and diverse community of creators. However, with the changes to the API, newer companies will need to rely more on manual versus automated methods to build these up.”
Apart from influencer platforms that have failed to prepare for Instagram’s API changes, influencer agencies that utilize platforms are also among those affected. Reesa Lake, EVP of Brand Partnerships at Digital Brand Architects (DBA), an influencer agency specializing in influencer management, mentions that DBA was in the midst of changing influencer platforms when the Instagram altered its API.
She says, “The changes to Instagram’s API were unexpected, we were in the process of switching platforms and about to roll out a new management portfolio layout on the day the changes were implemented. It was a quick fire drill. Being that we manage our clients exclusively and have direct access to back-end analytics from their social platforms and Google Analytics blog data, we can still go in manually and access to individual accounts.” In the case of those that utilize influencer platforms, Instagram’s API changes have had an inevitable ripple effect.
Inevitably, Instagram’s API changes make things harder for everyone in the influencer industry. Influencers and brands have reduced access to Instagram user information and in turn a reduced ability to analyze Instagram users and market to them effectively.
Nevertheless, many remain relatively unconcerned. HYPR founder Gil Eyal addressed the lasting impact of the API changes in saying, “I don’t think this will have a significant long-term impact on the industry. While the API restrictions create a disruption in parts of the influencer business today, most of the data can be easily supplemented through other means – sometimes as simple as having someone manually log in and look at the information.”
The businesses and influencers who have diversified across social channels are least likely to be affected by Instagram’s API changes. Those who rely solely on Instagram user information to do business will likely be hurt the most. For example, a fashion influencer who predominantly uses LIKEtoKNOW.it to generate income will face more hindrances than a fashion influencer who regularly creates sponsored content on YouTube.
In the wake of Instagram’s API changes, influencer marketing may become an increasingly appealing option for many. As an advertising strategy, influencer marketing doesn’t depend on a singular social platform or access to user information through an API.