They built their business on Instagram. Then the platform changed

“It took off a lot faster than I expected,” she said. Her account, Midnight Tokar Vintage, has amassed nearly 6,000 followers since launching in September 2020, and she launched a second account focused on reselling clothing. Even with a relatively modest following, Tokar, a 30-year-old single mom living in New York City, was able to make the Instagram store her steady source of income about a year ago.

But lately, her posts haven’t been reaching as many of her followers and regulars, meaning items have been selling much more slowly, problems she says may have something to do with recent changes to Instagram’s platform. “Things just don’t show… I’ll still get messages months after [posting something] like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen that,'” Tokar said.
She is not alone. As Instagram increasingly prioritizes videos and recommended posts in users’ feeds in an effort to keep up with rival TikTok, some small businesses built on the platform are having a harder time reaching their followers and facing declining engagement, and say , that they are worried about the future of their business. Some small business owners have joined users in a petition calling to “make Instagram Instagram again” — which has garnered more than 300,000 signatures since it launched last month. Others have voiced concerns directly on the platform in posts and stories.

“I still have my core customer base … but the way Instagram is changing, it just doesn’t feel sustainable anymore, I don’t feel like I can really grow,” said Liz Gross, who since 2011 has sold of vintage fashion through her account, Xtabay Vintage. Gross said 98 percent of her business comes from the platform after her brick-and-mortar store closed during the pandemic.

The concerns among small business owners are part of a larger backlash to Instagram’s changes, which some users say are taking away from the photo-sharing app’s legacy and making it harder to connect with the communities that have spent years building the platform. Many users have complained that instead of seeing their friends’ posts on their feed, they are now much more likely to see suggested posts, ads, and reels (Instagram’s short video answer to TikTok) that may or may not be of interest to them.
After a wave of pushback last month, including from social media heavyweights like Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, Instagram said it would temporarily roll back some of the updates. Instagram said it will pause a full-screen option it’s testing in an apparent effort to look more like TikTok, and reduce the number of recommended posts in users’ feeds until it can improve the algorithm that predicts what people want to see. Still, Instagram head Adam Mosseri suggested that videos and suggested posts remain central to the app’s future.

In response to questions about the concerns of small business owners, Anne Yeh, a spokeswoman for Instagram’s parent company Meta, reiterated that Instagram is temporarily reducing the number of recommended posts in users’ feeds in response to user feedback. “We recognize that changes to the app can be an adjustment, and while we believe Instagram needs to evolve as the world changes, we want to take our time to make sure we get this right,” Yeh said in a statement .

Mosseri said the move to more recommended content is meant to help the platform’s creators — suggesting users will be more likely to discover something they haven’t already followed. But some business owners say it’s more important to simply ensure that their posts reach people who have chosen to follow them.

“I have people writing to me saying they never see my posts anymore and wondering if I’m still posting,” said Gross, who typically posts several times each day to her 166,000 followers. “Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who follow me actually see them.”

Determining exactly why post reach varies on each platform can be challenging. Instagram provides professional users such as businesses and other creators with a dashboard that shows how their content is performing, including the number of accounts viewing and engaging with their posts.

Similarly, Liz Sickinger, owner of Six Vintage Rugs, said that while her followers usually engage with her content if it appears on their channel, lately her posts are only seen by about 5 percent of the people who follow her.

“As a creative, I started to resent the time there,” Sickinger, who started her account selling antique rugs four years ago and has nearly 42,000 followers, told CNN Business in an email. She added that she wasn’t sure her posts were actually showing up as recommended content in other users’ feeds, but said, “I suspect not because I don’t post a lot of videos and my account growth is completely steady.”

Many small business owners are also frustrated with the platform’s focus on video and say they feel they have to create videos or Instagram Reels to get their posts seen, whether the format makes sense for their products or not.

“I didn’t get into this business wanting to have fun,” Tokar said. “Creating this content takes a long time and is such a painstaking job to begin with. My hours are spent sourcing, photographing, listing, researching, cleaning and delivering… It’s now a full-time job.”

Accounts can pay to “boost” their posts so they appear as sponsored posts in more users’ feeds, which many business owners said now feels like one of the only ways to get still image engagement . Sickinger said her ad spend has doubled in the past year “because organic reach is dead.”

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For Gross, who said sponsored posts have helped grow her following over the years, now having to pay to be seen feels unfair. “What good is it if you’re not actually going to show up [my posts] to the people I paid money to reach initially?” she said.

Business and e-commerce are key to Instagram’s future growth strategy, and in recent years the app has introduced a growing set of shopping features. Instagram encourages business owners to use all of the app’s features—including Stories, Live, Posts, and Reels—to ensure followers see and interact with their content. The company also offers training sessions to small business owners on the platform, including in-person events in select cities. Instagram’s parent company Meta says more than 200 million businesses around the world use its services each month, though it doesn’t have a separate figure for Instagram.

Given Instagram’s massive reach, opting out is difficult for both users and businesses. But some business owners say they are considering expanding to other platforms because of the changes. Tokar said she has started making some sales through e-commerce sites Depop and Etsy and no longer relies on her store for all of her income. And Sickinger said her “saving grace” is the ability to reach her loyal customers through an email list.

Still, there’s no way to easily transfer Instagram account followers to an audience elsewhere, and other platforms often come with fees and other policies that can make selling there more complicated than on Instagram.

“This thing keeps me up at night because I don’t know how else I would reach people,” Gross said. “I mean, I could start posting on Twitter. But visually the impact of Instagram has always been that you have an image that you see, so losing that would have a huge impact.”

Sickinger said, “My business wouldn’t be what it is today without this platform, which is why I’m so invested. But I want them to really understand who their consumer is, and I’m not sure they do.”

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