After losing her construction job early in the pandemic, Kaitlin Tokar decided to try selling some of her vintage furniture and housewares collection on Instagram.
“It took off way faster than I expected,” she said. Her account, Midnight Tokar Vintage, has racked up nearly 6,000 followers since launching in September 2020 and she’s started a second account centered on resale 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 shop her full-time source of income about a year ago.
But more recently, her posts haven’t been reaching as many of her followers and regular customers, which has meant items have been selling much slower, issues she thinks may have something to do with recent changes to Instagram’s platform. “Things just aren’t being seen. … I still will get messages months after [posting something] like, ‘Oh my god, I never saw this,’” Tokar said.
She’s not alone. As Instagram increasingly prioritizes videos and recommended posts in users’ feeds in an effort to keep pace with rival TikTok, some small businesses that were built on the platform are having a harder time reaching their followers and facing declining engagement, and say they’re worried about the future of their businesses. Some small business owners joined users in sounding off in a Change.org petition calling to “make Instagram Instagram again” — which has gained more than 300,000 signatures since it was started last month. Others have raised concerns directly on the platform in posts and stories.
“I still have my core base of customers … but the way that 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 been selling vintage fashion through her account, Xtabay Vintage. Gross said 98% of her business comes from the platform after her brick-and-mortar store closed during the pandemic.
Concerns among small business owners are part of a larger backlash to Instagram’s changes, which some users say are taking away from the app’s photo-sharing legacy and making it harder to connect with the communities they’ve spent years building on the platform. Many users have complained that instead of seeing their friends’ posts on their feed, they’re now far more likely to see suggested posts, advertisements and Reels (Instagram’s short video answer to TikTok) that they may or may not be interested in.
After a wave of pushback last month, including from social media heavyweights such as Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, Instagram said it would temporarily walk back some of the updates. Instagram said it would pause a full-screen option it had been testing in an apparent effort to look more like TikTok, and would scale back 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 has suggested that videos and suggested posts remain central to the app’s future.
In response to questions regarding small business owners’ concerns, Anne Yeh, a spokesperson for Instagram 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 that Instagram needs to evolve as the world changes, we want to take the time to make sure we get this right,” Yeh said in a statement.
Mosseri has said that the move to more recommended content is intended to help creators on the platform — suggesting that users will be more likely to discover something they didn’t already follow. But some business owners say simply ensuring that their posts reach people who chose to follow them is more important.
“I have people that write me that say they never see my posts anymore and wonder if I still post,” said Gross, who typically posts multiple times each day for her 166,000 followers. “Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the people that follow me actually see them.”
Determining precisely why the reach for posts fluctuates on any platform can be a challenge. Instagram provides professional users such as businesses and other creators a dashboard that shows how their content is performing, including the number of accounts that view and engage with their posts.
Similarly, Liz Sickinger, owner of Six Vintage Rugs, said that while her followers typically engage with her content if it pops up in their feed, lately her posts are seen by only around 5% of the people who follow her.
“As a creator, I’ve grown resentful of 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’s not sure her posts are actually showing up as recommended content in other users’ feeds but said, “I suspect not because I don’t post many videos and my account growth has completely plateaued.”
Many small business owners are also frustrated by the platform’s focus on video, and say they feel they must create videos or Instagram Reels in order for their posts to be seen, whether or not the format makes sense for their products.
“I didn’t go into this business wanting to be entertaining,” Tokar said. “It’s so time-consuming making that content and it’s such a time-consuming job to begin with. My hours are spent sourcing and photographing and listing and researching and cleaning and delivering. … That’s already a full-time job.”
Accounts can pay to “boost” their posts so that they will show up as sponsored posts in more users’ feeds, which multiple business owners said now feels like one of the only ways to ensure engagement with still images. Sickinger said her ad spend has doubled in the past year “because organic reach is dead.”
For Gross, who said sponsored posts have helped grow her following over the years, having to now pay to be seen feels unfair. “What good is it if you’re not going to actually show [my posts] to the people who I paid money to reach initially?” she said.
Businesses and e-commerce are key to Instagram’s future growth strategy, and the app has in recent years introduced a growing slate 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 trainings to small business owners on the platform, including in-person events in certain cities. Instagram parent company Meta says that more than 200 million businesses around the world use its services each month, although it did not have a separate figure for Instagram.
Given Instagram’s tremendous reach, quitting is hard, both for users and businesses. But some business owners say they’re considering expanding to other platforms because of the changes. Tokar said she’s started conducting some sales through e-commerce sites Depop and Etsy, and she’s now no longer relying on her shop for all her income. And Sickinger said her “saving grace” has been the ability to reach her repeat customers through an email list.
Still, there’s no way to easily transition an Instagram account’s following to an audience elsewhere, and other platforms often come with fees and other policies that can make selling there more complicated than on Instagram.
“It kind of keeps me up at night because I don’t know how else I would reach people,” Gross said. “I mean, I could start doing Twitter posts. But visually, the impact of Instagram was always that you have an image that you saw, so losing that would have a tremendous impact.”
Said Sickinger: “My business would not be what it is today without this platform, which is why I’m so invested. I want them to really understand who their user is though, and I’m not sure that they do.”