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What The Growth of “Dark Social” Means for Brands

Ed Terpening
Group of business woman and men sitting at table with question marks held in front of face.

What is “Dark Social”?

Sounds ominous, but Dark Social is merely the sharing of content from social channels that is not easily tracked, and so often hidden from the light of analytic tools that record sharing and inbound clicks to your website. The impact is significant: depending on the research study, it represents anywhere between 32-75% of sharing, and 91% of Americans share this way. At the same time, Facebook has experienced a 21% decline in personal sharing (but with measured growth in work-related professional sharing). This hidden sharing activity could represent 3X that of Facebook, so well worth understanding. In a 2014 study by advertising platform RadiumOne, close to 70% of all online global referrals were found to come from dark social. Imagine investing in social and—at best—being only able to measure 30% of your investment. Here is research data from RadiumOne that explores regional differences:

RadiumOne Dark Social Statistics

We tend to think of the social graph (that connects us in social networks) as an open highway where sharing spreads content, but increasingly, consumers are taking side roads that circumvent traditional tracking mechanisms.

The purpose of this post is to help digital and social strategists understand this phenomenon and—where they can--plan accordingly.

Dark Social: How & Why

Marketers design social content to be shared, and so increasingly rely on tracking tools—often found in the URL of the post—to measure impact. If you look at a Google Analytics report for inbound traffic to your website, you’ll see a big bucket called “Direct Traffic” because these visits lack the tracking tags/cookies that provide an audit trail of how the visitor ended up on your site. When I directed a big brand social team, I remember seeing this bucket and wanting to know more. The standard answer—at least then—was that visitors were either typing in the URL (highly unlikely), accessing a bookmark (again highly unlikely) or coming in through some other means (likely). Dark Social is how we shared content pre-social web era, so it’s not too surprising to see this phenomenon. Factors that are driving it include:

  • Messaging Tool Growth. The explosive growth of private 1:1 and 1:many messaging apps is shifting sharing from traditional social networks to those like WhatsApp, SnapChat, and Facebook Messenger, apps which typically have less mature tracking and advertising platforms.
  • Privacy Concerns. As a “walled garden,” networks like Facebook make sharing to individuals (or small groups) outside the garden—such as via direct email--very difficult. While this gives Facebook great control/insight into our interests, it works against users who want to share content privately. That’s perhaps one reason the network is investing heavily in Facebook Messenger. Another driver for privacy is the high-profile hacks of celebrity accounts, that have lead the average social network (and cloud) user to think again about the promise of privacy for their content.
  • Over-Sharing Concerns. Related to privacy, users don’t want to be labeled an ‘over-sharer.’ This activity showed up in our recent employee advocacy research, which showed that 20% of users defriend/un-follow people based on posts about work. Sharing via Dark Social returns to people the 1:1 sharing they feel is most appropriate.
  • URL Link Shorting Tools. Often these tools don’t carry forward information needed to track social content sharing. This obscures the source of links being shared.
  • Firewalls at Work. Many people work in an environment where social sharing is blocked by network firewalls. An easy work-around is to copy/paste links into an email.

Brand Impact

We’ve spent years convincing business leaders that social media is the platform that can shift brand perception and action, primarily through peer-to-peer influence. There’s no doubt that peers trust each other, but if the limited research on Dark Social is any indication, brands are possibly missing insights into a treasure trove of peer sharing that occurs outside social media’s walls, and usually outside measurement ability. To make matters worse for brand managers, because it is more personal, this type of private peer sharing is the most valuable, trusted and likely to lead to action.

Private social messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and legacy platforms like email and SMS are increasingly the preferred method of social sharing.

If we care about the how peers influence opinion and action, our focus on social media represents a small portion of sharing activity that shifts mindsets. Social and digital strategists need to consider dark social on par with social, in terms of strategic importance and measurement.

How Brands Have Taken Action

There are some opportunities to peek into dark social, but don’t expect to solve this challenge completely.   As per the drivers above, consumers will (rightly) find a way to share in ways we can’t track.   They are always one step ahead. 

Here’s a sampling of case studies for how brands are addressing dark social:

  • Ghirardelli: According to RadiumOne’s seminal research in this area, this San Francisco chocolatier measured the impact and took action. Chris Pemberton, digital brand manager at Ghirardelli said, “We were surprised to find that 84% of the sharing activity was Dark Social. What that means is 84% of total sharing activity had been hidden from us.” As a result, they embedded sharing buttons that included typical Dark Social platforms, like email.
  • Time Inc.: According to RadiumOne’s study, Time Inc. found that—for its Marie Claire website—there were close to 19K shares via copy/paste from its site to email, while Facebook and Twitter only accounted for 5K shares. Looking today at that site, an email share button is at equal prominence as social sharing sites, making it easier to track (when I tested that button, I found a clear source tag to indicate “social email” as the source of action).
  • Adidas: This brand is an early adopter in testing the use of direct messaging apps to both make the brand experience more personal and to better track activity. Using WhatsApp, it rolled out hyper-local “squads” of advocates for users to share and discuss Adidas content. The rewards for participation included special invites to events and getting news/promotions first. So far, results haven’t been shared, but from what I’ve read Adidas sees this as a ‘test & learn’ approach that may be applied to other messaging platforms as dark social grows.
  • USA Today: According to Social Media Insider, sports site “For the Win” added WhatsApp sharing to its mobile experience and recorded an 18% increase in the site’s overall sharing activity. It found that 53% of sharing came from Dark Social vs. 47% through traditional sharing tools.
  • Clarks: To access Dark Social, this shoemaker created a WhatsApp campaign to engage with fans of their desert boot shoe and its history by arranging live chat engagement. There’s a nice short video of the campaign here on YouTube.
  • Insidious Films. Like Clarks and Adidas, this entertainment company developed a chat campaign with one of their fictional characters, but in this case, using Kik, yet another mobile-based messaging platform. According to Mobile Marketer, “This campaign lets fans of the Insidious Films chat with [fictional teenage heroine] Quinn in a semi linear story,” said Russell Ward, president of Massively.  “In this case, the beginning and ending were pre-determined by the Massively creative team and Focus Features, but the story develops and unfolds as an individual experience for every user”. Kik has supported a promoted chats program since 2014.

Dark Social Checklist

Here are a few tactics I would think about to address Dark Social:

  • Test & Learn. Keep an eye on the evolution of chat bots (like Facebook Messenger Chatbots), which are being developed to personalize private consumer-to-brand direct engagement at scale. Also, test sharing tools that support Dark Social channels (like RadiumOne or Simply Measured) to get insight into how much of your particular audience prefers private sharing. In addition to these tools, even a simple feature like “Copy Link to Clipboard” is an easy way to test (be sure to include a UTM parameter in the URL).
  • Understand Consumer Segment Behavior. Gaining Dark Social insights and combing with consumer insights from your apps, mobile, web and other social only help better define audience behavior and therefore opportunities to engage effectively. For example, the Dark Social percentage may be particularly significant for you if your target audience consists of those ages 55 and older. According to RadiumOne's research, 46% of consumers in that age bracket share only via dark social, as opposed to those in the 16-34 age group, where only 19% do so. Supporting these findings,TechRepublic found “Generation Z” (the generation after Millennials), is much more into messaging apps and more cognizant of privacy. Realizing that Dark Social is occurring, spend time building personas for audiences that may use (or be the recipient of) Dark Social posts.
  • Expand Your View of Social Media’s ROI. If you measure social media content success today based on what’s measurable, bump engagement up by 30-70% to form a full picture, and specifically segment out Dark Social as an engagement measure less certain than others. Also, be accepting of the fact that Dark Social posts are more personal, and therefore more impactful and valuable. If you differentiate the value in sharing between public and private, consider Dark Social shares at a higher rate of value, given their very direct, P2P nature (that don’t get lost in a newsfeed).
  • Digital-Social Strategy Integration. As reported in our 2015 State of Social Business report, strategists are focused on taking social out of its silo and incorporating it into a broader digital picture. The use of dark social only adds to the strategy integration argument. Enable and track sharing wherever users choose to do so.
  • Enable Dark Social Sharing. Rather than trying to get around dark social, find ways to make it more measurable than it is today. Make more prominent on your website, mobile apps or other “owned” digital properties the sharing of content through email, SMS and direct messaging options (like WhatsApp) to gain visibility into private sharing.
  • Plan on Bots that Observe. The state of messaging bots is early (see my post here on Facebook bots), which makes it a good time to learn and understand how your insights for 1:1 interaction with consumers drives overall social/digital audience engagement approaches.

Lastly, don’t sweat it: private sharing is human nature, and people will find a way to share digitally outside the lens of analytics. Use the sharing you can record as an indicator for what you can’t in dark social.

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