In the marketing world, the phrase “dark social” has sometimes been used as a threat or a warning. Many see it as impenetrable and too difficult to evaluate ROI from. But it’s a topic that has only become increasingly timely after Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s planned pivot from a public-facing platform into one built on private messaging.
What’s more, forward-thinking brands are realising its potential. Starbucks, home to plenty of coffee shop gossip in its time, is now looking to dark social to engage more with its customers’ conversations, combining product development with marketing as it looks to Facebook groups to gauge brand sentiment and conduct trend analysis.
Dark social doesn’t have to be seen as a threat. Our data brings some illumination to this “dark” area, and highlights some potential pathways for brands to navigate through it.
Most sharing happens in the shadows
“Dark social” refers to messages and content exchanged online on channels that are encrypted or otherwise unseen to marketers. If public platforms are the tip of the iceberg, dark social is the bulk that lies underneath the surface. Private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger are the classic examples, but it includes messages sent via SMS and email too.
Dark social is part of a trend we’ve been tracking for some time. Public platforms have, by and large, morphed into content consumption platforms, while peer-to-peer sharing has moved onto messaging services like WhatsApp and Messenger. To put it in very crude terms, news articles and entertainment might be read or seen on a news feed, but much of the sharing and discussion around them will often happen on private channels.
We got a glimpse into the volume of sharing that takes place on dark social from a bespoke survey we ran in February this year. We found that 63% of internet users in the UK and U.S. share information or recommendations to close contacts on private messaging apps, putting it above public posts on social media (54%) and offline recommendations (51%) in popularity. SMS and emails were further down the list, but their consistency among older age groups ensures that dark social recommendations outrank those made in-person for every age group.
Not only that, but there are some consumers for whom the only kind of word-of-mouth they engage with comes on dark social. 20% of internet users only share their opinions or recommendations on dark social channels.
With the amount of sharing taking place on dark social, the opportunities for viral spread through it great. The old adage is that word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing, but this kind of peer-to-peer sharing and recommending is amplified on these channels. With the right strategy, this type of sharing can be instigated at source within messaging services, as Starbucks are attempting to do by engaging with some of their most enthusiastic customers in private groups.
A place where consumers are their true selves
Knowing the level of sharing on dark social is one thing, but it means little without context, which our survey helped to clarify. Dark social comes into its own as a place where users can adopt a persona closer to their true self.
48% of social sharers in our survey felt they are more comfortable being themselves when sharing on private messaging apps – more than those who say they’re most comfortable when sharing publicly. All age groups share this tendency. There’s a very different dynamic at work when sharing with friends than sharing with followers. Consumers may present a certain version of themselves on public platforms, but what they say on dark social is likely to be closer to what they truly think and feel.
This is something baked into messaging apps in particular. WhatsApp and its ilk are designed to facilitate communication in a secure, intimate environment, and Zuckerberg’s recent words on the subject indicate preserving this intimacy is one of Facebook’s main objectives. When Starbucks talk about the value of “deeper conversations” taking place on dark social, this is what they’re tapping into.
One of the other revealing findings from our survey is that consumers were more likely to share funny photos and videos (44%) than they were links to websites or brand recommendations (31%). It may be a well-worn cliché, and something that’s easier to say than it is to put into practice, but in leveraging organic spread on dark social, there is no substitute for creating messaging that lands emotionally with consumers.
How brands can take advantage
Some of the challenges of reaching out on dark social can’t be avoided. It’s built to be a closed-off environment, and won’t offer the rich data and reach that brands may have become accustomed to from public platforms. It’s also worth considering that consumers may be so at home in dark social at the moment precisely because it’s more of an “unbranded” space than other places they go to online. There’s likely to be a barrier to entry of sorts on dark social, with consumers only comfortable including brands in an intimate environment when they already have a meaningful view of them, or relationship with them.
But these caveats of dark social have a tradeoff with it being a unique space to develop and capitalise on consumer trust. If brands can nurture the right relationship with consumers, there are great potential rewards through organic sharing on dark social. Dark social has been used as a kind of hybrid of focus groups and influence marketing for Starbucks as they explore different channels. But for any brand, it doesn’t have to be feared – it can be a great place to grow advocates of the brand, and capitalise on them for the viral, but trusted, recommendations that the medium offers.
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