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Message from the dark side: The rise of ‘dark social’ and how you can use it in your business6 min read

Find out all about ‘dark social’, one of the most effective sharing techniques on the internet. This post explains what it is, and ideas for using it.

The phrase ‘dark social’ sounds terrifying. It conjures images of content people don’t necessarily want to see, and things that definitely aren’t safe for work. You’d be forgiven for assuming it’s not something your brand doesn’t want to be involved in.

You couldn’t be further from the truth.

What is ‘dark social’?

The term ‘dark social’ was coined by Alexis C Madrigal, an editor at American magazine the Atlantic, in a 2012 article. In a nutshell it refers to the practice of sharing via private messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and plain old SMS.

Dark social traffic is traffic that doesn’t come from a recognised source.

The reason it’s called ‘dark’ is because you can’t track it as easily. If someone shares a URL on Twitter, for example, it’s easy to see and track. Dark social traffic is traffic that doesn’t come from a recognised source, and as such platforms such as Google Analytics won’t count it as a referral.

In the original 2012 piece, Madrigal says that most of the sharing of links is done via dark social: we only cling on to Facebook and Twitter sharing because it’s easy to measure. Madrigal calls it “the tip of the ‘social’ iceberg”.

It’s important to embrace dark social. According to research published in June 2016, 77% of content is being shared on private channels. Companies can’t afford to ignore it for much longer.

How can dark social sharing be influenced?

As you’d expect, encouraging people to share articles via private or instant messages isn’t straight forward. Websites can be optimised for Facebook or Twitter sharing, so that when the links are posted they generate nice looking cards and images, but that’s about it. You could also introduce sharing buttons for messaging platforms, but obviously you can’t force people to actually use these.

There’s no way to game email or people’s instant messages.

– Alexis Madrigal

Therefore it’s the content itself that is the main driver of sharing here. It’s easy to read a headline and scan an article before sharing it publicly as you’re unlikely to be called out for it, but to a friend or relative? If the content isn’t interesting they’re more likely to wonder why you’ve sent it their way, and we usually value these personal relationships more than we do our social profiles.

This is a bit of good news for copywriters and content producers, as it puts the emphasis back on producing good quality content rather than something that’s begging to be shared on social networks. Dark social is therefore “pure social, uncut”, to use Madrigal’s words.

Can dark social ever be accurately tracked?

Yes and no.

If you manage a Google Analytics account, you may have noticed that direct traffic to your website (traditionally thought of as people who type a URL into the address bar) lands on pages with quite long URLs. The odds of someone memorising this full address and going direct to the page is slim. It’s therefore fairly safe to assume that they’ve clicked a link from a source you can’t track, such as email, text, or instant message.

Econsultancy suggests that users could “set up a segment in your analytics that takes into account all direct traffic links with parameters”. This would mean that every page that isn’t your home page would be counted as dark social. As they point out, it doesn’t necessarily help you figure out where something was shared and what’s driving that traffic, but it’s a start.

If you introduce sharing buttons to allow sharing by email, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger you still can’t track people who share on these channels without using the buttons.

With dark social you can make a lot of assumptions, but it’s incredibly difficult to be 100% sure.

Who’s using it? And how?

Adidas are one of the biggest organisations to utilise dark social in their marketing efforts. An interview with the brand’s senior director of global communications, Florian Alt, however, suggested that the company has “no major learnings” from their experiments so far.

For the past three months Adidas has been using WhatApp to build ‘squads’ in cities such as Berlin, London, Paris, Milan, and Stockholm.

Speaking to the Drum at this year’s Festival of Marketing, Alt claimed that “it is not the purpose to sell products” with the WhatsApp groups. He claims that “kids would recognise what you are doing and probably leave the group”. Therefore Adidas are increasingly seeing dark social as a way of building relationships with consumers. The plan, according to Alt, is to get to the point when “you are no longer building the engagement but maintaining the engagement”.

When they launched the ‘squads’ initiative in March, Adidas planned to give members early access to news, invite them to events, and give them access to the brand’s range of ambassadors. Their first use of dark social was during the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final when they used Twitter direct messages to invite brand advocates into a private conversation with one of the players they sponsored.

More recently, Greggs has jumped on the dark social bandwagon. The ‘Festive Bake Lovers’ WhatsApp group was launched on 2 November and will hold up to 250 people. The group will run up until Christmas, no doubt before changing name and continuing if it’s been a success. Members will get “insider news on launch dates, exclusive content, and competition opportunities”.

How to embrace dark social

We’ve covered what dark social is, whether we can track it, and brands that are using it, so what does this mean for the rest of us? After all, not everyone is fortunate enough to work for high-profile companies like Adidas and Greggs with long-established fanbases.

One of the most effective ways to use dark social is to think about how to reward customers. Click To Tweet

One of the most effective ways to use dark social is to start thinking about your influencers, and how you can reward customers for interacting with you. Essentially what organisations need to do is get involved in these debates and discussions and start taking the lead.

  • Give customers a reason to join. Giving customers early access to news might work for fashion fans, but it’s probably not something that will be enough to entice people in to smaller organisations. Instead, why not offer an exclusive discount to the first 100 people to join your WhatsApp group? When they join, advertise the prospect of further discounts to follow in exchange for activities such as sharing content.
  • Make it exclusive. If you’re running a Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp group, don’t leave it open to all and sundry. Like Greggs above, restrict it to a certain number and be strict about it. Making something exclusive – especially if it generates a lot of activity outside of the group – can increase demand in the long run.
  • Focus groups. Your private WhatsApp group could become a space for your customers to test products and share their thoughts and, in effect, help shape your future direction. By treating them like celebrities by giving them early access you could help turn a customer into an advocate.
  • Manage your influencers. Having a separate group for your influencers is great to provide them with early access to information. You can encourage them to use products in the wild and provide photos and videos, which can then be repurposed on public channels.