Embrace the dark side: stop neglecting dark social

Trustpilot Social Media Sentiment

Hyperbole. Most departments are prone to it in some form or other but marketing seems particularly keen to cite the life changing consequences of just about every development in their field. True, the mechanisms brands use to communicate with consumers have changed drastically and companies have been forced to adapt their strategy accordingly but I can’t be the only one exhausted with clickbait-esque blogs on why-Facebook-is-dead-and-you-need-to-invest-your-entire-marketing-spend-into-myfreeimplants.com (yes, it’s a real thing).

Somewhat amazingly though, there’s a huge channel that many brands have almost entirely neglected. A channel which now accounts for 84% of all shared content despite over 90% of social marketing ad budgets going directly to social networks. Dark social.


But what is dark social?

Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as scary as it sounds and isn’t the same thing as the dark web — the hidden depths of the internet home to drug deals, gun trading and a whole host of other unsavoury activities. It is, however, almost certainly something you’ve engaged with unwittingly. Coined by Alexis C. Madrigal way back in 2012, the term refers to social sharing that occurs outside of platforms that can be measured by web analytics programs. It’s literally as simple as that. Send an article to someone via WhatsApp? You’ve just engaged in “dark social”.

Volume isn’t the only advantage dark social has over its better known brethren either. There’s an emotional weight to sharing content on a one-to-one basis with family or close friends that is exponentially more powerful than the one-size-fits-all approach of social networks.

What makes this neglect all the more fascinating is that there hasn’t been a monumental shift from public to private sharing in recent months. Indeed, many of the platforms used to share content actually pre-date social media. Nevertheless it has huge implications for social media strategy and may seem like an insurmountable task to even the most ardent early adopter. Despite this there are already brands incorporating dark social as a tangible part of their marketing strategy.


You’ve been tangoed

Adidas is using dark social to approach influencer marketing in an entirely unique way with the launch of ‘Tango Squads’ — a community of well-connected football content creators operating on direct messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Each of the 15 groups is managed by an in-house team who use the channels to share exclusive content and new products before they can be seen anywhere else. Members are also invited to take part in unique experiences (such as meet and greets with Adidas sponsored athletes) which they then share across their social channels.

The key departure here is from digital marketers’ obsession with reach. A cocktail of limited budgets, expectation to prove ROI and a whole host of other factors have rapidly boosted reach to one of the primary metrics brands use to measure success. Whilst Adidas have undoubtedly sacrificed sheer reach, they’re confident that the Tango Squads give their product a longevity and authenticity that they wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise.

“But…but…but” I hear you say, “we don’t have the same budget as Adidas. How on earth are we supposed to focus our already limited time and budget on something we can’t even track properly?”


Telecommunications gone dark

In a different approach, O2 has embraced dark social by focussing on implementing effective  tracking. By integrating sharing widgets and URL shorteners across owned and earned assets the brand is able to better understand the kind of content its customers engage with, whom they share it with and what devices they use to do so.

Though arguably less exciting sounding than Adidas’, O2’s approach offers a valuable template for brands dipping their toe into the murky waters.

Tracking shares will only get you so far though. You need to get people sharing in the first place. That’s the subject for a whole different article but the key takeaway I’ll offer you is create great content. Don’t churn out trash that just adds to the interminable pile of poorly constructed sh*te we’re inundated with every day just because your expensive marketing consultant told you that ‘content is king’ (*vomit*).

Understand what your objectives are, know how to add value and create interesting, informative, engaging material. Only then will people sit up and take notice.

Oh, and keep in mind that your direct traffic might not be direct at all…