How to deal with dark social

How to deal with dark social

A shot in the dark is rarely a successful strategy for effective marketing.

In an increasingly complex multichannel marketing environment, understanding how strategy is performing – and assessing the success or return on investment (ROI) of campaigns effectively – is crucial. But it can also be a challenge, even online, particularly if you don’t know where a significant proportion of direct, incoming traffic is coming from. Welcome to ‘dark social’.

What is 'dark social'?

Coined in 2012 by Alexis C Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, the term ‘dark social’ describes the social sharing of content that web analytics programs are unable to track. It usually refers to web traffic resulting from the sharing of links via private or group online chat platforms – such as WhatsApp, Messenger and Snapchat – or email, rather than more public variants like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

It’s nothing new

Whilst private sharing via dark social may be a growing trend, it’s had a significant presence for some time. According to a report from ad tech company RadiumOne, approximately 69% of all sharing activity was via dark social – three times that of Facebook (23%). Importantly, 32% of people who share content online will only share via dark social. So, understanding where it’s coming from, what’s shaping the customer conversation – and what that means for the customer journey and consumer behaviour – are essential questions marketers need to address if they want to use these channels to communicate with consumers.

Catalyst spoke to senior marketers about what strategies they could offer brands on dealing with these ‘private engagements’ – and bringing them into the marketing mix.

1. Tracking success

Dark social, in theory, presents marketers with another touchpoint for brands and their customers. But measuring the impact of engagement is problematic and cannot be accurately measured, monitored or analysed. With views, shares, engagement and traffic being the currency of online marketing, resolving this issue is essential for brands that need to measure the success of a campaign and their integrated multichannel digital strategies.

According to Jane Ostler, sector managing director of media and digital at market research and media consultancy firm Millward Brown, many marketers are already tackling this by entering partnerships with platforms like Snapchat so they can optimise brand messages, content marketing and direct sales to consumers. “We anticipate that marketers will start to expect forms of effectiveness measurement that are not in silos, but that take account of cross-platform and cross-device usage, and measure the impact on brand, action and sales.”

2. Creating opportunities

New channels mean new ways of communication so, as well as challenges, exploring dark social marketing offers opportunities for brands to engage with customers in new ways.

Understanding how people are using a channel, what they do there and who they interact with are all crucial first steps, says Aaron Child, social director at digital agency Exposure Digital. “Dark social channels can allow a brand to tell a completely new story – a new side to a well-known face. The challenge is also a huge opportunity, if the balance is right.

Child believes dark social is quickly becoming an essential part of the marketing mix. “If your target audience is there, then, most likely, you need to be there. We are at a point where we know the importance of these channels but not many brands are ‘owning’ the space, so it’s wide open. The brands with the greatest knowledge of the channel, the best understanding of consumer behaviour and the most creative ideas will win the medal.”

3. Tackling issues

According to Mike Blake-Crawford, head of social media management at social media marketing agency Social Chain, it’s imperative for marketers to seek to engage users on dark social and start building meaningful relationships from which they can gather insights to inform and educate future strategies.

However, attempting to follow the online conversation into private platforms could be problematic –and potentially risky – for brands. These are, after all, reasons why this cultural shift towards private messaging and sharing content apps is happening. Blake-Crawford claims that this reflects a change in attitude towards social media, particularly among a younger audience that has become savvier about the ways marketers use these platforms to communicate brand messages and influence the conversation.

“Gen Z and millennials are becoming ever more private due to the increase of advertising, ‘muddy’ influencer marketing campaigns – and their mums joining social media,” he says. As a result, brands need to think more about the way they are communicating with their target audience. They must consider having a more direct, raw and less superficial conversation.

“Consumers are beginning to devalue relationships with brands on these platforms as they become saturated with sponsored content,” continues Blake-Crawford. “Targeting consumers through ‘dark’ channels provides an opportunity to engage on a more personal level, building trust and positive sentiment as we do so”.

4. Off limits

At the same time, marketers have to be conscious about intruding in channels that are consciously viewed by many users as ‘off limits’ to marketing. “One of the main challenges faced when approaching dark social is finding the balance in terms of frequency and messaging,” says Blake-Crawford. “Targeting consumers on messaging apps such as WhatsApp moves the conversation into a very private and personal space. How many times can you message consumers per day? Will a conversational tone of voice work best, or will being more corporate make consumers feel safer?”

Ostler agrees: “As with any new platform, marketers must be cautious about when to engage and ensure they’re being relevant. It helps to give something of value in return for customer contact, in form of entertainment, for example.

The nature of the conversation also has to be more tailored and nuanced. “Dark social campaigns need to have a more relaxed approach,” suggests Barr. “Brands need to realise they can’t control the message as effectively, or withdraw marketing materials in the same way that they would for a mainstream campaign.

Marketers must also consider the culture of the channel and typical usage patterns of a particular platform. Snapchat, for instance – with its focus on rich, raw visual content captured in real time – requires a different approach to the more conversation-orientated WhatsApp or Messenger.

5. Measured approach

It’s surprising then that many brands are wary of using dark social strategies, with brand managers and senior marketing teams struggling to sell these ideas to board-level decision makers.

“The majority of the bigger brands we work with are keen to commit to low-budget tests to see the response and try to monitor for any kind of wider uplift,” says Barr. “But smaller brands – and especially the more analytical clients that base marketing spend on clear results – are less forthcoming. As soon as a form of tracking and ROI analysis can be delivered, I am more than convinced dark social will become just another form of marketing, albeit a less controllable one.”

How to address sharing as it increasingly moves into dark social, and how marketers respond, may still be an issue for debate. What is undisputed, however, is the importance of understanding this space for marketers seeking engagement with an ever-evolving online audience. Brands may be able to generate bespoke content that is shared and received positive by dark social users, but without robust, credible tracking methods and metrics to help measure ROI, creating a cast-iron strategy for dark social remains – for the time being at least – a distinctly grey area.

 Catalyst issue four: Make the connection


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