Marketers are in a flap: private messaging platforms are on the rise, making it harder to track what people are saying about their products. Yet so-called ‘dark social’ is nothing to be frightened of. Dave Waller gets the skinny on going dark – no biting off bat heads required.

‘Dark social’ may spark images of a backstage after-party in a basement, volume cranked up and eyeliner thicker than icing. The reality is, however, far less menacing: dark social is simply an umbrella term for any content sharing that happens in private channels, whether that’s the instant messaging platforms provided by Facebook and Google, or project management/ industrial-scale distraction engines like Slack. If you’ve ever copied, pasted and emailed your partner a link to that Ramones t-shirt you’ve been banging on about for your birthday, that’s dark social; as is sharing a link to a Tom Petty tribute (RIP) with your mates on WhatsApp.

Feeling around in the dark

It all sounds innocuous enough, but despite being second nature for everyone aged nine to 90 these days, dark social has marketers freaking out. According to social advertiser RadiumOne, marketers are busy throwing 90% of their social spend at public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile a whopping 84% of sharing actually takes place in these dark social channels. If the problem isn’t already abundantly clear, it soon will be: as these platforms are private, marketers can’t see what people are chatting about in there. And because most links that are copied and pasted don’t include tracking data, they also won’t be able to tell how dark social traffic has reached them. Given that social listening is their bread and butter – tracking conversations on Twitter, forums, blogs and open Facebook pages – and they often use the stats they glean on people’s behaviour and attitudes from these public platforms to justify how much their social campaigns cost, that’s a big, big problem.

“Marketers are busy throwing 90% of their social spend at public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile a whopping 84% of sharing actually takes place in these dark social channels.”

But the stress doesn’t end there. We all know that marketers love authenticity. Unfortunately, it seems the more emotional and genuine someone feels about a subject – whether that’s music, TV, sport or politics – the more likely they are to share it through a private channel. Recent developments on public social have only helped drive that: many young people have stopped sharing their opinions on contentious issues on platforms like Facebook, to escape the threat of trolling. Throw in the fact that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are becoming synonymous with fake news, incessant oversharing, companies mining data – and people’s parents and their friends – it’s no wonder certain key demographics prefer to take their chat elsewhere.

“How can you make people do what you want, if they refuse to even look up from their little one-to-one? Perhaps it’s time for a different approach.”

So, it seems, good old fashioned private conversation is back in town – and when it comes to digital, dark is the way it’s going. After all, how can you hear what your buddy’s saying in a chanting crowd, with the volume cranked up to 11? Exactly. The problem for marketers is one-on-one or small group chats in the dark are none of their business, and those convos are now blocking out the noise they’re trying to make elsewhere. Getting people to listen to you when they refuse to even let you into the party is impossible. Perhaps it’s time for a different approach.

Changing the tune

Andre van Loon is research and insight director at We Are Social, a global marketing agency with offices in London. He believes that, while dark social has most marketers sat under their desk shaking, it does in fact present a huge opportunity to learn about social trends.

“Dark social is a valid concern,” he says, “but I like to shift the narrative away from it simply being the latest problem we face, and towards how we can use it.”

It’s now 18 months since We Are Social launched its flagship dark social campaign with Adidas; Tango Squads, one of the first campaigns to use private messaging platforms in an eye-catching way. Realising that Adidas’ target market – 20-year-old guys – were more likely to share links through WhatsApp than Facebook, We Are Social worked out a way to get involved in the conversation – without the sense they were barging in. They identified the main influencers for Adidas in 11 markets globally, and recruited them to talk to their fans in message groups about Adidas products and events. According to van Loon it was a win-win: it boosted the influencers’ credibility and social following, while a key audience for Adidas was suddenly talking and sharing information about the brand.

“It was all very open,” says van Loon, of the thinking behind the campaign. “We knew this was a very cynical audience that can see through marketing bullshit straight away, so they wouldn’t share any old content with us. They’d only share things they were interested in, and that they thought would reflect well on them.”

We Are Social had nailed what Gartner has termed ‘personification’, the idea that, in order to build relationships on dark social, brands have to offer them something genuinely compelling first – without expecting directly anything in return.

“We knew this was a very cynical audience that can see through marketing bullshit straight away, so they wouldn’t share any old content with us.”

Other brands have grabbed that lighter and started waving it too. Ahead of Christmas 2016, Agent Provocateur launched ‘Ménage à Trois’ – a personal shopping service on WhatsApp that helped customers and their partners choose the right lingerie gift. The service linked them in a three-way conversation with an agent from the brand, who got a sense of their personality and preferences and gave them ideas. Mobile traffic reportedly rose 26% that Christmas. At the same time, Greggs was busy using dark social to seduce pastry lovers. It launched an exclusive ‘Festive Bake Lovers’ WhatsApp group, which invited fans via Twitter and Facebook to snap up one of 250 places and receive insider news on launch dates, exclusive content and competition opportunities.

Three wildly different brands, each with a distinct niche market, and each canny enough to try and create compelling content that their audience wanted to share, rather than simply chucking money at social reach. That same thinking spreads right to the big guns: last year FMCG giant Procter & Gamble cancelled $100m of digital ad spend in one quarter, suspecting that it was aiming it in the wrong places. It later found its public social had made no difference whatsoever to its brand value, sales, customer satisfaction scores or awareness. Now it could channel the money, which had been spent on potentially fake public engagement, into experimenting with making things more compelling in dark social.


But success in dark social isn’t just about massive campaigns. There are some simple tools that brands can use to track traffic in private spaces too. Social analyst RadiumOne has developed, a form of shortened URL that includes tracking data. Universal Music uses to track who’s sharing content by its artists, and with whom. It can then target those people with video ads when they’re on other publishing platforms, featuring artists it knows they like. Buzzfeed uses URL hash fragments, which makes every browser URL unique to a user, to track traffic of its stories. Whenever it sees a story spike in dark social sharing, it then knows to bring it to its own channel and throw ad spend behind it.

There will still be one glaring blindspot in these models – a marketer won’t know what people are actually talking about once they’re inside WhatsApp, for example. But, says van Loon, that doesn’t matter. You can employ traditional models such as focus groups and surveys to help fill in the blanks. He cites Samsung, one of his clients, as an example.

“We can anticipate the social conversation if we launched a new phone,” he says. “We know that people will talk in open posts about the product, and its benefits versus the iPhone. The blindspot for us, the things being discussed more privately on WhatsApp, are the emotional drivers behind their conversations. We can’t see that, but we can use interviews, a survey or a focus group to supplement our knowledge, asking what else about the product or the brand makes them choose Samsung.”

The future is dark

Such considerations aren’t about to disappear any time soon: dark social already claims 84% of sharing, and its selling point is something as basic as the need for private connection, which is one of the strongest forces binding us humans together. As such, brands keep trying to get their name on the guestlist and muscle into those private parties to make it a profitable space, whether through direct ads or dreaming up new exciting ways to talk to customers – even exploring AI and chatbots, which are beginning to pop up all over the shop.

The likes of Adidas seem to be heading along the right lines, creating content that entices people and invites them in. Other brands would be wise to follow suit: dark social has changed the rules of engagement. This is people’s private space they’re trying to move into here, and while there are surely gains to be made, they will have to tread very carefully.

“Any pressure from brands to make these conversations more open will backfire,” van Loon concludes. “People will just find other ways to talk privately.”

And why shouldn’t they? As any rock star would tell you, a few closed doors here and there are vital.

Not afraid of the dark

We’ve pulled together three simple tips to help you make sense of those private spaces…

  1. Make sharing easy. Use share buttons for platforms like WhatsApp and email, as well as Facebook and Twitter. These produce a link that includes trackable UTM parameters, unlike a regular URL that someone has copied and pasted. If you make them obvious, and quicker and easier than copying and pasting, then people may use them.
  2. Look closely at your direct traffic. Dark social traffic usually lacks the referral data that tells you where it’s come from. It’s just lumped together vaguely as ‘direct traffic’. But there’s no way those really long URLs showing up your web analytics would have been typed in by someone. They’d have been copied and pasted, which suggests dark social. Create a segment that isolates these URLs, and you’ll be able to measure that traffic.
  3. Try dark social tools. Providers like Hootsuite offer a built-in URL shortener for outbound links. This allows you to track real-time clicks (handily excluding clicks from bots), and lets you post to your various social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Social analytics tools such as ShareThis, Simply Measure and RadiumOne’s track the origins and direction of dark social traffic, and analyse their outcomes. The right tool can help break down consumer shares, visits, page views, conversions, purchases, business value and revenue. All the good stuff.

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