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Dark Social

Dark Social: The Next Marketing Opportunity

Ahmad Munawar

Feb 1, 2021

The way people communicate now has changed. Mobile phones are part of the consumer fabric. Digital social interaction has become synonymous to how we live, work and communicate every day especially with the burgeoning options of communication and social apps available. 

In light of this, consumers have taken to social media to voice their concerns, give constructive feedback, foster group dynamics and gather public opinion on brands and organisations. These public social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn become the main purveyors of social media insight.

However, there is a growing segment which is usually left undetected by communicators and marketing professionals - the hidden realm of Dark Social. This segment is important to brands because if it is left unchecked, there is a public groundswell of opinion which may have an effect on your communication strategies.

What is Dark Social?

This shows dark social is hidden

This phenomenon of Dark Social is the “hidden” interaction between netizens within social media. These interactions can be described as the “invisible” shares that happen through channels like messengers, but also email and text messages. A common trait shared by these interactions across different platforms is that the data is usually encrypted and protected.

However, it is best to highlight this secretive pool of opinion as many consumers - especially the younger demographics who live on mobile interaction - are sharing information and opinion on Dark Social channels. 

A Global Web Index study showed that the majority of netizens now (84%) share information online while consumers are flocking to private messaging apps (PMA) such as Facebook Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp and Telegram. Collectively, just these four private messaging apps have approximately 5 billion users.

Therefore it is imperative that organisations and their brands effectively manage their profile and image. This is critical because access to Dark Social is limited. Only a positively robust narrative of your brand will be able to counter this obstacle so as to transmit cognisant messaging within Dark Social.

What are netizens sharing?

Sharing of information on PMAs have become intrinsic in consumers’ daily lives and it can only rise as mobile penetration reaches new markets around the world. Every byte of information from describing the decor of a hipster cafe to the latest discussion of a government policy. 

The study also revealed that apart from personal photos and memes, netizens actively shared URLs and website links to their PMA networks. Other relevant anecdotes that consumers shared were social media posts, pictures of products, news reports and blog posts. Using Meltwater’s Explore, communicators can use measurement such as Social Echo to identify content which consumers are most interested in and sharing with their networks.

These interactions are pivotal in the narratives being shared on brands and organisations. These private conversations may coalesce to become socially accepted discourses on a brand. This is critical because a brand does not want to be immediately associated with any negative connotations that might affect their profiles.

Consumers wearing Fred Perry polo tees

For example, the UK lifestyle brand Fred Perry had to publicly denounce any association with far-right militia Proud Boys during the recent US presidential election. The radical hate group had adopted the brand’s iconic black polo tees as their uniform and there were more than 24,000 mentions of the brand in the last quarter of 2020. 

One can assume the conversations within the realm of PMA that the Proud Boys had to unilaterally select Fred Perry as their choice of attire. And this is why a good social media monitoring system is needed to counter the narratives emanating out of Dark Social which might affect brand image.

Dark Social in our lives

Dark social in our phones

Undeniably, the use of PMAs have become our bread and butter. For the majority of us, Dark Social and PMAs are what we use for our careers and social lives. We wake up and catch up with our friends, video conferences with our colleagues and interact with customers through social media messaging. 

Furthermore, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this routine of life. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma succinctly describes our current predicament with social media and its affiliates - the platforms that rely on to connect with each other have made us rely on it so much and made that connection become virtual.

Recently Facebook announced that on 8 February 2021, the social media giant would be integrating WhatsApp’s data into its operations. This move would give Facebook uninhibited access to the PMA’s user data. The conversations would indefinitely boost the companies’ monetisation efforts through advertising their products while at the same time streamlining their business strategies. 

The notification listed details about the messaging app’s key updates including how it processes user data and its partnership with Facebook to offer integrations across the Facebook Company Product and how businesses can use Facebook-hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats.

Through Dark Social, WhatsApp will update its operations to integrate data with Facebook. This integration gives a peek into the social media company’s plans to utilise WhatsApp user data to optimise its products’ marketing strategies. Brands can also leverage on Facebook’s move to tune up their strategies in tapping the Dark Social market. 

This also coincides with a finding by the University of Canberra that showed more people are turning to Facebook for their source of news. With more people within the Facebook ecosystem, the better coverage of their brands and tweaking their marketing strategies to widen their consumer base.

Why we should care about Dark Social

Every channel of communication is pivotal. Communicators are constantly finding new ways to reach out to their audiences. When consumer preferences change, it is essential that communicators find the causative sources that affect these changes. With Dark Social, there are several trends that become more pronounced in the ways people converse and exchange information. 

1. Quicker response

With the almost-instantaneous nature of social media, consumers generally expect to “chat" with brands. If not, their attention flickers to the next option.

2. Viral nature of content

There are so many platforms for people to engage in Dark Social. The speed of which content goes viral has accelerated so much, communicators need to prepare for every possibility.

3. Word-of-Mouth has evolved

This organic nature of conversations and the trust built between people play an influential role. Through Dark Social, this channel of information is expedited through close-knit social circles and micro-spheres of influence.

4. Rumours and misinformation

Anonymity is a motivator of spreading half-truths. Some channels of Dark Social work in the confines of anonymity and different stakeholders use this to enhance their messaging to audiences.

5. Silent majority

Understandably, people are more comfortable in airing their views in private as compared to typing grievances in public domains such as Facebook. This is where Dark Social becomes a social arena catering to opinions and narratives on brands.

The next transition

Many brands and organisations have already taken the step of bolstering their social media presence to the next level. Customer service, e-commerce and marketing campaigns are now part of the social media arsenal that communicators deploy to connect with their audiences. 

So what can communicators do next with Dark Social? Firstly, they need to start a conversation with their stakeholders on the intrinsic link between media coverage and social media. Stakeholders need to know how crucial this link is to fully maximise the brand’s reach to its audiences. 

Communicators also need to track public social channels to extrapolate exclusive insights about their audiences and what they feel about the brand. Tools such as Meltwater’s Analyze are handy for communication professionals in extracting this intelligence from their social channels. 

Dark Social is fast becoming the communication mode of choice for many and communicators need to embrace newer methods and channels to not miss out on this opportunity. With that in mind, have communicators developed their capabilities to capture marketing opportunities and fresh audiences in Dark Social?