Dark social is a massive black hole

(Originally published on the Guardian; 5th July, 2016)

Through dark social, sharing has gone private. If we were at a party we’d no longer be trying to address the entire room but back having conversations one-to-one, or one-to-some.

According to research by RadiumOne, 77% of all UK sharing from publisher and marketer websites is now done via “dark social,” that is through non-public messaging services such as SMS, email, WhatsApp or Messenger.

Furthermore, 80% of clicks on mobile-shared content come from dark social compared to just 20% from public. So we know more is shared to dark social than anywhere else and that content shared this way can have more impact and travel further in a mobile-first world.

This creates a giant hole in the data story of over three quarters of social content journeys. We can see the car emerge from the tunnel but have no idea where it has come from or what the conversation inside it has been.

The resulting disconnect is significant. The report highlights that 90% of social marketing spend globally is assigned to public social networks, while the bulk of social sharing is happening away from them. We have a blind spot.

Privacy concerns are a major factor. Half of all UK adults believe we’re harmed by companies gathering and handling personal data. People are suspicious of how they are tracked, profiled and targeted, and rightly so. Too often we are all victims of irrelevant interruption.

It’s no surprise that end-to-end encryption apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have topped the download charts in markets across the globe. Telegram is so confident in its encryption code that it currently offers $300,000 to anyone that can break it.

However, though people are sharing less on public social networks like Facebook and Twitter than they used to, it doesn’t mean they’re sharing less. If anything, the ability to have private conversations lets them be more active without the risk of over-sharing, a real social faux pas. The notion of building “brand me” is stronger than ever, but it has developed a sophistication and maturity.

Our private lives, with friends and family and those with whom we feel most comfortable sharing, is naturally the place we are most active. Dark social allows us to have multiple conversations continuously and creatively, and forward-thinking brands are starting to switch on to the power this level of engagement can deliver.

The growth of chat bots and AI (automated conversation tools to share information, buy clothes, or even order a Burger King) is down to the web functionality they bring to a private messaging space in an intuitive and immediate way.

Adidas has gone further by creating WhatsApp squads in key cities to bring local customer communities even closer to the brand, sharing product, content, ambassador and event news before anywhere else to test how engagement performs compared to public social.

Permissibility, authenticity, community and conversation lie at the heart of dark social, and brands need to shape their approaches to play in this world.

Public social is obviously still a primary means to reach the right audiences and enable discovery. We just need to be prepared to test and invest in measures to reach people through dark social, and therefore change how we measure success. Public shares do not paint even half the picture of how well an idea has travelled. Organic measures are arguably more important than ever.

We must also look at how we create and optimise to encourage private sharing. This should be based around content that is authentic and real. The copy-and-paste behaviour that drives dark social will take care of itself if it’s something people discover in the right way and see value in.

More fundamentally, though, we must not be afraid for work to travel to places we can’t see and start conversations we can’t track. We must learn to see in the dark.