Why you should optimise your content for dark social

By Jamie McAdam, Planner

I’ve already discussed the rise of Dark Social in a previous post, in particular with the surging growth of Snapchat. To those who aren’t familiar with the term, it simply means the difficulty in being able to track activity that happens on these private messaging apps, emails, or texts. e.g. sharing an article you saw on twitter to your friend via WhatsApp.

This time round I’m going to look at how dark social is shaping the landscape of content sharing as we head towards the end of the year.

Letting loose. But only to the people you choose to

Let’s remember that the psychology behind nearly everyone’s behaviour on social media is to portray the very best possible version of themselves, receive the gratification of watching those likes rolling in and read the positive comments to confirm your activity has been endorsed by your peers. Which means they don’t want their mum to see that photo from a night out and they don’t want their work colleagues to see it either.

However, that desire to let loose and really be yourself to your closest peers is still there. But now you can do this through WhatsApp chats, Snapchats, Instagram and Twitter DM’s, FB Messenger or even FB groups. These private groups are the best way to really express your “weird” sense of humour, that photo you really want to LOL about with your best friend, or that bitchy comment you just need to get off your chest, without having to make it available to the rest of the world as well.

If I see a post I find funny/relevant to a group of friends, I instantly copy the link and then share with specific whatsapp groups. I also send and receive a lot of mobile screenshots these days on WhatsApp.

I haven’t really shared anything on my Facebook timeline for a long time now. Why? The kind of content I want to share isn’t relevant to all of my Facebook friends.

The same goes for my friends. The only things I see my friends share these days are Just Giving pages for half-marathons or interesting articles. My generation was on Facebook when you needed a university email to be on it, so this is a very drastic shift in behaviour.

What we are now ending up with is a watered down version of you on Facebook. The very best PR stories of you, just enough to make it look like you have the perfect life — nothing less, nothing more. The other side of you belongs to dark social.

People share more on dark social

For example, a December 2014 RadiumOne study found that 93% of its survey takers had used a “dark social” service to share content, more than 3 times the rate they used Facebook for the same purpose.

The same study also went on to show that nearly 70% of referrals now come from ‘dark social’.

The power of these referrals is perhaps the more interesting thing for brands. Should a product or service recommendation coming from a friend via WhatsApp carry more weight compared to reading about it in a tweet or Facebook post of similar nature? Very possibly, word of mouth can carry huge implications in a buyer’s purchasing decision.

The bell curve of organic reach on Facebook

I’ve been working with brands in social media now for over 4 years. A bell curve is a fair representation for how I would define the change in organic reach over the years. When the functionality became available (red) there was clearly incredible benefits for brands and content marketers to take advantage of the platform.

During the peak (orange), you couldn’t stop hearing about brands “nailing” real time content marketing and platform users lapping it up, sharing away — all within the platform.

Then came along some pretty big changes to Facebook.

Over a series of algorithm updates through the years, they have slowly removed organic reach for posts coming from Facebook pages and gradually a giant Zuckerberg-shaped elephant started to appear in the room. This of course had to do with the fact that brands were still creating some great content, but the reach numbers were just not the same. Up to that point, good Facebook content being shared was the best-value-for-money that marketing brands could buy. Now they would have to pay to reach the same audience

In my opinion, there was one fundamental shift that happened at the same time Facebook made this business decision — dark social was rising and its adoption curve was the very opposite of Facebook’s declining reach slope (yellow).

The rise of the ‘more serious’ communication apps

As well as your standard private messaging apps there is also a growing demand for more serious apps to blossom. Apps like Firechat became really popular from events like the Hong Kong protests. People were able to have “off the grid” communications without requiring a phone or internet signal. These types of apps are also gaining popularity because they tackle concerns around data privacy and also offer ad blocking options.

Combine the social messaging apps with the (arguably) more serious communication apps and you’ll see a very different behaviour when it comes to how people share content.

To summarise…

All this shift in behaviour has huge impacts on the traditional measurement metrics and Community Manager insights.

Facebook reach has already slumped to the bare minimum in my opinion (only an average 6% of your fans see your posts). Focussing on shares used to be the only strategy needed to see your post’s reach skyrocket around the platforms. “Why is nobody sharing this image?”, “is my ROI on social in decline?” is perhaps the instant reaction for many brand managers…

But the reality is, they probably are still sharing it. Human behaviour hasn’t changed, it’s the available ‘sharing’ tools that have. The real problem is we are no longer able to measure, track and evaluate this in real time the same way we used to (but that discussion probably deserves a dedicated blog post on its own).

Which brings us to the realisation that what we are seeing on Facebook and Twitter Insights in terms of shares, is in reality only the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, the future lies in a single-minded focus on making your content worth sharing. That is the most important element. It is much harder for someone to share something via WhatsApp if there isn’t an option/button to do so, e.g. if they are sharing something that’s native to your social channel. It’s a hassle to cut and paste a link, so they’ve got to really want to do it.

You could also optimise your content for dark social sharing, making it as simple as possible for users to communicate in their most preferred method possible. Next to your social sharing buttons, add Snapchat and WhatsApp sharing buttons too — it will make your reader’s life much easier.

(Iceberg image source)

Originally published at www.blonde.net on October 9, 2015.