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Turn to the Dark Side - Dark Social, the Hidden Side of Social Media


Social media analytics is now at a more advanced stage than ever, allowing companies to track what, when, and to whom their content is shared. Accordingly, large sums making the majority of social marketing ad budgets flow straight to social networks. But does this investment represent good value, given that vast swathes of consumer media sharing is not covered by traditional analytics? This uncharted territory makes up what is coming to be known as "dark social."

You've probably heard of the Dark Web already, but thankfully dark social refers to (in most cases) a much less unsettling raft of content transmission, namely what is shared through people's texts, emails and other IM services such as WhatsApp (although the Facebook acquisition casts doubts over the "darkness" of that particular platform going forward). According to Technopedia, the term was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, of the Atlantic, to describe social sharing of content outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs.

So just how large an expanse is dark social? An extensive recent survey by data-driven marketing company RadiumOne concluded it's pretty big! They found that 84% of consumers' outbound sharing from publishers' and marketers' websites takes place through private, dark social channels. They also learnt that, of the marketers they surveyed, 90% of social marketing budgets went directly to social media. Regardless of the exact accuracy of the figures, the discrepancy between them is one that should be considered, a potential avenue for untapped content analytics and further brand reach potential.


But knowing just how much content sharing takes place on dark social is one thing, figuring out how to track it is another. This is a question that even the biggest brands have been grappling with. Adidas is three months into a set of dark social experiments, and confessed to The Drum that its attempts to track dark social activity have so far led to no "major learnings." Instead, the brand has focused on what its engagements with the untrackable have taught it about its customer base, and two major imperatives became clear:

1) Dark social engagement must take place at a more local, targeted level.

Despite the huge amount of sharing that takes place through dark social, most of it is narrowly targeted, sent between friends or groups of friends rather than shared across a large network. This means that content designed for dark social sharing must be highly tailored, as opposed to content designed for big reach or brand statements. The problem then arises as to how to deliver this content efficiently into dark social channels. Adidas' solution has been to create "squads," localized communities on WhatsApp that are centered in cities such as Berlin, London, Paris, Milan, and Stockholm. These kinds of groups can serve as hubs to encourage local engagement, both providing and also facilitating the creation of shareable content that feeds on the city scenes themselves. Another way to establish this kind of link is through personalities on networks such as Instagram and Snapchat, as they encourage a sense of authenticity and a personal relationship between brand and consumer through familiarity. This leads onto the second point, regarding the different relationship between brand and consumer within dark social.

2) Dark social is much more about relationship-building than selling.

When The Drum spoke to Florian Alt, senior director of global brand communications at Adidas, regarding their interactions with dark social, he was keen to point out that brands must avoid selling too heavily, something that today's kids would see straight through, prompting disconnection from local dark social engagement. Instead, Adidas' squads encourage product placement alongside experiences and opportunities to co-create. "The intention is to eventually mold the property into something where the kids stand outside and say ‘what do I have to do to be a part of that squad’,” stated Alt. However, this is much easier said than done, as marketers can effectively be blindfolded by lack of analytics, emphasising the need to encourage co-creation, a kind of self-generating relevant content, as much as distribution.

These approaches offer a way to start engaging with dark social communities, but given the massive amount of dark social sharing, they can only be scratching the surface. For now, there's a big vacuum for innovative new approaches towards dark social engagement and tracking. Watch this (dark) space.



With a masters in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés. Follow him @SamF_Songbird


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Turn to the Dark Side - Dark Social, the Hidden Side of Social Media Reviewed by Sam Franklin on Friday, October 14, 2016 Rating: 5

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