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Marketing To A Dark-Social World

Dark social.

The very name conjures an image of a dank, seedy place where people share illicit material and hide behind a wall of anonymity.

Sounds a bit ominous, right? In reality, dark social refers to one of two things:

  • The social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics -- e.g., messenger apps or email
  • An online community where identity takes a backseat to free, anonymous sharing

On traditional social channels, web analytics are easy to track and analyze. Brands know where their traffic is coming from and see demographic data about the people visiting their site. Insights about consumer behavior and demands are easily gleaned.

This becomes trickier on dark social platforms, where traditional analytics can’t track the source of the visit. Dark-social referrals get lumped in with direct traffic, making it difficult for brands to know who is consuming their content.

For marketers who are becoming increasingly reliant on user data to serve hyper-personalized ads, this presents a unique challenge. How do you send a nuanced, targeted message to someone if you don’t know who they are or where they came from?

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Why does dark social matter for brands?

Imagine knowing how consumers feel about different ideas, products and current event -- not what they said in a survey or posted on their timeline, but what they truly think.

Marketing on dark social is as much about research as it is sales. It might not be the space (or even moment) to sell something, but it’s the perfect place to get a sense of the market and learn how to sell to them in the future.

On dark-social spaces, people tend to let their proverbial hair down. Instead of worrying about public perception or trying to maintain a particular image, they feel empowered to freely share and interact with content and ideas.

As a brand, the feedback and insight you get on these channels is often more accurate and telling than from any other source. The trick is figuring out how to turn dark-social traffic into actionable insights.

Building an ROI strategy for dark social

Dark social may not be the right place to market home-cleaning products, but it is an excellent way to gather sentiment and find out what’s trending in a niche community.

If you are able to identify a dark-social community around your brand, you can:

  • Gain insight into what your target market is actually reading, sharing and talking about
  • View the consumer as a person, not a segment
  • Anonymously test messages and ideas, without having it attached to your brand

Consider the following. A niche community for foodies in New York could start to send regular and meaningful traffic to food publications or restaurants -- which can’t be ignored. That’s a spark in the dark. A marketer or publisher wouldn’t know exactly whom to target, but they would have a place. And they would recognize this community as a gathering place for worthy targets.

In fact, many brands see a higher conversion rate with dark-social traffic.

The reason behind this is quite simple. On dark-social channels, content is shared between friends who know each other’s likes and preferences. It’s a level of hyper-personalization most companies can only hope to attain.

Marketing on traditional platforms like Facebook, while highly effective at scale, requires brands to flatten people into pre-established buckets. Dark-social spaces, on the other hand, function more as focus groups. They provide an honest, inside view into what tastemakers and potential customers are thinking and sharing.

Making sense of dark social activity

It may never be possible -- or prudent -- to track dark-social traffic the same way we track regular web traffic.

If we believe that part of dark social’s appeal is its “off the grid” nature, we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by looking for too much data and meaning among the noise.

Instead, brands should focus on understanding overall dark social traffic and consumer sentiment. From there, you can get a bit more granular by applying basic demographic information to these platforms.

For example, Facebook Messenger users are typically older than Snapchat users. WeChat caters to a more international audience. Knowing this information can help you make better sense of the trends and conversations you observe in these spaces. Combine that with a smart understanding of what different groups that have gathered tend to discuss, and there’s a way in for understanding how to market your product.

Is dark social going anywhere?

In a word, no.

According to a report by RadiumOne, 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing now takes place via dark-social channels.

People still want to be social online. They just don’t want these interactions to occur under the gaze of the entire world.

Some people are creating anonymous accounts that let them browse and post without having to worry about how their activity will be perceived by friends and family. Others are gravitating toward platforms that allow them to connect anonymously or within closed loops.

As niche communities continue to spring up online, brands have an opportunity to observe trends, track sentiment and gain a better understanding of what people are sharing.

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