How Brands Can Leverage 'Dark Social'

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

Amid efforts to practice social distancing, people are finding more ways than ever to stay connected digitally. Not only has the use of traditional social networking been on the rise, but so has “Dark Social."

If the term Dark Social is new to you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. It’s a term coined by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, used to describe digital content shared via platforms that can’t be tracked by marketers. Madrigal reported that 56% of The Atlantic’s content was shared via Dark Social -- more than 2.5x the amount of shares coming from Facebook. A recent study by RadiumOne found that Dark Social accounts for over 80% of all shares globally.

Dark Social has been most popular among Gen Z-ers, due to their heavy usage of apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. In an era of cancel culture and privacy concerns, 82% say they're cautious of what they share, according to Trifecta Research.



Fast-forward to today, and Dark Social is becoming the new normal for all generations. As people around the world practice social distancing and work from home, they’re adopting more private channels to recreate their offline communities.

Private messaging apps like WhatsApp have seen a 40% increase in usage, according to Kantar research. Snapchat reports Snaps between friends have reached all-time highs (passing Christmas and holidays), and Slack passed a whopping billion usage minutes per weekday, the company reported.

So, what does this mean for advertisers? There are some very basic ways brands can leverage Dark Social:

1. Consumer insights. The evolution of Dark Social has provided a platform for nearly every interest, hobby and passion. If brands can pinpoint niche interests, they have an opportunity to learn from consumers. Take, for example, Starbucks, which has already started using Dark Social for greater engagement around product development. The company used private Facebook groups to gauge everything from brand sentiment to better understanding different trends that could influence future products, according to a post in Marketing Week.

2. Personalized experiences. When it comes to Dark Social, users want two things: to communicate on a more personal level and to be entertained. In fact, “entertainment” accounts for 70% of all Dark Social content, according to GlobalWebIndex research. Brands have a huge opportunity to offer the tools and resources users crave. Take Netflix UK, which gave WhatsApp users the opportunity to opt in to receiving personalized programming recommendations, which are then easily shareable across the platform.

3. Establish credibility. Dark Social is popular because it allows for intimate connections. Playing a role in these connections can take brand affinity to the next level if done right.

That’s where influencers come in. If an influencer sends a link through a private network, it’s likely to drive mass traffic. Adidas was one of the first major brands to tap into this by creating its own private messaging app for influencers, according to a post on Campaign. This fostered strong relationships between the brand and influencers, resulting in a powerful advocacy group of trusted voices.

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