Maybe it’s the fact that I recently watched Interstellar, or my fascination with physics and space in general, but when I began writing about Dark Social I could not help comparing Dark Social to another dark entity, a Black Hole.
With Black Holes, we understand how they are formed, we debate the existence of a central singularity, crushing everything at the center vs. quantum gravity which removes the idea of the singularity and opens up the possibility of a bridge to another location in the universe. We try to apply logic as to whether information would be lost forever or simply shows up somewhere else in a galaxy far, far away.
Dark social brings forth many of the same underlying principles and misunderstanding among marketers. With the tides shifting towards ephemeral social communication applications as a key driver of sharing, the attribution data of the share and all of the value that comes with it is essentially untapped and in some cases simply unknown. This is similar to the information loss paradox that is commonly associated with black holes.
Taking a step back, Dark social is the sharing activity that is somewhat invisible to traditional analytics. Dark social is the culmination of referrals and sharing of content that originates from instant messages, e-mails containing links, and most recently the rise of ephemeral social communication platforms such as Snapchat, WeChat and WhatsApp.
A majority of focus today is on social broadcast platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These platforms are similar to the stars we see at night. The data is present, you can easily see patterns like constellations in the conversation and it is easy to attribute the known. We as digital marketers prefer what is known and quantifiable as it is imperative to showcase some form of direct ROI or Return on Ad Spend for most endeavors.
We focus on creating earned media and squeezing every ounce of organic reach out of the social broadcast platforms. But there is an undercurrent of behavior that cannot be ignored and this behavior transcends all age demographics. This is the amount of sharing that goes undetected and the benefits are not attributed to the campaigns or content we so proudly tout. Essentially it is lost in the dark.
According to a recent Radium One study, 59% of all online sharing is via dark social and a whopping 91% of Americans regularly share information via dark social methods, 27% exclusively send via this method. This study also showed that 72% of sharing is simply users copying and pasting long URL’s and either e-mailing, or texting the information.
Facebook represented 31% of social sharing with every other social channel currently representing 10%. There are a significant amount of conversations and more importantly, potential intent from a marketing perspective that is simply being ignored and untapped. Currently, there is an over reliance on re-targeting and dark social could represent an opportunity to bring balance to the equation.
What makes cracking the code with dark social in 2015 even more paramount is the sharp rise in adoption of ephemerally charged, socially centric communication apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat and Kik. The convergence of social and mobile is here and the percentage of content shared through dark social will continue to rise at an exponential rate in 2015.
You can begin to see this coming to fruition for the few pioneering brands that have incorporated sharing functionality with the Facebook owned WhatsApp. WhatsApp has over 400 million users sending 50 billion messages a day. FTW, a USA Today sports site introduced a WhatsApp sharing button to its mobile experience recently and almost immediately saw shares from WhatsApp climb to 18 percent of the site’s overall sharing activity.
Looking at FTW mobile sharing, 53% of shares came from “dark social” vs. 47% through traditional social mechanisms.
SnapChat is another ephemeral application that is the fastest growing social application heading into 2015. According to Business Insider, Nearly half of Americans aged 12 to 24 have used Snapchat. And with a user base 100 million active users, 60% of which engage with the app 22 times per day, Snapchat represents another dark social platform that needs to be considered in 2015, especially with the upcoming strategic partnership model that will incorporate multiple media outlets into the platform, converting the experience to include more content from external networks such as Vice.
Then there is Wechat that has a global audience of 600 million users, 180 million outside of China. It is the 5th most used smartphone app worldwide. All of these essentially represent the next wave of dark social that will quickly take the dark social sharing from 59% even higher in 2015.
Outside of the applications listed above, there are many more that are growing quickly such as Kik and even AirDrop is being used to share images and messages with school aged kids. And there are more on the way that are hybrids of the hybrids like Mark Cuban’s Cyber Dust, which essentially combines elements of WhatsApp and Snapchat, boasting high levels of privacy and security, and as Mark recently commented, “troll proof”.
There are ways to begin to build a dark social strategy moving forward as brands can employ advanced Google Analytics against the long form links in addition to simply relying on URL shortened links. It is also important to consider what integration options are available from the social communication providers themselves when it comes to sharing as well as the type of data and analytics that are available and how that will then be aligned with the existing measurement framework. This will ensure that while you are testing and learning, you can begin to formulate how these platforms will go from experimental to a reliable part of your marketing mix.
The RadiumOne study did show that the chocolate brand Ghirardelli implemented long form tracking and found that 84 percent of all their share was via dark social. The data collected allowed them to better understand their consumer and redefine their approach based on interest and intent.
Heading into 2015, I have talked a lot about the importance of data, content and channels. Dark Social touches all three facets as the intent associated with data, the content that is shared and the mechanisms of consumer integration are all closely linked.
Understanding how content is shared when not immediately visible will be a key metric in 2015. Dark social is on the rise and the more we can harness it’s power, the faster we can build connections beyond awareness and leverage intent to drive conversion.
Follow Tom Edwards @BlackFin360