Shining a light on the mysteries of dark social media

By Daniel Kushner

Posten on 10-26-2020

Your company just published an in-depth white paper about the state of your industry. You’ve promoted it across myriad marketing channels, including all your social networks. Your analytics show your website traffic is soaring as customers rush from social media channels to view this content.

But what about the executive who copies and pastes the link to your content into a Slack thread and shares it with a few colleagues? When these people click on the link, you most likely won’t know how they got to your site because your website analytics won’t report on how they found their way there.

This scenario is what’s known as dark social sharing. Despite the ominous name — coined by researcher Alexis Madrigal in 2012 — dark social sharing is the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth recommendations. It refers to links without tracking codes that are shared outside of the platforms that can track and monitor who’s sharing what and with whom.

Common dark social sharing channels include private messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), instant messaging programs (such as Slack and Microsoft Teams), and good ol’ email. To be sure, the amount of activity on these channels is substantial. According to GlobalWebIndex data, 63 percent of consumers are more likely to share on dark social channels than on open social media platforms, and 20 percent share only on dark social channels.

In the dark

The trends that encourage dark social sharing have only strengthened over the past few years. They include concerns about data mining, skepticism about the role of social media in promoting healthy public discourse, and, most recently, the shift to remote working and social distancing brought on by the pandemic.

Whether you’re B2B or B2C, the overall challenge is to accurately measure how much of your site’s total traffic can be attributed to dark social media, and to which specific channels. Not having this critical information can manifest in a host of issues and missed opportunities. This is especially true for B2B buyer journeys and account-based marketing. In such complex sales processes, failing to accurately attribute the source of prospect engagement can lead to loss of leads and ineffective marketing campaigns based on flawed perceptions of brand sentiment and true customer needs.

Join the dark side

Rather than viewing dark social in opposition to your social strategy, recognize that it represents an important channel to be part of. For example, if your marketing attribution tool shows you have a lot of customers discussing your brand on WhatsApp and Telegram, you could create interest-based groups, channels, and interactive bots on these platforms, where you can share content and deliver campaigns for people to grab and share elsewhere. When those shares generate traffic, you’ll know exactly where it came from.

Bloomberg News, for example, began using Telegram to distribute its news content on the messaging platform to build an audience outside the United States.

“Our readers were using dark social [media channels] to share content with friends and family, so we wanted to meet them there and create a more direct relationship by sending daily conversational messages that were written by our editors and not an algorithm,” said Katie Boyce, Bloomberg’s digital managing editor, in an interview.

Brand-hosted spaces for discussion and sharing can give you the inside track on customer sentiment, but keep in mind this isn’t like locking people in a conference room to hear a timeshare pitch. Your spaces will turn into ghost towns if you’re just using them to broadcast salesy messages. Transparency, honesty, and custom-tailored content are the way to be effective.

Feed the darkness

You want your dark social channels to grow just like any other marketing channel. Working more closely with influencers, experts, and content creators in your industry can give your brand a presence and voice among audiences that can be difficult to reach otherwise. Fostering genuine engagement and trust with influencers is a lengthy process, but by building relationships with key players, you can stay more attuned to what people are thinking and saying about your business. Importantly, you can more easily attribute and source dark social referrals.

Here’s a hypothetical example: Imagine a brand is running an influencer campaign across niche Slack and Discord channels and quickly discovered that one of the recruited brand ambassadors was getting no clicks on their tagged link. This discovery would remain undiscovered without careful tracking and measurement of influencer-led campaigns.

Speaking of attribution, most digital marketers are familiar with appending tracking code to their campaigns so as to track its effectiveness. But no one is going to share your website URL with a long tail of tags like “&utm_medium=social&utm_source=dark.” To work around that, you can use URL shortening services like bit.ly and ow.ly so the tags you use to mark dark social shares are masked behind catchy URLs that are easy to share.

Another step toward measurable sharing are strategically placed social share buttons. Services like ShareThis and Shareaholic make it easy to make that “Send via email” button on your page a metric to measure and analyze as part of your buyer journey.

Conclusion

The amount of traffic coming courtesy of dark social sharing is too large to continue ignoring. Considering just how much of your sales funnel is currently hidden in instant messaging apps and emails, marketers who tap into dark social media have at their disposal a wealth of opportunities.

Fear not the dark, marketers. With a little creativity and ingenuity, you can not only gain insights into how and why potential leads are sharing information about you, you can also leverage dark social to include and measure many new channels as part of your overall marketing strategy.

Oktopost is a social media management platform for B2B companies. Learn more.

Topics: Social, Campaign Management, Digital Transformation, Trends & Research, Marketing, Partner Story, Experience Cloud,

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