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Why the time is right to shine a light on ‘dark social’

November 1, 2018 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

One of the least understood portions of the web is becoming one of the most important: dark social. And as the calendar turns from Halloween to the Day of the Dead, it’s time to shine a light into the darkest corner of the web to understand how people are sharing content via messaging services, email, texting, and other platforms that don’t show up easily on analytics programs.

For a long time, referrals that showed up on Google Analytics as “direct” were a mystery. Could that many people really be typing in long URLs into their browsers? No. Instead, they were cutting and pasting URLs into an email to friends, or WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Those referrals became known as “dark social” because of our ignorance about their true source. And with public sharing on Facebook and other platforms down, dark social is only growing more important, with an estimated 84% of all sharing, according to RadiumOne.

But there are ways to better gauge where those dark social referrals are coming from. There are also ways to reach people on messaging apps, through chatbots and targeted promotions. Even more important, reaching people on dark social requires a new way of thinking of them in their “tribes” or personal space where gauging sentiment might be more important than marketing a product directly.

The Rise of Dark Social

They are like two ships passing in the night: the rise of messaging apps and the decline of public social sharing. Just looking at Facebook user statistics gives us a stark picture:

  • From November 2014 to September 2017, Facebook Messenger users went from 500 million to 1.3 billion.
  • From December 2013 to December 2017, WhatsApp users went from 400 million to 1.5 billion.
  • From Q1 2017 to Q2 2018, Facebook interactions went from 29.1 billion to 12.8 billion.

Yes, 12.8 billion is still a lot of interactions, but you the trend is clear. People are losing trust in social networks and flocking to private messenging services.

As Arik Hanson at Business2Community noted, even Facebook’s Instagram is thinking beyond the public feed. “Let’s look at the direction they’re going: Investing heavily in Stories and direct messaging (both “private” for the most part, when it comes to engagement). Many of the new features added recently revolve around these two areas: poll sticker, slider stickers, polling via DM. These are the areas Instagram is focused on – not the public-facing feed as much.

How to Get a Handle on Dark Social

There are ways to bring dark social into the light. While vanilla Google Analytics shows dark social traffic, there are ways to segment pages to see which ones are getting the most action from dark social. (99Signals has a good primer on that here.)

And there are always advanced tools like GetSocial and AddThis that can help identify which pages are getting hit the most from dark social. They also show where some of those sources are.

However, tracking down dark social the same as regular social referrals might not be the point. As Alpha Group’s David Cohn points out on MediaPost, “part of dark social’s appeal is its ‘off the grid’ nature, [so] we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by looking for too much data and meaning among the noise.”

Taking Action to Reach Users

So how does a marketer or publisher get a return on investment by reaching folks on messaging apps, texting or emails? Cohn says the key is to figure out basic demographics on the platforms and the groups who congregate there. He uses the example of a foodie group in New York that could start to send more traffic to food publications and restaurants. “A marketer or publisher wouldn’t know exactly whom to target, but they would have a place,” he wrote. “And they would recognize this community as a gathering place for worthy targets.”

One example from India shows how ROI can grow when targeting dark social. When streaming service iflix wanted to increase its users, it found that its most loyal customers had one important thing in common: They liked sharing viral content and celebrity gossip on messaging apps. According to Business Today’s Sonal Khetarpal, iflx targeted messaging apps users. They converted 1 million more paid subscribers in six months. And the cost of acquisition dropped from $25 to $3 per person.

While it’s true marketers are tiring of social media planning that moves from one platform to the next each season, they’re going to have to get serious about messaging apps and dark social. More folks will have to take chatbots seriously, or just better targeting to users of messaging apps. Otherwise, they will miss a massive, growing opportunity as more people become disaffected with public social media spaces.

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