Socializing in the Dark

Dark Social. You’ve probably heard of it. You’ve almost certainly participated in it. But you need not fear it. Unlike the ominous alter universe portrayed in “Tales from the Dark Side,” in the real world, dark social portrays a much more symbiotic existence.

Consider this:
You’ve just read a hilarious article on The Onion and feel compelled to share it with your best friend. So, instead of clicking on a social sharing button (e.g. “Tweet This”), you copy and paste the URL into a text or email and hit send. That private inter­­­­action between you and your bestie is one example of dark social.

Dark social describes any social sharing that web analytic tools cannot easily trace back to a known source. Email, Skype, instant messaging, Facebook Messenger are typical places where dark social is shared. Google Analytics cannot see it and therefore, cannot track it. In GA you’ll see it lumped into the broad category called “direct traffic.”

Consumer outbound sharing via private messaging, such as messaging apps, has grown tremendously. In fact, RadiumOne’s research shows that upwards of 84% of all outbound sharing is done through dark social channels — with the “Big 4” messaging apps surpassing the “Big 4” social networking apps.

Now, take the public’s growing taste for private interaction and apply that thinking forward, across a larger consumer landscape … and we begin to see a general, overall shift in audience desires.

For example, Facebook recently — and to the alarm of many marketers — changed its algorithm to focus on “less public content like posts from businesses,” and instead focus on “more meaningful social interactions” between friends and family. And considering the revelations about improperly shared consumer information with Cambridge Analytica, privacy is again front and center in the conversation and will certainly be an ongoing factor in Facebook’s policies going forward.

Between the lines, we can read two clear things that consumers are saying:

#1 “If your brand keeps interrupting my conversations with sales messages, I’m out.”

Contrary to your reflexes, this isn’t a reason for marketers to panic. If you think in terms of word-of-mouth advertising, you might be pleasantly surprised at the opportunities this shift in consumer desires provides.

Yes, consumers are starting to tune out advertising in spectacular numbers. Digital media has given them back control; rather than being “talked at,” they can find information, and engage with people and brands online, on their terms. So, while marketers have lost some control over the way media is used by consumers, they gained something even more valuable: an amalgam of channels that consumers perceive to themselves control. And one of the ways consumers are wielding their control is determining how and when they want to interact with brands and each other. Your audiences are more comfortable and trusting when chatting in dark social than they ever were receiving ads unidirectionally via mass media.

With that in mind, businesses can take steps to participate in consumer conversations (even when they are not technically “in” said conversations) — and it’s not rocket science. Producing high quality content, delivering exceptional customer service, and communicating via private messaging to answer pressing questions, are the keys to keeping your brand in a positive light. By doing so, you increase the chances that the conversations had about you in private are complimentary.

In short, if your infrastructure is set up correctly, the growth of dark social activity is an opportunity to have your audience take the lead as brand ambassadors via word-of-mouth marketing. And nothing is more credible than true fans spreading the word about your products and/or services.

#2 “I don’t want to share all my private interactions on a public forum anymore.”

Perhaps this movement to dark social is a sign of changing societal values. Not so long ago, social media users were primarily focused on public (over)sharing and content with “viral” potential; whereas, today, that’s being usurped by a growing taste for more intimate, meaningful connections. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, these trends might be an indicator that businesses can move beyond virality as a (dubious) marketing goal, and instead, look to a more straightforward (dare I say “old-fashioned”) type of connection with its customers.

Now is the time to start dissecting and gaining insights into dark social, including a deeper dive in to the how and why your customers use it. By doing so, you will be able to (a) shed some light on when/why your customers use it, and (b) use that insight to inform your interactions going forward.

So how is that done, you may ask?

The key to leveraging dark social is knowing (to some degree) what your customers are talking about — and, predicting what they might care about — so you can curate thoughtful and helpful interactions. A few quick starting tips are:

  • Regularly monitor your social media platforms for customer conversations
  • Use “listening” tools like BuzzSumo and Brandwatch to gain insights on trending social-media topics and conversations
  • Set Google Alerts for topics that are critical to your business (and, to your audiences)
  • Participate in community forums that your customers frequent

Customer expectations have shifted decidedly. Your audiences will no longer tolerate you “selling” them all the time. (Facebook’s algorithm shift is evidence of that. If the most-popular social media platform in the world changed the way its feed works because they saw user engagement declining, that should tell you something.) The goal now is to both participate in conversations only when appropriate (i.e., when you have something meaningful to say). A brand should attempt to solve problems before they grow bigger, offer thoughtful solutions, and deliver fresh thinking and insight on its industry.

Because, again, the goal is no longer direct sales or virality. The goal is now getting them to talk about you, because non-branded, unsolicited accolades are perceived as the most honest and credible source of information. Even the most skeptical of potential customers can be swayed when a friend or relative is speaking kindly on behalf of your brand.

It’s old-school organic credibility achieved with 21st century technology.  Consider this:

  • Word-of-mouth marketing increases marketing success by as much as 54%. (source)
  • “Earned social media” — i.e. content that users post about a product or brand — drives 8 times more traffic than content created by brands themselves. (source)

Not all dark social needs to remain dark. Sometimes, gaining critical additional insights on your audiences is just a matter of some technical know-how.

For starters: It’s important to narrow down where, and possibly how much, dark social is in your data. Remember, Google Analytics reports traffic as “direct” when it can’t attribute a user to a specific source (e.g. when a user manually types in a URL or uses a bookmark). And while some traffic truly is unable to be attributed to a specific source, other traffic ends up in the “direct” bucket for reasons that can be avoided — like missing or broken tracking codes and improper redirections (e.g. using meta refreshes or JavaScript-based redirects, which can wipe or replace referrer data). If you take time to minimize traffic incorrectly thrown into the “direct” bucket, what remains will be your truly DARK traffic. And being able to isolate what truly is dark, in and of itself, is a valuable metric to have.

(For a deeper dive into how to reduce direct traffic via GA, check out this article from the good people at Moz … and, while you’re at it, read this one too, from Hootsuite/AdEspresso.)

That said, there will always be loads of private conversations to which you have no access. And, that’s okay. Because while you won’t always be able to read what’s being said in the dark, you can influence the conversation.

It begins with superior customer service, and that begins with engaging audiences in meaningful, honest and supportive ways. With the use of private messaging (e.g. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.), brands too can use these tools to answer customer questions, solve problems, etc. — generally, opening the door to talk more candidly with customers, or potential clients, out of the public view. Genuine, helpful customer support will never go out of style (see: Zappos, Amazon, Starbucks). It is still imperative to a successful business — because a happy customer is a more-valuable customer since she keeps coming back … and, maybe, brings a bunch of her friends along for the ride.

Here’s the point: Dealing with dark social media, and social media engagement in general, is a technical issue in part; however, the greater, more important part, requires a philosophical shift. It’s less about chasing down technologies that promise to give you visibility into said “dark,” and more about taking what useful data you can mine and leverage that to have more meaningful conversations with your key audiences.

Consider my example from the first paragraph. The Onion doesn’t pepper its audiences with a bunch of “Buy Now!” sales messages. Rather, its goal is to make people genuinely laugh. That’s how they drive high engagement and clicks through to their website. And, btw, The Onion is a highly profitable company that was acquired by Univision in 2016. They didn’t get that way with direct-response/sales-now thinking, nor by trying to hack their way into subscribers’ private conversations. They did it by listening to their audience and giving them what they want: great content.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, today’s most effective social media marketing is that which doesn’t try to sell at all. Rather than seeing each engagement as a potential transaction, forward thinkers see it as an opportunity to provide value (via entertainment, information, etc.) … and, with that, to earn a welcome place in the conversation.

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