Marketers make a lot of assumptions from analytics that measure content sharing on social networks. However, it has been revealed that this information gives less than half the true picture of social engagement.

BBI Brandboost believes that the long-ignored “dark social” phenomenon reinforces our philosophy of putting the website at the heart of online business communications! Survey findings show that far more online sharing and engagement is taking place via methods that have come to be known as dark social. It has also been called direct social, which is possibly more accurate but infinitely less intriguing!

Dark social is one of the developments that Marketing Week highlights in its article Five trends marketers need to know for 2015.

According to a RadiumOne global survey of 9,000 consumers, 82% of people in the UK share content online, but 91% of them sometimes use dark social methods such as emailed links that can’t be tracked. Furthermore, 26% UK content sharers go for dark social exclusively and worldwide the proportion is 32%. This followed an observation by RadiumOne that over 12 months, 95% of the content across its websites was being shared via private channels.

As well as content sharing via email, people also use a range of other online private communications methods, including instant messaging, forum posts (excluding Facebook which can track links even in private messages) and some mobile apps. This creates challenges for those seeking accurate analysis to formulate marketing strategies. Marketing Week explains: “There are implications for digital marketing and customer journey analytics if brands can no longer see how users discover and reach their websites.” Also the high level of usage indicates that “it is not a behaviour restricted to a privacy-conscious few.”

Marketing Land also covers these findings, identifying how topics are shared. “RadiumOne also found that 36% of dark social sharing happens on mobile devices and that some topics are more apt to be shared privately, with entertainment, careers, travel, science and education all topping the 80% dark social mark. Public sharing surpassed private in only five topics –home & garden, shopping, family & parenting and government & politics and pets – but only narrowly so for all expect pets... Pets, with 81% of shares via Facebook, seem to be the only topic few mind sharing publicly.”

Privacy or comfort zone?


So, while pet shop owners, dog breeders and pet food manufacturers breathe a sigh of relief, everyone else interested in tracking origins of content sharing needs to consider why using dark social channels is so prevalent.

Well, the wish for privacy one likely cause. In his TED talk “Why Privacy Matters” Glenn Greenwald describes the dangers of intensive surveillance by political authorities, but much of what he says has relevance to the privacy issue as a whole. He explains that “... We instinctively understand the importance of privacy and need to have a place to go to be free of the judgemental eyes of people.”

Interestingly he also points out that “When we are monitored our behaviour changes – when somebody knows they’re being watched they become more conformist and do what others expect of them.”

Put in the context of social engagement, this could mean that public networks such as Facebook and Twitter may only be presenting a superficial and possibly skewed view of what the world out there is thinking. Statistics still worth taking on board, just not the be all and end all that some strategists would have you believe.

Alexis C. Madrigal (what a great name!) who coined the term “dark social,” has written a perceptive article about it in The Atlantic. He describes how in around 2003 /2004 the social web really took off, but observes: “How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience?”

He explains that as a teenager, he and his friends has used instant messenger, chat rooms, ICQ and USENET forums and email. These methods of social engagement worked well and you can perhaps draw the conclusion that privacy is not the only issue here. After all, why should people abandon channels of communication that are fast, effective and which they are accustomed to using?

The article in Marketing Land referred to the trend of traditional social channels faring better in North America than the rest of the world, yet findings published in MarketingProfs show that even in the USA, those consumers prepared to accept marketing messages (50.8% of those sampled didn’t want to receive them at all!) overwhelmingly favoured private communication. Their preferences were:

dark social
  • Email 25.08%
  • Text 9.03%
  • Snail Mail 7.14%
  • Social Media 5.29%
  • Push Notification 3.38%

The key is in the content


So what do all these insights and statistics tell us? Well, while they put social networks in their place, it still remains a very important place. But they should not be used as a basis to estimate full social engagement. They are simply one type of channel amongst several in which conversation and sharing takes place.

In his article in The Atlantic, Madrigal makes the important and perceptive comment that: “The only way to optimise for social spread is in the nature of the content itself.” Engagement is generated by the quality and relevance of content to target markets and this in turn assists brands in achieving higher ranking on search engine pages; with a little help from skilful SEO strategies!

Our belief is that the website should be the hub of business communications and website content needs to provide the highest levels of information and engagement value. Social networks, industry media channels and marketing methods, both online and offline, all have significant roles to play in encouraging social engagement and drive traffic to websites, both to increase brand awareness and encourage e-commerce transactions.

What these dark social findings tell us is that serious errors in analysis can be made from extrapolating on a single element of social engagement. Marketing Week’s Five Trends article quotes Team Sky as claiming that: “We’re looking at how we can develop a better understanding of the dark social population so that we can uncover opportunities to become more relevant to them.”

Marketers that believed social media represented the sum of total engagement were blinkered in their approach, because the existence of dark social shouldn’t really come as a surprise. It just shows how individualistic and versatile people are. Granted, the level of private social engagement is higher than many thought, but the means we have to measure online public behaviour are extraordinary compared to what was available to marketing professionals in the past. We’re not truly in the dark at all!