Putting the Spotlight on Dark Social

Today, more and more people are spending their time on social media. Everything from professional and personal relationships, watching a video, catching up on news and – of course – shopping. This is good news for brands, who enjoy the benefits of more consumer data and more opportunities to connect with consumers than ever before. In fact, over 90% of retail brands are now using two or more social media channels.

Yet, when it comes to getting the most value from social, brands are still missing out on the complete picture. And that’s because of the phenomenon is known as “dark social”.

Dark social is the term given to private social channels, such as email, chat and messaging apps, where 84% of social sharing occurs. It’s known as dark social because these online interactions are private and invisible to brands and advertisers. While digital marketers spend their days measuring online activity, what goes on in dark social can’t be tracked by regular analytics tools and methods. This means that brands can’t monitor or leverage the behavior of their target audiences when they interact in the dark social space. And with dark social accounting for most online sharing, the opportunities missed are HUGE.

Let’s face it: dark social is much, much more than hidden traffic. It’s actually forcing us to change the way we think about social media marketing.

If your business has a social media presence, then dark social is your problem too.

Here are five challenges your business is facing with the big black hole that is dark social:

Hidden traffic = no attribution

Knowing where your website traffic comes from is basic and essential information. Without it, your marketing performance can’t thrive. Dark social literally keeps you in the dark when it comes to attribution of traffic from private social channels.

That’s because there is no way of tracking or attributing internet activity that generates from dark social. For example, a user visits your landing page. She copies the link and sends it to her friend via Whatsapp. The friend clicks on the link.

You have no way of knowing that this interaction took place, and you can’t track the click on your landing page to the friend who recommended it. In this instance, the click is unattributable, which means it’s a dead end.

You can’t control the story

If a customer complains about your company in a social media post, you can get straight to work on damage control. You can influence the story to minimize the impact. You can change your policies in response to customer feedback. You can take back control. And it’s not just limited to customer feedback.

On social media, you’ve got a lot of choice at your fingertips. Which ad to promote, which platform to use, which link to include. On dark social, you have no control at all.

How your brand is perceived or discussed on dark social, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, is utterly out of your hands. In dark social, you have no influence on your brand story or message. What’s worse, you don’t even know what’s being said, when or where, so you can’t react or respond either.

It demands a new way of thinking

As digital marketers, we work with data. We collect it, analyze it, and optimize it. Without it, we are somewhat lost.

This data helps us make all our decisions. It enables us to get as granular as possible with our targeting. And here lies one of the biggest challenges of dark social: getting our heads around the idea that there are some things going on with our customers that we cannot see, let alone quantify.

There’s no analytics tool that will turn on the lights on dark social (not yet anyway). So for the time being, it requires something different from digital marketers. What that is? No one quite knows yet…

Your analytics are missing a chunk of channels

With traffic analytics, you can accurately attribute your website traffic to the various channels, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and loads of other social media channels. This helps you leverage your channels in the best possible way.

With dark social, there are large chunks of information about the various channels that is simply missing. You have no way of knowing which channel drove a significant part of your traffic to your site.

Without the complete picture of your channel-driven traffic, you’re left with a big hole in your social media strategy.

It’s hard to get a grip on the action

There’s a lot that goes on in the dark social realm. Reading, sharing, linking and commenting. With no real picture of all that, there’s no way of knowing how to construct appropriate calls to action or where to place them.

It’s like trying to lead your customers down your marketing funnel to a specific action (Buy Now, Download today), when half the lights in the funnel are turned off.

Dark social makes it MUCH harder to convince your customers to take your call to action. And this means less conversions and less results.

Finding Ways to Circumvent Dark Social

At the moment, there is no broad solution to shedding light on dark social. There’s no software or expert who can magically transform something hidden and unseen into viewable and measurable data.

That’s why it’s up to performance marketers to find ways around the dark social problem. It’s about making the most of data you can see, and encouraging users to perform more online activity in the open web – which creates more opportunity for you to collect and analyze their data.

For example, SmartFeed by Outbrain is designed to do just that. It replicates the newsfeed concept of social media by providing an infinite and ongoing stream of content, targeted to the specific user’s profile and authentic interests – yet in the open web, in a brand safe environment.

The SmartFeed is a smart alternative to the social feed, as it offers similar opportunities for engagement and conversion yet in an exposed and measurable way.

The lights on dark social aren’t going to be turned on any time soon. However, by taking advantage of new, advanced tools and creative approaches to content discovery, you can brighten up your performance marketing results.


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