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Rob Gould

Rob works as a digital marketing & public relations consultant to agencies, brands, and individuals. He has 20 years of marketing experience. He also currently serves in a volunteer capacity as director of pr/communications for TEDxDirigo. From 2005-2011, Rob served as director of social media & agency communications at The VIA Agency (Portland). Prior to VIA, Rob worked with several PR & advertising agencies in London & Boston. He is a graduate of The University of Vermont (UVM) and a Maine transplant (2002). Follow Rob on Twitter at @bobbbyg His real-life interests include art, travel, writing, design, psychology, the beach, & exercise (grudgingly at times).

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Posted: January 29, 2015

What is dark social? | Why will it be important in 2015?

Written by: Rob Gould

darksocial_800_textDefinition – What does dark social mean?

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured. 

The prevalence of sharing through dark social suggests that social media marketing that fails to focus on that type and quality of content may be overlooking a huge portion of social sharing. — Techopedia

Doesn’t it sound spooky? Mysterious? Unfortunately, it’s just not that exciting, albeit, very important.

Dark social is the sharing activity that is somewhat invisible to traditional analytics. It’s the culmination of referrals and sharing of content that originates from instant messages, e-mails containing links, and most recently, the rise of ephemeral social communication platforms such as Snapchat, WeChat and WhatsApp. — SocialMediaInsider

Now that I’ve given you everyone else’s definition, how about mine? Dark social is social media activity that you and I can’t see — other than the dark social activity that we engage in ourselves. It’s that simple. It’s social media sharing that is private and primarily untouched, to date, by marketing.

Today, the vast majority of attention is paid to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. However, now the trends are shifting toward ephemeral social communication applications. These applications are now key components of sharing, but the data from this sharing — and all of the monetary value that comes with it — is largely untracked and, in most cases, completely unknown. Of course, marketers hate this but I’m not so sure that it’s a bad thing. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to have some social channels that aren’t infiltrated by marketing? Of course, this means we’ll have to be willing to pay for them some other way but I, for one, would be willing to do this.

According to a recent RadiumOne study, 59% of all online sharing is via dark social. The study, which used data from more than 900 million web users, says that 91 percent of Americans regularly share information via dark social, and almost a third — 27 percent — share only via dark social, never using a Facebook or a Twitter. This study also showed that 72% of sharing is simply users copying and pasting long URLs and either e-mailing or texting the information.

Dark social is “one of the most valuable sources of data insights,” RadiumOne CEO Bill Lonergan says, and has “the potential to give brands a huge competitive edge.”

So what is being talked about in the darkness?

“The topics discussed most often via dark social channels are typically more one-to-one in nature such as arts and entertainment (80 percent), careers (78 percent) and travel (78 percent),” RadiumOne said in a statement. “Conversely, the topics most discussed via social channels are more one-to-many such as pets (84 percent), family and parenting (63 percent) and real estate (55 percent).”

Predictably, as people get older, they share more and more via dark social. While 92 percent of people age 16 to 34 share via dark social and 19 percent of them only share that way, a full 46 percent of 55+ web users only share via email or instant message.

What we say via dark social might be more honest, with less of a filter on it, researchers say. That provides richer and more accurate information for advertisers and brands to learn from, if they can access dark social.

So, why will dark social be so important in 2015? As you can see from these numbers, it’s already a force to be reckoned with. But, now marketers are finally starting to pay attention. And, you know they won’t be able to leave it alone. It’s already starting …

A few pioneering brands have incorporated sharing functionality with the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users sending 50 billion messages a day. FTW, a USA Today sports site, introduced a WhatsApp sharing button to its mobile experience recently, and almost immediately saw shares from WhatsApp climb to 18% of the site’s overall sharing activity. Further, 53% of shares came from “dark social” vs. 47% through traditional social mechanisms. — SocialMediaInsider

So, stay tuned as your dark social channels are brought into the glorious light of marketing. Let’s hope marketers will at least make the intrusion entertaining. Those who do it well stand to make a fortune.


For more on the RadiumOne study check out this article from VentureBeat.

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