What is Dark Social and is it Impacting Your Brand?

    What is Dark Social and is it Impacting Your Brand?

    April 05 2021

    With a name like 'dark social', you might think the term relates to something spooky or even the rise of dark mode UI, but that's hardly the case. Dark social, a term coined by The Atlantic in 2012, is the concept of sharing linked content through private messaging apps and encrypted channels. It’s happening everywhere from your family’s group text to conversations on apps like Messenger and WhatsApp. So, what’s the cause for all the uproar? Traffic insights and data become essentially invisible with dark social, making it impossible to trace the source. Hence marketers are left in the dark on understanding private referrals from key audiences like Millennials and Gen Z, making marketing efforts less effective and inefficient. 

    But, have no fear. With dark social on the rise, there are new and exciting ways to reach (and measure) your audiences where they are. Before we dive into it, let’s get to know dark social better by understanding who uses it and why. 

    What is Dark Social and Who Should Care 

    By now, everyone has entered into the unknown world of dark social through a myriad of ways like sending a friend or coworker a link to a product or article via app or text. According to a RadiumOne study, 84% of online referrals come from dark social globally, meaning the data marketers use to allocate advertising dollars is only based on 20% of actual metrics. Dark social is happening everywhere and all the time, and it’s time to start being mindful of it in strategies and practice.

    Who is Using Dark Social and Why 

    Dark social is hardly exclusive to any singular audience, with nearly every age demographic utilizing some form of private messaging to share content with their networks. Yet, one group in particular is making its mark in the world of dark social, redefining the norms of digital communication and it’s none other than Gen Z.

    Younger audiences like Gen Z are flocking to sharing content privately, and who can blame them with the growing mistrust in social networks. With recent happenings like the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, accusations of spying on Instagram and the rise of callout culture, Gen Z users are pledging to move away from public platforms opting for private channels to discuss hot button topics, share content and products they like, with the people they trust. But, this sort of generational affinity for online privacy isn’t anything new. In fact, Millennials, Gen X and beyond have always had privacy on their radars with the growing frequency of online sharing. 

    Interestingly enough, users 55 and up communicate almost exclusively via dark social, using email, texting and messenger apps to share content with a restricted audience rather than  posting publicly for the world to see. 

    PLANOLY - Dark Social - Blog Post - Vertical 1


    PLANOLY - Dark Social - Blog Post - Vertical 2


    The Benefits of Dark Social 

    While missing data for a significant portion of online referrals may seem detrimental, it actually creates an opportunity for marketers to get scrappy and disruptive in their outreach, finding more creative ways to reach audiences on dark social. 

    Why is Dark Social Valuable

    Dark social’s value lies in the endless possibilities it presents for innovation. Until now, marketers have only scratched the surface with their efforts. Once you begin to strategize alternate ways to measure and reach audiences via dark social, marketers can create a more straightforward path to guide consumers through the complete customer journey. 

    Sharing content via dark social affords users a buffer of privacy, fostering a sense of comfort and trust knowing what they share will only be seen by its intended audience. This yields genuine sentiment and authentic commentary on topics, news, and products by the consumer. In other words, it’s the digital equivalent to a word-of-mouth recommendation, which typically leads to high conversion rates. 

    What Problem is it Solving 

    Engaging your audience via dark social, provides a more direct path for marketers to reach their target audiences. This route saves time and resources, allowing you to focus your efforts (and budget) on enhancing and expanding tailored marketing initiatives. Win-win.

    How Can Brands Tap Into the Dark Social Trend 

    Now that we’ve covered all the basics around dark social, it’s time to get into action and explore ways to leverage the growing trend and turn your audience into advocates. 

    For example, let’s look to the medium currently dominating social media – short-form content. Memes, story-formats and TikToks are blowing up on every social channel. So, what’s the secret? Bite-sized, relatable content that doesn’t feel overproduced soars in shareability, providing perfect opportunities for quick communication through private messaging apps. 

    How Brands Can Leverage Dark Social 

    Measurement -  The main issue with dark social is the inability to track and measure shares,  which leads to incomplete data assessment and skewed ad spends. Without analytics to focus and guide your outreach, it’s impossible to know where to prioritize your marketing efforts. To support these gaps in data, you can create a dedicated dark social segment within Google Analytics which will provide insight into the percentage of traffic leading to the wrong source. 

    Marketers can also use URL shorteners like Bit.ly or Owly to shed light on clicks. Sites like share.it implement sticky share buttons for easier tracking, while paid media monitoring services like Meltwater and Muck Rack provide a breakout of shares by social network 

    GIFs, Memes, and Ad Space - The goal is to make the kind of branded content people want to share while also making it trackable. 

    Branded GIFs and stickers are both share worthy and trackable. Creating original, relevant and relatable GIFs with your branding that anyone can use to react with, can help introduce your brand to new audiences. You can track GIF performance on sites like GIPHY.com that are equipped with performance analytics dashboards. 

    Buying ad space on WhatsApp is a great way to start conversations with target audiences, as well as leveraging Messenger (formerly known as Facebook Messenger) to place more native ads like sponsored messages. 



    We hope this article teaches you a thing or two about dark social and how to go forward in adding dark social efforts to your overall marketing strategy!

    Learn more about Carrie Boswell, on PLANOLY

    Carrie Boswell

    Carrie Boswell is the Digital Marketing Content Specialist at PLANOLY. She is always finding ways to include pop culture and the Gen Z perspective into the content we create for marketers and small business owners.

    More by Carrie Boswell

    blog side moduleV2

    Simplify Your Social Planning

    From idea to post - PLANOLY is your go-to planner for TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest.

    Share on Social

    You May Also Like