Dark social media: how relevant is dark social for brands?


Image as part of post on dark social media by social media agency Clarity Comms

Dark social media. Heard of it? Chances are you haven’t but you soon will do as it’s emerging as a hot topic with brands like Adidas and Greggs implementing dark social strategies. With plenty of other coverage it’s becoming a hot topic. So is it important for brands or just another buzzword?

First up, what is it? Dark social has nothing to do with the dark web or anything unsavoury. The term applies to social media interactions or channels that can’t be tracked with analytics.

Why is it important? Research suggests that almost 70% of social traffic comes from dark social media channels. This includes traffic from WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger or HTTPS referrals. As they continue to grow the challenges of tracking interactions, referrals and ROI from these sources will only become more important.

 

Hidden traffic: can you do anything to track it?

A key reason to be aware of dark social is the impact it has on a site’s traffic. As the referrals are hidden they’ll appear as direct traffic. Once you start to looking at direct traffic data in more detail it becomes more obvious. True direct traffic should be to your home page (bbc.co.uk) or a key section e.g. bbc.co.uk/sport.

However, in the smartphone era it’s unlikely that anyone will manually type http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37893804 into their browser.

A look at the URLs that constitute direct traffic can identify some of the dark social traffic. The table below shows some of the dark social media traffic to our site hidden as direct traffic.

Table showing dark social media traffic to Clarity Comms site as part of post on dark social by Birmingham social media agency Clarity Comms

When we looked at our site’s data for the last quarter, we found that 80% was to blog posts or other content, all with long URLs. Some of this was older content which is being shared and which people are reading.

Google Analytics can be tweaked to exclude this traffic. Brands can also use Google’s campaign URLs (and shortened URLs) which can be used on your owned social (and other digital channels). By creating these URLs brands will be able to see the original sources of some of their dark social traffic. It’s not perfect but it will provide some insights (especially on the shelf life of content and links).

 

Do brands need a dark social media strategy?

Whether you need a dark social strategy is a moot point. Brands moving into channels like WhatsApp need to consider their objectives, the investment in time and resources and the likely benefits. However, developing a specific strategy for dark social is risky.

Its better perhaps to consider this in terms of your wider social media strategy. For example, as part of our social media planning for Hobgoblin we recommended a campaign to find the brand’s most hardcore advocates. The resulting campaign used Twitter DM to start conversations with the chosen consumers, to talk about our plans and keep them energized.

Yet the overall objective was to harness their love of the brand and to get them talking more frequently about the brand via their social media accounts. This was in 2014 and almost three years later they’re an integral part of the brand’s social media. Do we ever think of this as dark social? No.

For another client we’re using a closed Facebook group to recruit consumers. We could have just as easily chosen WhatsApp. The guiding factors were underpinned by the campaign objectives, their role in the overall social strategy and our channel choices based on how best to achieve our aims. 

At the very least brands need to be aware of the impact of dark social traffic and where possible to make use of Google Analytics to try and more accurately track the sources of their traffic. There’ll always be gaps especially as more of the messaging apps move to secure messaging.

Dark social media isn’t new and it doesn’t require brands to dive into loads of new channels. It does need to be added into consideration and at the very least, analysed to gauge its impact.

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