Embracing Dark Social in Your Mobile Content Strategy
Marketing Social Media

Embracing Dark Social in Your Mobile Content Strategy

6 Minute Read

The overwhelming majority of mobile sharing still occurs in the dark, but brands are finding light at the end of the tunnel. By embracing dark social as part of a mobile content strategy, brands can capture user attention and drive engagement.

A report from RadiumOne found that globally, 82 percent of content shared on mobile is shared via messaging, email, or text. These channels are known as “dark social” because publishers and companies can’t tell where the traffic is coming from.

Dark social presents a problem for both publishers and brands. Publishers want to understand traffic patterns; brands want to better measure, track, and understand their audiences. Determining how people arrived at a particular piece of content is a big piece of the marketing puzzle, and brands are finding their way around the dark social challenge.

The Dark Side

Using data from over 940 million users, RadiumOne found that not only are people engaging in dark social activity, but the content they share via dark social channels achieves higher interaction. In February 2016, 62 percent of dark social shares came from mobile devices—up from 53 percent in 2014. Facebook clickbacks pale in comparison. The social media giant earned just 21 percent of mobile clickbacks globally in 2016, with other social media networks earning another 11 percent.

Embracing Dark Social in Your Mobile Content Strategy“So, when people share a publisher’s or marketer’s content from their mobile devices, 8 out of 10 times they will share it via a dark social channel. And, when people respond to shares from their mobile devices, nearly 7 out of 10 times they’re clicking on a share within a dark social channel,” the report noted.

While dark social has been on the marketing radar for some time, the new report underscores the increasing importance of mobile as a vehicle for sharing, whether on light or dark channels. As the report notes, dark social comprises the majority of mobile shares in several advertising categories—including education (61 percent of global shares), religion (54 percent) and style and fashion (49 percent).

With mobile usage on the rise, those numbers will likely continue to creep upward.

The Psychology of Sharing

The average mobile user likely knows the “dark side” very well. When we spot an interesting article, GIF, video, or product, it’s easy to text or email the link to someone who we think might like the content. But what drives our impulse to share on dark channels, such as WhatsApp, versus light channels, such as Facebook?

Three factors help drive dark social sharing:

1. Identity and Context

People like to share content because it allows them to express themselves and shape their identities. Want to be perceived as intelligent? Share that heady Economist article. Showing your humorous side? Spread a silly GIF to the masses.

Of course, most people won’t want to share an NSFW comedy clip with the entirety of their Facebook friends, which likely includes relatives, colleagues, and old high school classmates. This flattening of audience groups is called “context collapse”—a phenomenon discussed previously on the Content Standard. When social networks get too big, they lose intimacy, and sharing drops. The lack of intimacy on the big social platforms will continue to drive dark social, because what users want to share with one group of people is different from what they’d share on another, say, LinkedIn.

Dark social still allows people to express themselves and shape their identity through sharing, but with select groups of people. Similarly, recipients of shared content may be more likely to engage with it because it was sent by someone whose opinion they value. Anonymized platforms, like chatting through Slack or another messaging app, also promote engagement. Simply Measured has an excellent blog on the benefits of 1-1 dark social sharing, which is increasing every year. As Brewester Stanislaw writes, “Imagine if the paid search didn’t know about 70 percent of their effective keywords!”

2. Social Currency

Humans also like to be in the know when it comes to useful information. Sharing makes us feel valuable. People who share content that’s new, interesting, or useful, earn social street cred. A report from The New York Times Customer Insight Group calls this psychological driver “self-fulfillment”—the idea that users get something out of sharing, like feeling gratified after providing helpful information to someone in their network. The study found that 69 percent said they share simply because “it allows them to feel more involved in the world.” When people share on dark social, they get to be cutting-edge sources of information in a smaller circle.

3. Relationship Building

People also share information to stay connected to people they otherwise wouldn’t be in contact with, The New York Times Insight study found. Sharing boosts networking and forges connections, even across geographic distance. The more personal the channel, as is the case via dark social, the better sharing is as a relationship-building tool.

Dark social on messaging apps

Marketing in the Dark

Despite the fact that 84 percent of sharing occurs outside of social networks, 90 percent of social marketing spend goes to social networks, RadiumOne found. Given the ubiquity of dark sharing, that’s a mistake. Instead of skipping dark social in its mobile content strategy, a brand is better off embracing the dark by nudging users to share over dark channels.

Some brands are eagerly going over to the dark side. Adidas aims to penetrate messaging platform WhatsApp by inviting fans to join “squads” in specific cities. These hyperlocal communities will receive news releases, event invites, and special access to athletes and artists, and Adidas hopes the social listening project will help it “learn, test, and optimize” its dark social presence, Sebastian Oddo of Octagon writes.

Jox Petiza of MediaCom calls this approach “tribecasting,” or the “art of stoking interest among a core group of fans early in the process.” Because marketers intend for content to be shared on dark social, it can often be raunchier or edgier than the later Facebook iteration. Rihanna’s “ANTIdiaRY” campaign—essentially a twisted, dark scavenger hunt aimed to get die-hard fans talking about her new album—is a perfect example. Get the core invested with special, bespoke content, and their initial chatter on dark social channels will eventually pour into the mainstream.

Combining dark and light elements can increase content reach. For example, Coca-Cola enhanced its holiday season Tinder campaign with features that nudged sharing on light platforms, such as Facebook. In a Tinder video ad, Santa swipes right or left to determine who’s naughty or nice, and users can then go to Facebook to see which list Santa put them on, using a nifty widget that analyzes naughty language on Facebook posts.

Brands and publishers are still tweaking ways to better track and measure dark social activity. While dark social may still be a difficult beast to tame, it’s important for marketers to consider its impact on their campaigns. Bottom line: Marketers need to consider social tactics as part of a mobile marketing strategy to capture user attention, even in the dark.

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Krystal Overmyer is a freelance journalist specializing in digital marketing trends. Her experience spans over a decade in journalism, public relations, and digital communications.

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