What is dark social?

Dark social is the name given to the conversations that people are having that are not visible to attribution software at all. These conversations could be in messaging apps like WhatsApp, MS Teams, FB Messenger, Slack etc. It could be through email, voice notes or any of the private communication methods that you have at your disposal in the 21st century. Information around these conversations are unlikely to be visible to brands but they are already one of the main influencers of purchasing decisions.

According to Econsultancy 75% of buying decisions today are being influenced in this way. People want to buy from people that they know, like and trust. Recommendations have always been the most important channels for growing businesses. It is how businesses have always grown in their local area and with the rise in technology it is inevitable for this move to the digital world. This means that word of mouth recommendations can be done at scale, whether that is through groups within these messaging apps or through one to one interactions.

Where did dark social come from?

The term was first used in 2012 by reporter Alex Madrigal to explain the amount of traffic attributed in Google Analytics as Direct Traffic but were actually coming through links shared through internal text, chat and email. The principles remain the same today but the amount of channels that can be used for dark social sharing has grown exponentially.

Smart Insights argue that Dark Social could actually be the largest traffic source to your website. It seems to be growing as Direct as a traffic source on many website reports is growing despite less and less users when browsing the internet ever typing in the full website address.

The challenge for brands today

The simple answer to take advantage of dark social – create something that is worth sharing!

I think that the kinds of content that are being shared and liked the most via social media are going to be the ones that generate the most dark social shares as well. The kinds of content that are shared widely is due to the content being  engaging, entertaining or educational.

This is the way that brand content needs to be considered for B2B and is where most organisations are really falling down. The ability to create content that others want to share is so vital in today’s environment.

Why are B2B companies failing to provide valuable content shared via dark social

Too many companies are just thinking “what’s in it for us?” I can understand this entirely. But the copy on your website is for you. It should clearly and simply tell people what you do, where you provide value and how to convert to pay you for the products and services that you offer.

Your social offering is very different. Too often social media content is put out using the same strategy of telling the audience about what they do and how to get in touch. Social media is more about starting conversations with the people that could be interested in your offering or even influence a purchasing decision at some point.

By making the kind of content that is not necessarily related to your product or service offering but is actually focussed on helping your potential customers achieve their goals is the kind of content that is likely to be shared between people. Trying to solve people’s problems without bringing in making a sale will build credibility and sharability of your content.

If the starting point for creating the content is asking the question whether someone would share the content through a private message? Rather than whether we can get someone to buy from us? That might create content that is more shareable and gives greater value to the audience.

Dark Social, the Dark Funnel and self reported attribution

The dark funnel is when a person that is unknown to the organisation starts displaying buying intent. The individual may have been consuming social media content or the organisations podcast, could have been sharing and discussing their thoughts with colleagues for months. They will then come through to the site and fill in a contact form. This may be reported as Direct traffic (though they might even come to site through a link shared through a messaging app) or Organic Search.

By relying solely on attribution software people are fooling themselves into weighting these channels more strongly than they deserve. I have worked for an organisation where it was argued that Organic Search was by far our best performing channel and therefore SEO needed more budget. However over 60% of the search traffic was from branded keywords and therefore it was not the channel where they discovered our brand at all. This information is available to all companies but it benefits Google this enlarged weighting on search so it makes sense that the information was removed from Google Analytics (a tool used by most marketers) and put into Search Console (a tool used by far less marketers).

To get information on how the interested party came to finding out about you, a popular method is self reported attribution. This is adding a free text field at the end of your contact form asking simply “How did you hear about us?” It is argued that this is not always filled in accurately by the end user, however it is likely that they will fill in the method that is top of mind for them at the time so is another valuable piece of data to be added.

What your organisation should take away?

Dark social should no longer be viewed as a theory or something that should be considered amongst your current marketing mix. It has already happened. The shift in how people behave has happened and your content strategy needs to change to fit the way that audiences consume information. It is a move away from having everything hosted on channels that you own (your website, your blog, your email list) to taking your content and distributing it through social channels but knowing that if it is successful it will be shared more widely through “dark social”.

A big part, and the part B2B organisations struggle with, is giving up on the precise measurement or attribution of traffic to your content pieces. The organisation instead moves to looking at signals that the content is being shared more widely than through your distribution network, which will be qualitative signals like a comment saying “I shared your content with my team, which helped me do XYZ”.

I have seen B2B organisations struggle to analyse qualitative signals in the past. For most organisations it will be a gradual shift but as a marketer it is something that you should recognise today.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

John is a data driven marketing specialist and website manager who lives in South East London. When he isn't blogging for us he manages Revenue and Marketing Operations for corporate clients.

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