Dark social and the search for relevance

Mark Ralphs

18 May 2017

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The social web is changing. It is moving from the light into the darkness. Sounds ominous, but perhaps only for conservative marketers.

Dark social is neatly summarised by Kristina Dimitrova at Contagious as, “Sharing content outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs.” The term was first used in 2012 by Alexis Madrigal in an article in The Atlantic. Madrigal’s observation was that the popular misconception of the web is of a public space, of websites and open networks, where we share completely openly on blogs, Twitter and Wikipedia or semi-openly on Facebook and now Instagram. Hence the terms, the social web or web 2.0, which became popular in the 2000s to describe the second evolution of the web.

In fact, the web has always been largely private, one to one or small group based, using email, chat-rooms and messaging apps. It is in these private spaces, much harder or impossible for web analytics (e.g. Google Analytics) and social listening (e.g. Brandwatch) to index and measure, that much of the web’s social activity (sharing, conversation etc.) happens.

Experienced digital marketers have known this for years, but while traditional platforms (organic and paid) continued to drive strong results, most have tended to stick to the path well trodden.

Two behaviours are forcing a rethink; the rise of the ad blocker and a dramatic increase in messenger app usage.

The rise of the ad blocker

Social media has never been the inexpensive shortcut to brand marketing that some believed (or hoped) it would be in the early days of the social web, but it was relatively straightforward.

You could launch on Facebook and provided your content strategy was good and your brand wasn’t hated (or maybe because it was), you could with relative ease grow an audience of tens -if not hundreds- of thousands of followers, with reasonable engagement levels. Whether this audience made a difference to the long-term success of your brand is another question.

Since Facebook introduced the News Feed (2009), then Edgerank (2011) and started penalising overtly promotional posts (2014) it has become, from a marketing perspective, a paid media channel. You pay for reach, access to an increasingly sophisticated range of ad formats, and can measure both brand uplift and hard conversions.

Ad blockers threaten the effectiveness of the paid social media model. When (in the UK) 16% and rising of the digital paid media audience no longer sees your message, the missed opportunity presented by dark social becomes even more acute.

pg 5 devices using adblock software on the open web scaled


pg 8 adblock penetration per online capita top ad markets

Source: PageFair ad blocker survey 2017

The rise in popularity of messenger apps

Coinciding with the rise in the use of ad blockers has been the rapid increase in the use of messenger apps, particularly Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

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Source: GlobalWebIndex Q4 2016, internet users aged 16-64 from outside China

This is significant, it means that Facebook, whilst still the number one social platform by far in terms of user accounts, is no longer the first place we visit to spend time ‘hanging out’ on our smartphones.

The ratio of Membership to Visits to Engagers is higher for messenger apps than for other leading social networks. So more of the activity – sharing, commenting, chatting with friends, arranging events – traditionally considered to make up online social behaviour is taking place in private, rather than where brands can reach an audience with targeted content and advertising.

Indeed last year the Drum reported RadiumOne estimates 84% of global sharing is happening outside of public social networks; and yet according to eMarketer, over 90% of social and sharing marketing investment is going to those same public networks.

Time for a rethink.

Of course brands should not stop allocating paid media spend to traditional social networking platforms. But at Good Rebels our aim is to create more nuanced strategies, which see dark social as an opportunity, not a threat.

Dark social is just what social was at first

Let’s not kid ourselves. Social will always be social. If people share content it’s because that content touches them, it’s meaningful, it’s relevant, it cuts through the noise.

When brands started to build their first communities on Facebook or Twitter, they didn’t care about engagement rates, share of voice or cost per click. They wanted conversations around their brand, that was what mattered.

Today, in large part due to the rise of Facebook’s need to make billions of dollars in ad revenue, we care more about metrics than making great content happen. Even when we’re not sure we can trust the metrics we have.
The paradox is that people are also probably sharing more content on dark social than ever before because in these spaces it will get noticed and be more relevant to their friends.

So let’s be relevant

At Contagious’s recent Now Next Why event, Mattias Ronge from Edelman Deportivo put up a slide containing a truism that too many brands and agencies would do well to remember.

170518 darksocialconsumers scaled

How do we create that desire? The answer is simple but making it happen is hard. We must create content and experiences that people chose to engage with and share, not because we’ve paid to reach them but because we are relevant.

Good Rebels’ Relevance Framework

To help in the quest for relevance, fellow Rebel Pedro Gonzalez designed the Relevance Framework to help develop the right mindset when creating social content and experiences.

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But what is relevant content? We may never get a final formula, but there are some rules:

  • Relevant content is different.
  • Relevant content makes sense in time and context, it taps into culture.
  • Relevant content is not intrusive.
  • Relevant content is smart.
  • Relevant content sells an attitude, not a product.
  • Relevant content connects a story with a brand in a unique way.
  • Relevant content needs good thinking and good production (time and money).
  • Relevant content is an experience.

The reality is that too many agencies, including sometimes Good Rebels, create too little relevant content. We are creating content because we are being paid for it, not because there is a reason to do it.

Fear not

Thousands of brands today are following the same exact strategy, create more and more content, and promote it. How many people appreciate these efforts? How many of our audience are saying or even thinking about how good this branded content is? Is this even what they expect or want from brands?

The truth is that no one is talking about these brands. Brands people talk about are relevant by themselves – by what they do and by what they believe in. These brands aren’t just creating stories with their content, their whole brand tells a story.

This is innovation, this is technology, this offering something different, something useful. This creates relevance.

 Hail the pioneers

Fortunately we’re not alone, there are brands (and competitor agencies) out there with the courage, insight and imagination to re-engineer their brands and create groundbreaking and culturally relevant experiences that connect in new ways and are shared, in person, on the social web and yes, over dark social with millions of people each day. We have included three of our favourites, including one from Good Rebels, below

Dark social? No problem.

Clarks and BBH Labs: From Rats to Rudeboys.

Toyota and Good Rebels: Lígate Un Aygo

Nike and R/GA: On Demand