New research explores increasing importance of dark social in content engagement

James has a passion for how technologies influence business and has several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

As more and more users prefer to share content through private messaging apps, the question for marketers is – how can you get the most out of ‘dark social’?

A new study from We Are Social, alongside market research firm GlobalWebIndex, found Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram’s direct messaging functionality were the most popular private messaging platforms. Of the more than 3,000 internet users analysed, almost two thirds (63%) said they used these channels to share content.

82% of respondents said they were most likely to share content on Facebook Messenger, compared with 56% for WhatsApp and 34% and 32% for Instagram and Snapchat direct messaging respectively. In comparison, ‘open’ social media was used by 54% of respondents, and word of mouth by 51%.

When it came to the reasons behind the dark social trend, respondents noted they felt more comfortable ‘being themselves’ when sharing across private channels. The report found this was a consistent trend across all age groups. In terms of specific content, entertainment content was the most popular to be shared in private social networks, followed by gaming, clothing, electronics, food and drink, and travel.

So what does this mean from a brand’s perspective? Ultimately, this is not a new trend. As far back as 2017, this publication was opining on how consumers looked to dark social channels for, in this instance, festive gift ideas. It’s worth considering when it comes to above the line (ATL) campaigns – brands need to remember that even if they have as much influence as they can above, consumers will take their opinions elsewhere.

For Andre van Loon, research and insight director at We Are Social, it is all about augmentation. “Brands can have a big above the line push, but when it comes to consumers actually talking about the brands they like, the things they want to do or buy, and following others’ recommendations, more and more of that now happens in private apps and by sharing links,” said van Loon.

“Increasingly, marketers will need to be sure to target and optimise their content so that heavy-lifting ATL awareness campaigns run at the same time as easy-to-share digital content, which consumers will then be free to use and discuss in their own time.”

Some companies are looking at ways they can gain accountability for dark social channels. Given one of the clear areas where brands need to improve this year is around user privacy and transparency – the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 made certain of that – it is again a balancing act between gaining insights and not sullying the user experience.

As Marketing Week reported earlier this month, Starbucks is ‘exploring’ private social groups and accounts to help with product development and testing. “What I’m most excited about [on social] is some of the possibilities around private groups and private accounts on social media channels,” Reuben Arnold, Starbucks VP marketing and product EMEA told attendees at an event run by The Social Element.

“When we think about the crossover between product and marketing, it really allows us to have a much deeper conversation with certain customers who really do care about our brand, who can then get much more involved in things like product development and testing, and we can use the audience in a much more meaningful way,” Arnold added.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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