This week, we launched a new piece of research in partnership with GlobalWebIndex into the growing popularity of dark social channels (private messaging apps, SMS and email) when it comes to sharing content online. Here, GlobalWebIndex's Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine delves into this changing consumer behaviour and how brands can make the most of dark social.

There’s no shortage of discussion around the decline of sharing on social media. But it’s not that users are sharing less, they’re just sharing differently.

Social media feeds have become crowded with content to consume, and privacy is on more consumers’ radars than ever before, both contributing to personal conversations shifting off public feeds into private spaces.

These spaces − private messaging apps, SMS or emails − are often branded by marketers as “dark social”, where content shared is less accurately tracked. But exactly how big is the opportunity here, and how can brands harness these private but potentially profitable conversations?

We asked UK and U.S. internet users about their private sharing behaviours to find out.

The dark social advantage for brands
When consumers have something to share, they’re more likely to head to dark social channels to do so (63%) rather than open social media platforms (54%). What’s even more revealing is that around 20% share only via these channels, with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger the go-to services.

With this in mind, the true reach of any digital campaign will likely be underreported by at least some way. And this is bringing many challenges for brands − especially when it comes to accurately tracking ROI − but there is a clear opportunity here too for marketers to use this organic word-of-mouth online to spread their message.

As a result, brands may need to shake-up their social strategies, many of which might be outdated. WhatsApp Business and Messenger's chatbots are industry initiatives built to monetise these 'dark social' platforms, and other big names are already leveraging the space. Adidas was one of the first to make a move with its Tango Squad campaign which used Facebook Messenger to connect young footballers and build a squad of brand advocates. Meanwhile, Starbucks is exploring the use of groups in these spaces for deeper interactions with consumers about product development.

The dark social space offers a more natural communication channel to target consumers. And most of those we questioned agreed they feel more comfortable “being themselves” when sharing privately, compared to sharing publicly to a feed of followers, reiterating this point.

Recommendations are plentiful on private messaging
When it comes to what consumers are most likely to be sharing on private messaging apps, personal photos, like holiday snaps, top the list, along with other entertaining content. Links to websites to recommend products or brands score highly too, being shared by one in two. This is bad and good news for brands: a good share of website visitors will be coming from untraceable sources, but it means there are likely more brand advocates than you might think.

A focus on the travel industry
In terms of the categories of content being shared on these dark channels, entertainment leads the way, followed by games and clothing. Content relating to travel is being shared by many too, and this industry is one that is particularly impacted: there’s a hive of discussion involved when planning holidays or trips with others, and a lot of this will be happening within the walls of dark social.
Among those sharing travel-based content, women are more prolific sharers of personal content, like photos or videos of the destination, and specific details of accommodation; men, on the other hand, are more likely to be sharing website links. More generally, many travel site visitors will be coming direct from dark social: as many as 6 in 10 are sharing content as inspiration for places to visit.

Of those who explicitly say they have been planning or discussing holiday plans, many are comfortable clicking-through links − and over half go on to make a payment. These bookings are most likely to be activities and transport (flights, trains, boats), with places to stay coming down lower in the list. 25-44-year-olds are amongst those most likely to be making purchases; the younger half of this group are ahead for making bookings with greater financial outlay, like accommodation, whilst the older half is more likely to be arranging transport.

What’s clear here is that a good chunk of chat on dark social is done so with the intent of purchasing something in that moment. Sharing happens throughout the consumer journey − planning, discussing and purchasing − and there are plenty of opportunities for travel companies to have an influence.

Looking to the future
Dark social isn’t going anywhere; consumers are always going to have a preference for sharing with friends and family privately. And whilst it does bring challenges for brands across industries, there are things they can do. Interacting directly with consumers in these spaces is one approach. Creating more relevant, shareable content that encourages sharing with friends and family in these private environments is another. What’s key is that for both these tactics, the privacy of consumers needs to be respected.

View from We Are Social
Off the back of the research findings, André van Loon, research and insight director at We Are Social, commented: “This shift in consumer behaviour underlines how much marketing now comes through social media, and specifically dark social. 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. 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.”

“When it comes to travel, it’s fascinating to see holiday planning and things to do so high in the list of results most shared on dark social. This is a brilliant opportunity for marketers; we’ve seen more people being comfortable sharing booking links and things to do while on holiday through dark social: brands that help consumers and that make them look knowledgeable will have an advantage in the future. Make sure your brand is well-represented online and has easy-to-use dark social sharing buttons. And of course, optimise content for sharing when you anticipate or witness spikes in Messenger, WhatsApp or other dark social spaces.”