Earlier this year, we launched our latest suite of Global Digital Reports - a full digest of which can be found here. Below, Communications Manager Ryan Dubras combines the data from those reports with the findings from a recent study we conducted - in partnership with GlobalWebIndex - to explore the role of dark social channels in influencing travel purchase decisions online.

In the UK last year, consumer spending via e-commerce totalled $86.45 billion - an increase of 8.5 per cent from the year before. Of this impressive chunk of change spent online, nearly half ($42.2 billion) was splashed out on travel-based purchases, including flights and accommodation bookings - up 7.7 per cent from 2017. The US market saw a similar trend, with consumers spending $220.2 billion on travel online last year, equating to 44 per cent of the total e-commerce spend of $504.6 billion.

So, we know there's a lot of money being spent on travel online. But what's helping would-be holiday makers determine their purchase decisions? We undertook some research to help explain one particular part of the puzzle.

The growing influence of dark social
We recently partnered with GlobalWebIndex on a piece of research looking specifically at the role of Dark Social channels - private messaging apps, SMS and email - in driving travel purchase decisions online.

We surveyed 3,000 internet users (aged 16 to 64) across the UK and US, and the results showed that one in five had made a booking for travel or leisure activities after receiving a link or recommendation via private messaging apps - such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Of said purchases or bookings, holiday activities proved to be the most popular category (74 per cent of people surveyed). This was closely followed by places to eat and drink (73 per cent), transport including flights and trains (71 per cent), and accommodation (68 per cent).

Our research also found that 25-44-year-olds were among those most likely to purchase something through a link that has been shared on dark channels, with the younger half of that group (25-34-year-olds) most likely to be booking accommodation, while the older half (35-44-year-olds) were more likely to arrange transport.

Share and share alike
When it comes to making travel-related bookings or purchases, either individually or for a group trip, recommendations shared by friends and family are a key influence in driving purchase decisions.

Helpfully, for travel brands, our research found that travel content is actually ranked as one of the top categories for content shared privately; with 41 per cent of internet users now sharing travel-related content via dark channels. Interestingly, the tendency to sharing travel-based content increases with income.

When it comes to what consumers are most likely to be sharing on private messaging apps, personal photos (holiday snaps for example) top the list, alongside other entertaining content. Links to recommended products or brand sites score highly too, being shared by one in two; followed by good deals and discounts, and links to social media posts.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there
When the time comes to start planning and booking a holiday in today’s digitally-driven world, there’s a hive of discussion happening behind the walls of dark social. And while, for travel marketers, this might mean that bookings or purchases are harder to track and attribute; dark social isn’t something to be ignored.

GlobalWebIndex’s Strategic Insights Analyst, Olivia Valentine wrote in a recent blog for us that “of those who explicitly say they have been planning or discussing holiday plans (via dark social channels), many are comfortable clicking-through links − and over half go on to make a payment.” In fact, “many travel site visitors will be coming directly from dark social”.

Valentine continues, “sharing happens throughout the consumer journey − planning, discussing and purchasing − and there are plenty of opportunities for travel companies to have an influence.” She concludes that “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.”

Commenting on the findings of the research, our Research and Insight Director André van Loon, said: “When it comes to travel, it’s fascinating to see holiday planning and things to do so high on 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 make them look knowledgeable will have an advantage in the future.”

The bottom line
For travel marketers in 2019, getting social media right - in particular, focusing on how digital content can be optimised for sharing on private messaging platforms - is going to be key to tapping into this pot of e-commerce gold.

Travel marketers need to ensure that the content their brand shares is aimed at helping would-be holidaymakers make informed decisions - and appear in-the-know when discussing potential destinations with friends. It needs to offer a taste of local life, showcase experiences which feel authentic and unique, and - above all - must easily facilitate that in-the-moment share to a WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger group.