In this piece, Senior Research & Insight Director André van Loon examines why travel brands need to get up to speed with 'dark social' and how they can tailor online content to facilitate sharing on messaging platforms. 

The rise of dark social - when people share content with each other by using private channels like WhatsApp, other messaging apps, text messages or email - continues to disrupt traditional thinking around marketing.

Its growing importance means that travel businesses can no longer rely on ‘public’ activities on their social media accounts, websites or broader marketing efforts; today’s consumer is increasingly likely to share digital content in ‘private’ groups.

When it comes to travel, it’s now the case that one in five internet users have booked a travel or leisure activity from a recommendation or link in a private messaging app, according to our recent study conducted in partnership with GlobalWebIndex. More than 3,000 internet users aged 16 to 64 in the UK and US said that of the bookings and purchases made following dark social recommendations, activities to do on holiday was the most popular (74 per cent). This was followed by places to eat and drink (73 per cent), transport, including flights and trains (71 per cent), and accommodation (68 per cent).

So what can you do to make the most of this growing trend?

Driving awareness of holiday destinations and transport remains a big job. It would be wrong to say TV, radio, cinema and print advertising don’t work. But when it comes to consumers deciding on destinations or things to do, many of those conversations can be helped by dark social.

And of course, marketing can come from many different sources; consumers can share your material through dark social, even if that’s from your website, social media pages, by taking photos or videos of destinations, or even sharing content they see in-store. Dark social sharing is simply the means through which many people now communicate, but that’s not to say that businesses need to be on dark social; as long as you make it easy for potential customers to share material and information in those spaces.

For example, could businesses give customers easy-to-share inspiration posts or links, or transport and accommodation options in a dark social designed voting or polling system for friends and family?

You could give your potential customers fun and inspiring lists of options they can share with their friends or family. Or places to eat, ranked by reviews, price, distance from their accommodation. Allow them to share their finalised transport or accommodation bookings in an easy-to-read or visualised format through dark social - which can include links for receivers to make a booking themselves.

And ensure that all your travel content, from any part of your site, or ‘open’ social media pages, is tracked and optimised: what gets shared most often, why is that, and how can you learn from this to produce more such tips and tricks for travellers? Getting it right means giving your customers more of what they want, relying on them to share and discuss it between themselves in dark social.

Dark Social isn’t going away. It’s an exciting challenge, but one that will provide wonderful opportunities for travel businesses who get it right.