Little Black Book recently published this article by our co-Founder and CEO for Italy and Spain, Stefano Maggi examining why brands must take note of 'dark social' and the growth of private messaging apps, and what they need to consider in order to get it right. They've been kind enough to let us reproduce it below.

Up until recently, the news feed represented the main way for people to talk and discover new content on social platforms. But now the experience on social channels is also increasingly made up of group conversations and sharing, with private chats and so-called "dark social" a growing phenomenon.

Certainly, the world of communication on social media channels never stops evolving and, right now, the tide seems to be increasingly moving towards more private networks than public show. During this year’s F8 conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s opening remarks, reiterating comments he made earlier this year that privacy will be a defining pillar for the social behemoth, moving away from a focus on the News Feed in favour of a “privacy-focused communications platform”.

Private worlds, not only public show
Indeed, our recent study, with GlobalWebIndex, which looked at more than 3,000 internet users aged 16 to 24 in the UK and US, found that private messaging apps were used by close to two thirds (63%) of people to share content. That’s above public posts on social media (54%) and offline recommendations (51%). What’s more, one in five internet users said they only share their opinions or recommendations on dark social channels.

Facebook, during its earnings call early in the year, declared that the fastest growing area for the major platform is messaging, with Zuckerberg also stating that sharing private content through groups and Stories is becoming a fundamental behaviour. For Facebook, in fact, groups are not just a "feature" but a guiding principle for the business.

The importance of group dynamics
The phenomenon of groups today has various nuances within it, however: such as interest-based groups, dedicated to a theme, and thread-based groups, built on multiple conversations and generally limited in time. We are witnessing a move to a less structured, more impermanent way of publishing content, especially among younger generations.

And while Instagram is not structured in groups, it is based on community and on shared interests, thanks, above all, to functions such as hashtags, and to the very discovery and exploration dynamics that characterise the app. It allows people to deepen their interests and to interact with people interested in the same topics, whether within or outside their circle of friends.

Niche memes are also an effective way to propagate conversations because they refer to jargon and a series of themes which a group may be very passionate about.

In some cases, even the concept of influencers can be overturned thanks to these changing dynamics. This is because people with a smaller number of followers can be perceived as more spontaneous, authentic and trustworthy, especially if they are aimed at a narrower public, in contrast to mainstream social personalities with a very wide reach.

But why are small groups spreading, becoming in many cases the preferred way to interact?

In part, it is in our nature to have more empathy towards the people we consider similar to us. We have evolved, as a species, to live in groups.

With a growing volume of content around us, it can also be difficult to navigate everything with which we come into contact. Using smaller groups can also become a way of resuming a form of conversation which is more open and closer to a healthy discussion. Arguably, smaller groups allow people to express themselves more freely, too, with less fear of negative reactions.

The new role of brands
For brands, these changes have an important impact on modes of expression and ways of developing relationships. Firstly, the initial approach is important: in smaller groups, it is not a good idea to interrupt the conversation with a brand message. Offering value is essential, while targeting must be as accurate as possible, avoiding the use of sensitive data. For instance, leveraging keywords within a conversation to propose a sponsored message can be seen, in some cases, as an intrusion into private life.

On the other hand, providing exclusive content can stimulate integration between groups of people. Think in terms of the communities that gravitate around content verticals such a TV series, sports, or music. Take, for example, the Tango Squad project for our client Adidas, which leveraged a squad of micro-influencers to drive authentic, long-term brand connections, giving young footballers access to exclusive content and events.

For some communities, it can also be very important that people meet each other. As such, brands that can facilitate this contact may have a great advantage. Branded running clubs are an excellent example of this approach.

Developing content and experiences specifically designed for niche and small interest groups is another very important step. This can only happen thanks to a study of the community, their interests and the channels that they use.

It is important to think about content as something that can be passed from one person to another too, possibly through multiple channels. This happens with memes, for instance, which easily propagate between Facebook Groups, WhatsApp, Messenger and Twitter.

The major social networks are making this type of group experience a fundamental element of their ecosystems – not as a forced choice, but rather as one which has been shaped by our natural, social behaviours.