“Dark social” conjures images of vampires sipping blood cocktails or, far worse, a mandatory corporate happy hour with bad wine. But according to Tom Edwards, writing for Social Media Insider, “dark social” means something very specific to digital geeks—it’s the sharing activity largely invisible to analytics that originates from instant messages, emails and ephemeral social platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and WeChat.
According to a recent Radium One study, 59% of all online sharing takes place through dark social channels, and 91% of Americans regularly share information using dark social methods. Almost three quarters of all sharing occurs when users copy and paste URLs and then send the addresses by email or text. From a marketing point of view, tapping into dark social could harvest the significant amount of sharing that is currently invisible.
Given the privacy concerns that would accompany attempts to tap into the content of personal emails and text messages, the efforts to harness dark social have been focused on—and have been the focus of—the ephemeral social platforms. Facebook’s WhatsApp, which has over 400 million users who together send 50 billion messages a day, convinced a few brands to incorporate sharing functionality in order to better measure reach. FTW, a USA Today sports site, introduced a WhatsApp sharing button to its mobile experience and saw shares from WhatsApp increase to 18% of the site’s overall sharing activity.
One reason why the excavation of dark social has become a priority is that the number of users on ephemeral apps has skyrocketed. SnapChat, one of the top ephemeral apps, has a base of 100 million active users, 60% of whom engage with the app 22 times per day. Snapchat plans to incorporate multiple media outlets into its platform and include more content from external networks and publishing partners. Wechat, with a global audience of 600 million users, 180 million outside of China, is the fifth most-used smartphone app worldwide.
It’s likely that other ephemeral apps will offer integration options like the WhatsApp sharing button to improve the analytics available to marketers. As a result of more robust metrics, many marketers—particularly those trying to engage young people—will be adding the ephemeral social platforms into their marketing mix in 2015.