How dark social is changing everything we know about social marketing

by | Jan 28, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Dark social is changing everything we know about social media marketing. Are you ready to join the dark side?

In the early 2010s, social media sharing became the most powerful content distribution tool for marketers everywhere. As people were sharing more and more content on their Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Instagram accounts, we found ways to harness this momentum to build better reach for our brands. Then, all of a sudden, social media shares hit a major drop.

Buzzsumo’s 2018 Content Trends Report revealed that social sharing has been cut in half since 2015. Sites like, Vice, Buzzfeed and Mashable, which were actually built on social sharing, are all suffering huge revenue losses due to this decline. In fact, Mashable was sold at the end of 2017 at only a fraction of its valuation in 2015.

Where did everyone go? Has the age of social media marketing ended?

At the 4th edition of Amsterdam’s PRLab Meetup, we found out. Kirsty Sharman, founder of AerialScoop, came prepared to talk about what she considers to be the next big thing set to disrupt the way we market our brands—dark social.

While it may sound like a dating app for death eaters, according to Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal, who originally coined the term in 2012, dark social is simply social sharing that occurs outside of what our web analytics programs can measure. For example, when you email a link to a friend, share it via a messaging app or post it in a group, you’re using dark social.

A study by RadiumOne showed that dark social shares increased from 69 percent in 2014 to 84 percent in 2018 globally. However, as Sharman explains, the fact that people are sharing less publicly does not spell out the end of your marketing game. Like social sharing once was, dark social is the new frontier for content distribution. Marketers who get creative, taking advantage of this momentum early will see the benefits.

Here are six reasons Sharman believes everyone will be joining the dark side:

1. Dark social is bringing organic back

The fact that dark social is more personalized means that going viral organically is more of a possibility. Sharman gave the example of Facebook and Linkedin groups. Rather than sharing content with everyone from your grandma to your creepy neighbor, with ‘groups’ you can actually direct content at a more specific audience which you know will be more likely to engage with it.

2. Get creative with new content distribution channels

It’s not just your typical Facebooks, Twitters and Linkedins. There is a wealth of new potential content distribution platforms on the rise with the growth of messaging apps.

You can now find closed communities that are already talking about your topic or field on platforms such as Slack, tgram.io, botlist, Whatsapp and Meetup. There are even databases and lists where you can easily search for groups related to your niche. The ‘Slack list directory’ or ‘Join Whatsapp groups,’ for example, are great resources you can use.

However, as Sharman pointed out, be mindful that you can’t simply post content in a group and expect it to go viral. You need to be actively contributing in your groups rather than simply pushing your own content. In the run-up to the World Cup, Sharman’s team was actively engaging in football-related groups. By the time the games started, they had already gained the perfect audience to share content about a footballer client of theirs. This allowed them to halve their media budget based on the organic growth they saw from dark social.

3. Let’s get personal

Over the years email marketing has evolved to become more personalized and thereby more effective. With the data we were able to collect we can now send emails that start with “Are you hungry John? How would you like a discount off your favorite Hawaiian pizza from Dre’s Pizzeria?”. Dark social is doing the same thing.

Instead of the general social media blasts we hope will catch people’s attention, you can instead send personalized messages to people who’ve opted into your direct messaging, messenger, or Slack groups.

4. It’s not just about messaging apps

Again, there’s a tendency to look solely at the big name messaging apps like Whatsapp and Messenger but, if you dig further, there are a lot of channels you can use to have direct conversations with people.

While Intercom is commonly seen as a customer service tool, Sharman pointed out that the company Viral Loops’ is actually using it to share content and start conversations with their customers, allowing them to advertise more of their products to a group which is already engaged with them.

5. Scale, scale, scale!

Sharman predicts that scaling conversations will be our next challenge. Once you get all of the basics down, it’s time to start considering how you can grow through this new dark social network you’re creating.

Companies like Mobile Monkey and Many Chat are now making it easier for you to send messages and create content lists of potential customers on Facebook.

6. Rethinking CTAs

In the past, we spent a lot of time trying to get people through the funnel with calls to “Click here.” Now instead of getting people to click and fill out a form or continue through the content funnel, Sharman believes we’ll see a shift with marketers calling on leads to “start a conversation.”

You can now very easily add a button directing people to a Whatsapp conversation in which you can engage them in a much more personalized way. This approach has the potential to cut down the time it takes to engage a lead by bringing the relationship even further at an earlier stage. Ready to join the dark side but not sure where to start? Get in touch with a team of young, PR experts to get more insights into how you can leverage, track and scale dark social shares.

Andrea Hak
Andrea Hak is the Head of Content of PRLab Hub, the integrated marketing hub that helps purpose-driven companies inspire and create change with out of the box communication strategies.