Diving into the Depths of the Unknown: Going Dark

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By Alyssa Ruane

It’s dark. It’s unknown. It’s scary. If you’re not familiar with the term, “dark social” conjures images of shady individuals wading through the black market of social media buying and creating followers (bots) and cheating the social system. While this behavior is something social media marketers should be aware of, it’s not what the industry calls “dark social.” 

So, what is dark social? Sarah Mannone explains it like this. Say your mom is in the market for a new dining table. You see the perfect table on Instagram, but rather than sharing it—which would contain a trackable link, you text your mom the name of the company. She’ll likely Google it and wind up on the company’s site as part of the search traffic.

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Social media became a digital version of word-of-mouth. There’s that qualitative value of a friend telling you about it. That’s the original form of influencer marketing. 
— Corri Smith, Owner of Black Wednesday

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This person-to-person sharing of information via untrackable links is the essence of dark social. Basically, it’s “dark” because you can’t see it happening, says Mannone, executive VP of Trekk, a tech-driven creative services firm with offices in Brooklyn and Rockford, Illinois. Sure, dark social can look like Manonne’s example. It can also be screenshotting a brand’s meme and texting it to your friend; Direct Messaging (DMing) a company on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook; or emailing a quick funny video to everyone in your department.

Corri Smith, owner of Charlotte-based creative marketing and PR company Black Wednesday, compares dark social to an age-old marketing term. “Social media became a digital version of word-of-mouth. Lead generation is really hard to track. There’s that qualitative value of a friend telling you about it. That’s the original form of influencer marketing.”

Mannone says it was just as difficult to track the source of a word-of-mouth conversion that happened face-to-face in the 1980s as it’s difficult today to track what’s going on in your audience’s DMs. “Purchases that come from interactions like this are nearly impossible to untangle, let alone measure, and it’s probably a higher percentage of conversions than most brands think.”

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Tracking the untrackable

If Mannone is right, and people-to-people interactions are yielding more conversions than brands realize, how can marketers wrangle this untrackable information? Surely, with all the technology out there, there must be a solution… Right?

Kind of.

“There are ways to encourage people to share publicly instead of privately,” Black Wednesday’s Smith says. Her three-year-old company’s been successful at creating memorable social media sharing campaigns, some without even trying. One of the most recent was a play off the popular ‘Mean Girls’ movie quote, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” to fit in with the company’s brand color. 

Smith’s small staff wears black on Wednesdays. She is the embodiment of the brand, sporting black hair and black clothes every day. Thus, fans or supporters on social media began wearing black on Wednesdays (either purposefully or not), snapping a photo, posting it to Instagram Stories or Twitter, and tagging Black Wednesday’s handle.

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If we focus every campaign purely on ROI, we’re going to miss the boat on what the customer actually needs to hear—because I can guarantee they don’t want a sales pitch every time they hear from you.

— Sarah Mannone, Executive Vice President of Trekk

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Of course, Instagram Stories are ephemeral and based off of Snapchat’s 24-hour lifespan. While you cannot track the exact success of this social media behavior, it’s safe to assume some users saw it. Producing shareable content is something all modern marketers must remember when seeking social engagement and results.

Speaking of results, you won’t get an itemized insight report from social media and dark social, but you’ll get something to show for your efforts. For example, Smith says she can customize trackable links and “I’ll be able to know that it happened, but I won’t be able to see who does it.”

Mannone says the advice is simple. Focus on what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t. “Understand what happens on dark social for what it is—word-of-mouth marketing—and spend your resources on things you can measure, like brand sentiment. Don’t stop at tracking engagement on social media; dig in and find out what your customers are actually saying about you. Are they sharing your post because it resonates, or because they think it’s silly? Is your message working or isn’t it?”

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To measure brand sentiment, it’s all about using social media to listen to your audience. Your competitors. Your potential leads. The national conversation. People are dialing into their devices to share themselves with the world, and it’s up to brands to listen to what they’re saying, especially if they’re talking about your brand.

“This is what smart brands are doing,” Smith says. “Look for keywords in a targeted area within a range. Listen to the conversation. You can chime in.”

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