In the dark about social media

New research suggests brands are missing out on "dark social", an area of social media interaction beyond the public mainstream of Facebook and Twitter, including for example private messages through email and text. Research suggests that as much as 75% of all online content in the UK is shared via dark social channels - but brands’ and marketers’ feverish focus on only the big, mainstream players - Facebook and Twitter in particular - means that they miss out on vital consumer insight.

In June, the digital advertising firm RadiumOne measured 2 million instances of content-sharing online, and found that, compared to dark social activity, only 20% of these instances were through public formats like Facebook and Twitter. Within the travel, shopping and food sectors, 90% of sharing was done via dark social, below the radar of big businesses keen to understand their customers.

But the name "dark social" alludes not just to this unknown, untapped potential in private communication channels but also to the practical difficulty of tracing consumer activity there. This is because, unlike in the case of Facebook or Twitter, the tracking code is not automatically appended to any URL shared by a user - so it is not possible to know how the user found the website. To resolve this, RadiumOne provides dark social monitoring software, which is able to pinpoint each time a user copies and pastes a link to text, email, or whatever other dark social format. The software is currently being used by brands such as Paddy Power, Universal Music and Team Sky.

"Trying to get a marketer into a place where he or she can seamlessly understand and connect audiences, in the same way a consumer can seamlessly connect with their friends and colleagues, has to be the aim."Rupert Staines, European Managing Director, RadiumOne

This points to a shift in the role of marketing, in which it is almost as if a third category is opened up between above-the-line and below-the-line activity. This new marketing is not, as in above-the-line, directed impartially at everybody; nor is it, like below-the-line, targeted solely at a niche demographic. The marketing appears in private, intimate communications between people on an individual basis.

This raises the point of the alternative dynamics of content sharing through dark social. Staines highlights the fact that sharing content through dark social involves "more emotional weight", because of the intimate, one-to-one nature of the interaction - the content shared is likely to be a personal recommendation of the sharer, in contrast to the impersonal nature of a link shared on a Facebook wall. But Jim Coleman, managing director at We Are Social, doubts whether dark social has the same effect as publicly shared interactions with brands: "While dark social content is more likely to be read by the recipient, it doesn’t make the same broad statement of endorsement that sharing something publicly does." So it remains to be seen whether dark social, which has been touted as such an exciting untapped resource for brands looking for deeper consumer insight, will really catch on.