Shining Light on “Dark Social” Sharing

Shining Light on "Dark Social" Sharing

In late 2012, Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, published an article titled “Dark Social: We have the whole history of the web wrong.” The article did not go unnoticed: over 5,000 tweets, nearly the same amount of shares on Facebook and 2,100 pluses on Google+.

Techopedia summarized the concept concisely:

Dark Social is a term […] to refer to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by Web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured.

The trend towards one-to-one sharing instead of one-to-many clearly favors direct messaging services over social media. WhatsApp was acquired for a staggering $19 billion, which indicates the value Facebook saw in direct messaging apps. Look around and you’ll see people frequently chatting on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Snapchat. These networks are organized around one-to-one sharing (or very specific groups of friends or contacts). Email (also a form of Dark Social) is still one of the strongest distribution channels around.

However, almost two years later, reports are still claiming that the number of social shares are a must-have KPI. It’s supposed to tell you how many people have enjoyed your content and approximately how many users saw it. For many niche-topics, it’s very hard to get more than a handful of shares, though.

The number of shares is certainly an important metric to track, but when a content piece only gets a handful of shares, it seems to indicate the content itself is bad, doesn’t it? What if your content is actually good, but its low share counts are due to you not enabling the sharer to make it easily relevant? For that to happen, users need to be both motivated to share and have the ability to easily pass content on to the right network of contacts.

Motivation To Share

As the study “The Psychology of Sharing” from the New York Times pointed out, 94 percent of social media users share content primarily to provide value to others. The other two major reasons for sharing are self-representation (68 percent) i.e. content which is shared because it shapes the image of the sharer and his/her identity, and to nourish relationships (73 percent).

Content which is truly helpful and/or entertaining WILL be shared, given that “the very act of learning and discovering information is inseparable from sharing it, as three in four (76 percent) say that sharing is half the fun of finding information.”

Even though this study was conducted in 2011, it’s still relevant. The results implicate something I’ve observed on many occasions: A company that focuses on producing great content should focus even more on how it is going to be recommended (note avoidance of the term “goes viral”). Allow me to explain.

Let’s say you publish a helpful glossary for engineers and I am an engineer who values it. I’ve downloaded your app on my tablet and my smartphone and I gave it an excellent review. I have a big network of peers and I teach classes at a college. You’d want me to share this with all of those potential customers, wouldn’t you?

Everybody knows that making content “shareable” is a must-have nowadays. So you embed Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin sharing buttons. Easy, right? Think again, because all of that actually doesn’t help me.

At best, it reminds me that I could share it, but does it really enable me to share it with people I would want to share it with? The vast majority of my Facebook contacts are family and friends. I’m not going to share it on my timeline because it’s just not relevant for all of those people.

Moreover, it wouldn’t gain much traction because the newsfeed algorithm amplifies widely popular content that engages with the masses (not a specific, highly targeted niche). I can share it on Twitter, but only three percent of my followers would see it on a good day. LinkedIn? I did share it, but many people missed it.

Ability To Share

If you want me to make it easy for me to share with like-minded people, you need to enable me to be relevant.

If the engineering glossary is truly a youtility, why make it so hard to recommend it to others? I’d have to remember it before my next class with students and at the next meeting with my peers. Or I’d have to copy the link, open my email software or webpage, paste it in an email, choose the appropriate contacts I want to send it to and compose a message to provide context.

I (the marketer) think dark social is massively undervalued. The more specialized the content and the more it addresses a niche audience, the more you should think about implementing “dark social” sharing buttons.

Facebook – a company that obviously understands the usage of social media like few others – purchased WhatsApp for $19 billion. Whether this acquisition was intelligent is not the point; the fact that Facebook understands the growing importance of direct communication as a digital social interaction is. Have you noticed that when you open a link, it does so within the Facebook app? It’s also no coincidence that Facebook makes it increasingly easy to share via the messenger.


Sharing In Facebook

What does it mean for your next initiative?

Sharing is an impulsive act. If you make it too hard to share content in a relevant way, most of the people you want to reach will simply not find your content. The more specialized your content is, the more you should think about implementing “dark social” sharing buttons. Enable them to send it directly to their peers and friends (via email, WhatsApp, etc.) who are much more likely to be interested.

Two key learnings emerge from this:

  1. The deeper your business addresses niche needs, the more “dark social” will be relevant as an amplification tactic.
  2. Start thinking about how your target audience really communicates with each other; Twitter and Facebook might not be the best networks for your content to be shared on by evangelists.

Just because it’s easy to track and calculate Facebook and Twitter shares doesn’t mean it’s the best way to distribute your content. Remember, the goal is to meet your intended audience with remarkable content and, in the event that they consume and enjoy it, make sharing it with a relevant audience an intuitive, seamless process. Consult your audience personas, determine how they communicate with peers and give them a way to amplify your great content for you.