Dark social is digital sharing of content that's untraceable using traditional tracking methods.
For example, when someone copies a URL and pastes it into a chat message or other direct communication tool such as SMS. Since analytics measures this a direct link, there's no simple way to track its true origin.
So is dark social destroying your travel marketing strategy? The answer is a resounding yes, at least if you are not paying attention to this legitimate social phenomenon.
Exploring dark social
Consider a group messaging situation: friends are staying in touch via GroupMe, and rather than posting a link in a public forum, they share links directly one-on-one.
Yes, this is digital word-of-mouth outside of the walled gardens of Facebook and Twitter. And yes, it's a means of communication that's extraordinarily popular with Americans, as Gallup highlighted in a November 2014 survey.
These direct lines of communication are the freshest battleground of attention and measurement.
While this form of communication is not nearly as new as social media, it's far more challenging to measure the impact of digital marketing as direct communication tools proliferate. Just like face-to-face word-of-mouth, it's a challenge to track but worthy of the effort.
According to a recent Radium One report, nearly nine in ten Internet users have shared content digitally via non-trackable means.
And this is a relatively consistent behavior across demographics – a fascinating statistic that shows how vital it is to understand this phenomenon because it gives you access to a wide swath of humanity.
Of those surveyed in the study graphed above, a significant 32% of respondents shared only via dark social. That basically means that the true engagement and reach of any given digital marketing campaign might be underreported by at least that same percentage.
Dark social is an overwhelmingly mainstream behavior, a behavior that emphasizes how the power of word-of-mouth applies to our digital world.
This is also something that extends beyond the borders of the United States across the world, marking dark social as a fundamental human style of sharing.
RadiumOne also measured the number of shares and clickbacks that the travel category received, and found that, on a worldwide basis, 82% of social shares were dark, 13% were on Facebook and a mere 5% on other social networks.
As far as clickbacks — or how many people actually clicked the link to view the content they were sent — the numbers were reversed: 76% of clickbacks came from Facebook, 16% from dark social and 10% from all other social. In travel, the worldwide average is 21% of clickbacks from dark social, 59% from Facebook and 20% from other social.
Of course, Facebook's one-to-many sharing yields more clickbacks in aggregate, but that doesn't always mean the clicks are of equal, targeted quality.
How to leverage dark social
So if digital word-of-mouth is so powerful globally, how can travel marketers tap its strength while also delivering a useful measure of the campaign's success — or lack thereof?
There's no clear answer. The first step is to acknowledge the behavior and understand that traditional metrics aren't everything.
If the campaign is working as far as bookings completed, for example, and yet the metrics don't support success, perhaps there is dark social at play.
And if dark social has been activated, then the campaign has resonated so deeply with consumers that they are sharing directly with their own personal connections.
So fan the flames and do more of the same, because these are engaged, interested consumers.
Other steps to leverage dark social include:
- Consider Google's URL builder. It allows you to set Custom Campaign parameters to URLs so you can track the most successful content as far as clickbacks. This will take some time to get right, but is one way to track the location of links that work for dark socail. This knowledge will then allow you to further target for dark social sharing within an existing SEM campaign.
- Or branded short URLs. Using customizable short URLs is an easy way to track who's sharing what and how, and offers the added advantage of circumventing web analytics altogether. Simply create a short URL for a piece of content shared in one channel and then watch how it performs.
- Encourage dark social sharing by calling out and focusing on that behavior within campaigns.
- Email continues to remain important. Each month, more users send at least one email than log into social media at least once. Don't neglect your email strategy, as it can prove to be a very lucrative means of promotion with inherent tracking advantages.
- Be consistent across channels. When implementing a customized URL strategy, be consistent across channels. Use the same URL shortener and be sure that each type of content and channel has its own unique link. And then be sure to analyze the data to make sure it's been set up correctly and offers an accurate portrayal of the dark social flow.
This sort of targeted sharing with only a chosen network is immeasurably more valuable than a message broadcast via social media.
The message is not released into the noisy ethers, but penetrating deep into the fortress of private social lives, leading to increased engagement and recall for participating consumers.
Dark social's direct personal relationships are marketing gold, as it not only provides organic filtering for a marketing message but also provides a cheaper means of connection to consumers outside of the costly gatekeepers such as Facebook.
NB: Image sourced from Radium One report.