Increasingly, brands in Asia are embracing the 'dark side' to reach and engage consumers, and for good reason. According to social-analytics platform GetSocial, in 2019 around 77% of all shares were dark social shares.
'Dark social' is all the social shares happening outside of open platforms—on private messaging apps, SMS or emails. In the past, marketers have viewed dark social as a threat, with many seeing it as impenetrable and too difficult to evaluate ROI from.
However, dark social channels are an untapped opportunity for many brands. "We shouldn't be afraid of dark social, we should embrace it," says João Romão, founder and CEO of GetSocial. "If consumers are shifting their way of consuming and sharing content, brands need to start adapting to this."
With the trend of growing fatigue and mistrust around social-media platforms, many consumers are feeling less comfortable sharing content so openly. But users are not sharing less, they are just sharing differently.
"Consumers are making product recommendations, sharing preferences, discussing brands under the radar of social listening and analytics tools," says Werner Iucksch, planning director with We Are Social Singapore. "Dark social is the place where advocacy truly happens."
With Asia renowned for the popularity of “super apps”—private messaging apps with many more lifestyle and practical features rolled in, such as Line, KakaoTalk or WeChat—it comes as little surprise that dark social is most prevalent in this region.
"Penetration of dark social is higher in APAC than in any other region," says Iucksch. "When comparing the use of dark social platforms, such as WeChat, WhatsApp and Viber, with open social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, APAC not only hosts the highest number of dark social users by a significant margin, as expected, but also boasts the highest dark-to-open social ratio (1 to 1) across all regions."
Sharing in these private channels is becoming the new norm for consumers. Even Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that the future of social is private. But exactly how big of an opportunity is dark social, and how can brands harness these private but potentially profitable conversations?
"Many brands have embarked on building their own communities within dark social spaces—such as WhatsApp groups for superfans to get product updates or using their brand accounts on messaging platforms like WeChat to share news or engage in more targeted conversations with followers," says Ed Pank, managing director, Asia Pacific, WARC. "Another focus for marketers is in creating short-form branded content that can be shared on these dark social channels—be it GIFs, memes or even stickers. This way, the brand can claim some visibility within these closed groups and build brand recognition."
Several brands are connecting their CRM to dark social, inviting consumers to join private VIP brand groups, built around audience key passion points and establishing engaged communities of like-minded fans. "By offering exclusive content, news and sales offers, brands are able to strengthen relationships with consumers; the types of relationships that generate brand loyalty and recommendations," says Iucksch. "Like any relationship, success relies on two-way communication, especially on dark social, and it is important that brands not only use these community platforms to deliver their message, but also listen to feedback and engage in the conversation."
According to Michael Patent, founder of Culture Group, personalisation of content is a major area of opportunity. "Hyper-personalisation of content and offers that can be shared among family and friends, allowing the consumer to feel like an ‘insider',” is critical says Patent. "Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon the brand to be highly relevant if they desire to be shared from peer to peer in a dark channel."
The rise of payment services through apps has made several dark social tools become important conversion drivers as well. "In some of the APAC countries, where banking penetration is low, there is a genuine opportunity for well-established apps to offer payment solutions," says Iucksch. "For example, utilising the acute establishment of WeChat in the Chinese market." WhatsApp is also developing a similar solution and has already conducted trials in India. This type of functionality offers many opportunities for brands to boost sales, and even to get consumers through the whole purchase funnel directly in the app.
Combining influencer marketing with dark social is also emerging as a key strategy for brands. "We believe this works particularly well even with micro-influencers who might not have a large following on open platforms but are very respected and trusted voices in their Facebook Messenger/WhatsApp/WeChat groups," says Iucksch. "So when they privately share a piece of content or a link to a product page, it’s likely that they will get a high number of views and clicks. Giving these influencers strong recognition and access to the brand helps create a stronger emotional bond and turns them into loyal and vocal brand advocates."
Additionally, Iucksch adds, connecting influencer programmes to dark social initiatives can enable brands to share trackable links inside private channels that then get amplified by the influencers. These will go a long way into providing the data and measurement capabilities required to properly monitor and build on any marketing campaign.
While it’s not a straightforward process to track sharing in dark social channels, there are tools available in the market to help. "Tools which help brands create shortened URLs (encouraging users to share traceable links) with associated analytics, are available," says Pank. "Cross comparing spikes in dark social with popular content themes is also an approach that can give insight into content of most interest and most actively shared. Adding sharing buttons to content helps as does the use of widgets to gauge copy-and-paste behaviour."
Some forward-thinking brands are already realising the potential of dark social. Sportswear brand Adidas shared that around 70% of its online referrals globally come via dark social.
Notably, Adidas created the Tango Squad FC campaign. We Are Social worked with the brand to create an exclusive network of 1,400 young football creators in 15 cities around the world. They were split into Tango Squads; online membership groups, each comprising between 100-250 people and given exclusive content, early access to news and awesome experiences from Adidas Football, using Facebook Messenger as the key interface. Exclusive content and experiences were delivered quickly to squad members as well as opportunities for new product co-creation, thereby boosting members’ knowledge and social status. The Tango Squads then shared in both dark and light/public social. In return, Adidas gained access to the dark social channels it would not normally have a presence in.
"The campaign has bridged the ‘dark vs open social’ divide, generating more than 32 million views on YouTube and more than 80 million minutes of content watched," says Iucksch. "It’s a successful, long-term brand-equity exercise."
More recently, youth marketing agency Livity worked with Playstation and Giphy to create a series of Playstation-branded GIFs that could be shared via WhatsApp while users are gaming. This came after the agency observed players sending texts and GIFs to friends via WhatsApp mid-game. With the branded GIFs, Playstation could participate in those conversations on dark social, where the brand would otherwise have little visibility. The GIFs have so far garnered 1.4 billion views, according to Giphy.
Dark social can also be incorporated in new and creative ways into a campaign, as IKEA did when it gave Facebook Messenger support for partners of fashion addicts who have to share their storage space.
Finally, an example of an influencer leveraging their position on dark social is Gary Vaynerchuk. As an influencer for his company, VaynerMedia, he used the GaryVee Bot on Facebook Messenger to provide tailor-made content for his audience. As part of his VIP Messenger service, you can get updates on the latest content he uploads, which may be relevant to the industry you work in. This is a great way to build relationships with your audience on dark social and to send them updates without coming across as interfering.
"If brands can nurture the right relationship with consumers, there are great potential rewards through organic sharing on dark social," says Duncan Kavanagh, senior insights analyst at GlobalWebIndex. "It can be a great place to grow advocates of the brand, and capitalise on them for the viral, but trusted, recommendations that the medium offers."
But Kavanagh warns some of the challenges of reaching out on dark social can’t be avoided. "There’s likely to be a barrier to entry of sorts on dark social, with consumers only comfortable including brands in an intimate environment when they already have a meaningful view of them, or relationship with them." But on the plus side, Kavanagh says that internet users in APAC tend to be some of the most brand friendly in these spaces; they are among the most likely to interact with a brand on a messaging app, use a company’s live-chat service on a website, and click on a promoted/sponsored post on a social network.
But while dark social offers significant opportunities for brands to capitalise on these private sharing spaces, experts warn they must tread carefully or risk irreparably damaging consumer's trust. "Private sharing is considered a safe space, so brands must develop a dark social strategy with user experience as the top priority, not seeking to disrupt, distract or interrupt their private conversations," says David Ko, managing director RFI Asia. "Brands must be invited in, they should not intrude and push themselves into private sharing spaces. They must proceed with respect for the user, because they are literally the guest in someone's private space. The key is to deliver value, offer information, experiences and interactions that are enjoyable, useful and enticing."