What Dark Social Can Offer Direct-to-Consumer Brands

Social media is an area where direct-to-consumer brands have long been savvy, disrupting stagnant industries with impactful campaigns and drawing consumer attention. But, for a large part, that’s taken place on the surface, on public platforms. ‘Dark’ social is less well understood, less easy to measure – and perhaps less engaged with for those reasons. But it’s an area due to come under the spotlight even more, after Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s planned pivot from a public-facing platform into one built on private messaging. In this piece for DTC Daily, Chris Beer (pictured below), senior trends analyst, GlobalWebIndex, explains how dark social can complement the initial work done across existing public platforms.

Direct-to-consumer brands are in a good place to capitalise on Facebook’s move, and the trend that caused it to happen. Direct-to-consumer brands already own most of the consumer experience. They don’t have to worry about shouting loudest on the shelf; they can communicate with consumers in a more intimate way. And dark social channels may be the best place to do just that.

Most sharing happens in the shadows

‘Dark social’ refers to messages and content exchanged online on channels that are encrypted or otherwise unseen to marketers. If public platforms are the tip of the iceberg, dark social is the bulk that lies underneath. Private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger are the classic examples, but it includes messages sent via SMS and email too.

Dark social is part of a trend we’ve been tracking for some time. Public platforms have, by and large, morphed into content-consumption platforms, while peer-to-peer sharing has moved onto messaging services like WhatsApp and Messenger. To put it in very crude terms, news articles and entertainment might be read or seen on a news feed, but much of the sharing and discussion around them will often happen on private channels.

We got a glimpse into the volume of sharing that takes place on dark social from a bespoke survey we ran in February this year. We found that 63% of internet users in the UK and U.S. share information or recommendations with close contacts on private messaging apps, putting it above public posts on social media (54%) and offline recommendations (51%) in popularity. SMS and emails were further down the list, but their consistency among older age groups ensures that dark social recommendations outrank those made in person for every age group. There are also some consumers for whom the only kind of word-of-mouth they engage with comes on dark social: 20% of internet users only share their opinions or recommendations on dark social channels.

Chris Beer, Senior Trends Analyst, GlobalWebIndex

With the amount of sharing taking place on dark social, the opportunities for organic spread through it can be great. Many direct-to-consumer brands burst onto the scene through viral campaigns, emphasising how disruptive they were to old industries through quirky content; Dollar Shave Club being the most obvious example. Such campaigns offer fantastic reach, but for truly connecting with consumers, and building a network of advocates, dark social has great potential. The old adage is that word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing, but this kind of peer-to-peer sharing and recommending is amplified on these channels. With the right strategy, this type of sharing can be instigated at source within dark social channels.

A place where consumers are their true selves

Knowing the level of sharing on dark social is one thing, but it means little without context, which our survey helped to clarify. Dark social comes into its own as a place where users can adopt a persona closer to their true self. Forty-eight percent of social sharers in our survey felt they are more comfortable being themselves when sharing on private messaging apps – more than those who say they’re most comfortable when sharing publicly. All age groups share this tendency. There’s a very different dynamic at work when sharing with friends than sharing with followers. Consumers may present a certain version of themselves on public platforms, but what they say on dark social is likely to be closer to what they truly think and feel.

This is something baked into messaging apps in particular. WhatsApp and its ilk are designed to facilitate communication in a secure, intimate environment; and Zuckerberg’s recent words on the subject indicate preserving this intimacy is one of Facebook’s main objectives.

One of the other revealing findings from our survey is that consumers were more likely to share funny photos and videos (44%) than they were links to websites or brand recommendations (31%). It may be a well-worn cliché, and something that’s easier to say than it is to put into practice, but in leveraging organic spread on dark social, there’s no substitute for creating messaging that lands emotionally with consumers. With that in mind, it’s little wonder Dollar Shave Club’s breakout video was such a success.

How dark social can join the dots for DTC

Dark social is a perfect fit for DTC brands. Almost all DTC brands put a more intimate consumer relationship at the heart of their strategy, and using dark social messaging can help immensely in that regard. Engagements on WhatsApp or email can go beyond placing orders and customer service, building out organic groups of advocates and instigating peer-to-peer recommendations. Starbucks and Adidas have shown pioneering approaches in this area.

Dollar Shave Club exemplifies a strategy many direct-to-consumer brands have employed, bursting onto the scene with a campaign that goes viral across social media. But as DTC brands look to build out more long-term brand value and ensure repeat custom over the coming years, dark social can complement the initial work done across public platforms.