Diving into the depths of the unknown
By Alyssa Ruane
It’s dark. It’s unknown. It’s scary. If you’re not familiar with the term, “dark social” conjures images of shady individuals wading through the black market of social media buying and creating followers (bots) and cheating the social system. While this behavior is something social media marketers should be aware of, it’s not what the industry calls “dark social.”
So, what is dark social? Sarah Mannone explains it like this. Say your mom is in the market for a new dining table. You see the perfect table on Instagram, but rather than sharing it—which would contain a trackable link, you text your mom the name of the company. She’ll likely Google it and wind up on the company’s site as part of the search traffic.
This person-to-person sharing of information via untrackable links is the essence of dark social. Basically, it’s “dark” because you can’t see it happening, says Mannone, executive VP of Trekk, a tech-driven creative services firm with offices in Brooklyn and Rockford, Illinois. Sure, dark social can look like Manonne’s example. It can also be screenshotting a brand’s meme and texting it to your friend; Direct Messaging (DMing) a company on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook; or emailing a quick funny video to everyone in your department.
Corri Smith, owner of Charlotte-based creative marketing and PR company Black Wednesday, compares dark social to an age-old marketing term. “Social media became a digital version of word-of-mouth. Lead generation is really hard to track. There’s that qualitative value of a friend telling you about it. That’s the original form of influencer marketing.”
Mannone says it was just as difficult to track the source of a word-of-mouth conversion that happened face-to-face in the 1980s as it’s difficult today to track what’s going on in your audience’s DMs. “Purchases that come from interactions like this are nearly impossible to untangle, let alone measure, and it’s probably a higher percentage of conversions than most brands think.”
Tracking the untrackable
If Mannone is right, and people-to-people interactions are yielding more conversions than brands realize, how can marketers wrangle this untrackable information? Surely, with all the technology out there, there must be a solution… Right?
“There are ways to encourage people to share publicly instead of privately,” Black Wednesday’s Smith says. Her three-year-old company’s been successful at creating memorable social media sharing campaigns, some without even trying. One of the most recent was a play off the popular ‘Mean Girls’ movie quote, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink,” to fit in with the company’s brand color.
Smith’s small staff wears black on Wednesdays. She is the embodiment of the brand, sporting black hair and black clothes every day. Thus, fans or supporters on social media began wearing black on Wednesdays (either purposefully or not), snapping a photo, posting it to Instagram Stories or Twitter, and tagging Black Wednesday’s handle.
Of course, Instagram Stories are ephemeral and based off of Snapchat’s 24-hour lifespan. While you cannot track the exact success of this social media behavior, it’s safe to assume some users saw it. Producing shareable content is something all modern marketers must remember when seeking social engagement and results.
Speaking of results, you won’t get an itemized insight report from social media and dark social, but you’ll get something to show for your efforts. For example, Smith says she can customize trackable links and “I’ll be able to know that it happened, but I won’t be able to see who does it.”
Mannone says the advice is simple. Focus on what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t. “Understand what happens on dark social for what it is—word-of-mouth marketing—and spend your resources on things you can measure, like brand sentiment. Don’t stop at tracking engagement on social media; dig in and find out what your customers are actually saying about you. Are they sharing your post because it resonates, or because they think it’s silly? Is your message working or isn’t it?“
To measure brand sentiment, it’s all about using social media to listen to your audience. Your competitors. Your potential leads. The national conversation. People are dialing into their devices to share themselves with the world, and it’s up to brands to listen to what they’re saying, especially if they’re talking about your brand.
“This is what smart brands are doing,” Smith says. “Look for keywords in a targeted area within a range. Listen to the conversation. You can chime in.”
With tough-to-track lead behavior, questions about ROI and your company’s bottom line tend to arise. However, that’s no reason to ditch your social strategy—you just need to keep testing, gathering data where you can, and remaining flexible to a constantly-changing landscape.
The team at BusinessOnline use a variety of Key Performance Indicators to measure a plethora of statistics: ROI volume to leads, conversion rates of leads in various stages of the sales funnel, the velocity of the leads moving through the funnel, and the performance of programs, channels, or campaigns. It is working to move past the vanity metrics and into the value metrics.
“Some people are so concerned with driving leads to a page and getting a high volume of leads—which can become the gray area of marketing—but we really want to focus on quality leads and quality traffic to provide valuable ROI,” says Thad Kahlow, CEO of the B2B digital marketing firm.
Some campaigns are about awareness. And, while awareness may eventually result in a sale, it usually doesn’t right away. Mannone says that while it might take six, 12 or 18 months to see that conversion, you have to get awareness if you want to see any ROI. “If we focus every campaign purely on ROI, we’re going to miss the boat on what the customer actually needs to hear—because I can guarantee they don’t want a sales pitch every time they hear from you.”
While there are still some gray areas in marketing, valuable components of ROI remain to track, even within the elusive world of dark social.
Mannone says Trekk provides a ton of analytics, even for awareness campaigns. She sets short-term and long-term milestones, and objectives for every campaign so she can track crucial long-term factors such as brand equity. “Even if I can’t show that something’s working just yet, I can show that it’s not working.”
Kahlow says that no company is exempt from needing to run awareness campaigns—even Coca-Cola and Apple still strive to stay top-of-mind. According to Pew Research Center’s “2018 Social Media Fact Sheet,” seven-in-10 Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.
The key is to get people to share, share, and share some more.
“Marketing will never be 100 percent science.” Mannone says. “It will always be at least a little bit art. We’ll never know about the one-on-one conversations that take place between people. And yet, we need to keep designing and writing and creating with those interactions in mind, because that’s where the magic of marketing is —when a brand resonates with someone so deeply, they can’t help but share it with the people they love.”