Dark social: Deep waters under the surface of digital marketing

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Image courtesy of Michael Sean Gallagher at Flickr.com

The term “Dark Social” was initially created by Alexis Madrigal in 2012, editor in chief of The Atlantic. Although the name seems evil or mysterious (anyone would imagine a conglomerate of social networks in the darkest corners of the Deep Web,) is actually called like this as a reference to the physical concept of Dark Energy: you can’t see it, measure it or monitor it whatsoever, and yet, it is what does allow the expansion of the universe. Madrigal needed a name to refer to a phenomenon of paramount importance for digital marketing: the flow of shared content on the internet that cannot be measured or monitored through programs or specialized software in any way.

This type of content is created, for example, when someone sends a link through a chat or an email, rather than doing it through a social media platform, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (which actually register and track every single shared link.)

It is important to study the concept of Dark Social because of its implications. Just imagine the tremendous amount of content that goes under the radar of social media marketing. Everything that cannot be identified, nor monitored every day, hour, minute or second, could really feed the statistics of a digital marketing study. Any effort has been done in order to measure and monitor the Dark Social, even by using the most sophisticated software tools, nevertheless, there are things that simply slip away. As a matter of fact, this is a problem. A problem of misinformation in the age of information.

Each link that users share on networks is invisible to brands, and although the number of users on any social network is the same as the population of an average country, the shared content via email is perhaps greater. In Google Analytics, the result of the operation of the Dark Social appears as (direct) / (none): those are the visits to a website whose source or origin is unknown.

Read also: Advertising blockers: A digital marketing challenge produced by a new business trend, by ReputationDefender

Of course, there are more ways to keep feeding the Dark Social: writing an exact URL in the browser, if users go to their Favorites section or if there is some kind of redirection from one https site to another http, etc.

Nothing you post online is private, but it’s not all public either, claim Join Marc Jensen and Greg Swan, experts in technology, social media, and emerging platforms. That’s because of two things: “Deep Web and Dark Social. Deep web is part of the web that’s not indexable by search engines. For example, Facebook. Dark Social is social content that’s shared through private channels. For example, e-mail. Research shows the Deep Web is about 550x larger than the surface web, and sharing activity through Dark Social is up to 3x larger than sharing activity on Facebook”

Whether the Dark Social activity is deliberate or not, we do not know it (and maybe it is not.) Although many people worry about taking care of their online privacy, a great majority are indifferent to it and simply share information by email, for example, because it’s simpler and more direct. What is certain, is that many brands, marketing companies and organizations like Google and Facebook (who gather most of their income from advertising and the sale of information,) need to fix this situation. The number of shared links in applications such as WhatsApp or Snapchat is increasing, and this growing block of information is taking up more and more space in the analytical data of millions of websites.

Understanding the reasons why users prefer to share information through untraceable channels is a topic worth studying. The answer to this would represent a first step towards the conquest of marketing over social networks, in particular, over applications such as those mentioned above. Knowing the Dark Social is equivalent to knowing the collective subconscious of humankind, in terms of Jung. Accessing this area would mean for companies to know how users actually offer and demand because in Dark Social they would understand the real needs of consumers: those they prefer not to show (consciously or unconsciously) on the visible landscape of their social networks.

In fact, Facebook has made some attempts to “light up” the Dark Social: this year has informed its users that tons of data contained in WhatsApp would move to Facebook’s servers. However, this measure has found many obstacles. The governments of some countries — Germany, for example — have asked Facebook to stop the information traffic from WhatsApp to Facebook, at least when it comes to its citizens. The truth is that these online privacy protection measures are not absolute. It is a well-known fact that Google uses the information that flows in Gmail for marketing purposes (and God knows what else.) But it makes people more paranoid and Governments stricter every day.

Other brands include trackable URLs that users copy and paste anywhere on the Internet. However, how can you monitor a URL written on a bar napkin? What about the information transmitted by word of mouth? Indeed, it would require an infrastructure millions of times more complex than the one that already exists. Bodies connected to the Internet, Internet of Things and Singularity carried to its maximum expression … however, there is still a long way to reach those levels of hyper-connectivity.

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