John McGee: Brands poised to take a walk on the dark side
The next frontier for brands in social media marketing lies in the so-called dark social space
If you think the world of social media begins with Facebook and Twitter and ends with the likes of YouTube and LinkedIn, then think again.
While these platforms are indeed the most visible and better-known ones within the social media ecosystem, the proliferation of so-called 'dark social' platforms like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Viber and Kwik have marketers salivating at the lips at the prospect of tapping into what may be the last frontier in the world of social media marketing.
Dark social refers to the social sharing of content and conversations that occur outside of platforms like Facebook and Twitter - all of which can be measured by any number of analytics programmes.
By its very nature, dark social is proving tricky to measure - as every engagement, conversation and piece of content that is shared is done so in private, away from the prying eyes of the wider online community.
It is estimated that as much as 70pc of all content shared on social media is done privately. The other 30pc is what we see on a day-to-day basis on our friends' and colleagues' Facebook timelines, LinkedIn updates or Twitter feeds.
There are, of course, many reasons why people use dark social. Some use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, because they offer a more seamless and personal user experience. Prolific users might cite the costs involved, particularly those who share lots of data-hogging images and video. If there is a common denominator, however, it is likely to be found in a shared belief that dark social offers a private location that is well hidden from the clutter that permeates the rest of their online lives.
This minor detail, however, doesn't seem to be bothering the many dark social platforms that are out there. Keen to further monetise their offerings, they are now letting adventurous brands dip their toes in the water to gauge the temperature. For some brands, it's too big an opportunity to pass on.
Media brands like BuzzFeed and The Guardian have already toyed with dark social while others are likely to follow. One of the biggest ongoing test cases, however, involves Adidas which is the first global brand to embrace dark social as a possible marketing channel.
The German sportswear manufacturer is currently carrying out an experiment amongst selected groups of WhatsApp advocates in cities like London, Paris, Stockholm, Milan and Berlin. Over the coming months, the different groups will test and optimise the brand's dark social media presence.
Then, during the Copa America in New York in June, the company will use their insights and learnings to develop a strategy that will include personalised content, news and invitations to events which will be shared with these advocate groups. Assuming it is successful, Adidas will then ramp up its presence in the dark social world, particularly around major sporting events which it sponsors - such as the UEFA Champions League.
While it is a bold and brave experiment by the company, brands that jump on the bandwagon first may indeed reap the most rewards. But like any new play for unchartered territory, some pioneers will undoubtedly be shot down along the way. Given the personal and private nature of dark social, just one misjudged overture by an over-zealous brand could damage any relationship that existed and send people running for the hills.
On the other hand, if brands get it right, they could build legions or brand advocates and lay the ground for a whole new territory for marketers to explore.
For it to work, however, consumers will need to opt-in, by allowing a brand be their 'friend'. This may be a no-brainer for a brand they hold in high esteem. If you own a Harley-Davidson, for example, then you are more likely to let the brand into your personal space. But just because you like motorbikes, it doesn't mean Mr Honda can butt in because he thinks you need a new Goldwing.
Many would argue that there is also something inherently creepy and intrusive about all of this. While a one-to-one conversation between a brand and a consumer may indeed be the holy grail for many marketers, is this imminent assault on the dark social space just one step too far?
Given the industry's experience with ad blocking to date, brands need to be very careful.
Sunday Indo Business