What PRs need to know about dark social

Dark social. It sounds sinister. Most people immediately think of the dark web; something mysterious and maybe a little dangerous. But if you have ever used WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Slack for example, then you have already gone to the dark side and come out unscathed. In fact, I bet you’ve used dark social in the last hour.

Dark social usage has rocketed over recent years. Research from GWI shows that Whatsapp is now the world’s favourite messaging service. Meanwhile, according to RadiumOne, a whopping 84% of content shares take place on dark social platforms. More on this later.

Why is dark social…dark?

Open social platforms like Twitter and Facebook provide data to third party platforms. We can send them a link to a piece of coverage, and they’ll tell us how many shares, likes, comments, etc, that article has achieved. Dark social platforms do not provide such data.

Second, let’s say you have access to Google Analytics and want to find out where your website’s traffic is coming from. You’ll be able to see visits from paid ads, open social, organic search - but then there will be another mysterious source of traffic defined as ‘Direct’ or ‘None’. It’s like a group of people just magically found their way onto your website. Obviously, that’s not true. They’ve probably clicked a link sent to them by their friend within a dark social channel, and landed on a specific article.

The bread and butter of PR

We know that a majority of content is shared within dark social channels, but what are we talking about specifically? Turns out, it’s the bread and butter of PR: links to news stories, websites, videos, photos, and blogs for example. So the sharing and engagement activity we see on open social platforms really is the tip of the iceberg - most of the action is happening below the water line.

It’s easy to understand why dark social is so popular. Research from GWI shows that 45% of Gen Z feel that there is ‘too much pressure to be perfect’ on social media. Dark social provides a ‘safe’ environment which is less judgemental and encourages more honest conversation. In many cases, people are discovering news stories on open social platforms, then pulling them into private networks where true feelings can be discussed with a close network of carefully chosen peers.

Opportunities for PRs

Firstly, no PR professional worth their salt wants to be ambushed by a client or executive asking about dark social. So the first step is simply to understand its meaning and relevance. Furthermore, we now have a much greater appreciation of the full journey of a modern PR story.

Platforms like ours and LoveMetrics can be used to estimate the amount of activity going on in dark social based on actual data sourced from open social platforms. In addition, those with access to Google Analytics can measure the ‘baseline’ volume of direct traffic and compare it with the period during which a campaign is active. If a clear bump is seen, it’s likely driven by dark social activity.

Dark social is here to stay and that is good news. Many of the stories generated by the PR industry are being shared with curated groups of close friends, family or peers. Yes, we may not be able to directly see it, but the potential for meaningful actions to take place as a result of this activity cannot be overstated.

Written by Richard Benson, founder of reporting tool. For more information, download this free dark social primer

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.

Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.


ESG Awards The intersection of Data, Insight and PR Planning PR Analytics 2022 SUBSCRIBE NOW