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Dark Social Enlightens Marketing Vanity Metrics

Dark Social Enlightens Vanity Metrics


The blog posts weren’t especially compelling, in fact, these were a little heavy with sales messages; case studies that had been re-purposed.

However, instead of the classic problem-solution-format, they featured little vignettes showcasing minor customer victories. The posts were accented with liberal subheads, short paragraphs, and spotted with lots of bulleted lists – classic web writing if such a thing exists.

These were, however, solid blog posts, but just not of the epic variety…or so we thought.  While the social share counts were quite low the web analytics were displaying a sizable volume of traffic.  It caused us to ask – where was the interest coming from?

Rather quickly we discovered an obvious source:  sales.  Salespeople were grabbing these links and using them in individual email outreach to customers and prospects.  The content served the needs of one specific audience at a certain point in time along the sales cycle.

It was also an illustration of what is – perhaps overdramatically – being called “dark social.”

Dark Social: Antimatter to Viral Fixation

This phenomenon is what VentureBeat, citing a study by RadiumOne, is calling “dark social.”

“…according to a new 9,000-consumer study commissioned by RadiumOne: The Light and Dark of Social Sharing. Dark social, of course, is sharing activity that is invisible to traditional analytics because it happens via email or instant message, not via sharing mechanisms on a web page.

59 percent of all online sharing is via dark social, Radium One says, while just 31 percent happens on Facebook. Every other social channel on the web? Just a tiny 10 percent, all together.”

In other words, it was the primary way we all shared information – word-of-mouth – before the social web went mainstream.  To that end, as the study shows, it still is the way the majority people share information today.

This helps to explain why marketers tend to be so misguidedly fixated on “going viral” on social media:  we can “see” it happening.  We can see the retweets, the likes, the shares, and it’s easy to get caught up in these vanity metrics while missing those that really make a difference to the business.

Dark Social Marketing?  Back to Basics

This little burst of “dark social” is a reminder of marketing fundamentals.  The VentureBeat article goes on to say that this type of sharing is a relatively private and perhaps more candid means of sharing – a potential treasure trove of market research.

The problem, the article alleges, marketers don’t have access to this data because they can’t see it and concludes with a pitch for branded URLs as a solution.

While branded URLs are a good idea in the context of a more thoughtful marketing framework, it’s a bit anti-climactic:  The problem isn’t simply that corporate content found on the web and shared by email is hard to track, rather, it’s that marketing should be focused on the building sustainable foundations.

By this, I mean systematic programs that are customizable, repeatable, scalable, measurable and improved over time.  If a little buzz about dark social can bring to light anything – perhaps it’s the need for a marketing philosophy that favors iteration and continuous improvement over the off-chance we’ll discover an enormous breakthrough.

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Photo credit:  Flickr; CC-BY-SA 2.0

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