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Publishers have long understood the importance of knowing where their traffic comes from. Such knowledge was made easier to acquire with the advent of social media and the ubiquitous ‘Share’ buttons that both enabled consumers to easily repost content to their social media feeds, while letting publishers easily track them as they did so.
But publishers have always known such sharing does not paint a complete picture of how their content is being passed along. Social sharing and search has never been able to entirely account for the number of visitors they receive via deep links.
The logical conclusion is that much of this sharing comes about through other means, such as consumers cutting and pasting links into an email and then forwarding that along to a specific person of group. This concept was thrust into the spotlight in October 2012 by Alexis Madrigal, deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, when he labelled this activity in an article as ‘dark social’.
According to audience behaviour technology specialists, RadiumOne, approximately 60 per cent of all sharing is ‘dark’ – a figure that rises to higher than 80 per cent for content relating to the automotive sector. It is a concept that has received additional attention recently thanks to the rise in interest in content marketing, and the greater spending brands are making in their own shareable content.
“Sharing is an inherently human thing,” says Jason Juma-Ross, lead partner for digital intelligence at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Social, and even digital social, has been around long before Facebook with UseNet, IRC and Email, and will be around long after Facebook has gone.
“So if you are a CMO you need to understand that broader context, and most CMOs do get that.”
Sharing is particularly interesting to those CMOs who are interested in creating their own content strategy and knowing how it is driving traffic back to their properties, he says. This sees many brands now acting like publishers.
“If you are going to create content, and it’s going to be more narrowcast and less broadcast, you have to lower the cost of content production, because you are producing it for a smaller audience and you have to be able to get it to those people,” Juma-Ross says. “Social can play a role in both of those things.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm now around traditional organisations learning from publishers about content creation.”
Right content audience
Getting content in front of the right consumers is a task that has been taken up by US-based company, Outbrain, which works with publishers and brands to build audiences.
According to Outbrain’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand, Ayal Steiner, one of the important consideration for all kinds of publishers is to understand the so-called ripple effect that occurs around content as consumers push it out to their networks.
“It always happened, even before social,” Steiner says. “But in traditional advertising it was less relevant, because people don’t tend to share advertisements. What they do tend to share is stories. So in the world of storytelling in the digital realm, and the rise of content marketing, I think that is why dark social is getting more and more of the centre stage.”
What makes dark social sharing particularly important for marketers is what the act of dark sharing says about a person’s regard for content.
“When they share across dark social I would say this is a much more targeted sharing than the traditional blasting through a social channel,” Steiner claims. “Dark social is much more targeted, because they hand-pick and select individually the people they think might find it interesting. And the people that receive something are much more likely to truly engage with it. The ripple effect is much more focused, but also much stronger.
“A lot of people think clicks is what matters, but what really matters is the engagement.”
Tracking dark social
One of the problems with dark social sharing, however, is it has been difficult to track exactly who is doing the sharing. OutBrain’s solution is to attached UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) codes to URLs, so that publishers can better understand the origin of the sharing activity.
“By appending tags, you can make sure that regardless of where this link ended up in, you know that you attribute it back to a certain distribution activity or a channel that you paid to distribute it from,” Steiner says. “And it is important to understand for brands what the channel that has the best ripple effect is.”
But Steiner says most marketers today are focused on visible sharing through networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
“I haven’t seen anyone to date looking at the amount of referrals or ripple effect coming from any activity that relates to dark social,” Steiner says. “So I would say it is very early on and untapped.”
Exactly what marketers are missing out on through their inability to track dark social sharing is difficult to determine, but it could be substantial.
According to RadiumOne’s managing director for Asia-Pacific, Kerry McCabe, content consumption is an important component of a buyer’s journey, and any marketer interested in upper-funnel prospecting should be taking a greater interest.
RadiumOne’s solution is to wrap content with a host URL shortener at its inception, so it can be tracked from the moment that it is first shared.
“What we see on our network is a six to nine times uplift in the audience size that defines valuable audience sets,” McCabe claims. “Through the understanding of this and actioning of this we’re able to then speak to a really quality audience six to nine times larger than the seed. And conversion, we see at about 15 to 30 per cent higher than on a normal campaign.
“There’s a whole other world out there, and what we know across our network is it’s bigger and when actioned, more valuable.”
Raw numbers are only just the beginning of how an investigation of dark social activity might benefit a brand. McCabe says dark social actually points to some interesting consumer behaviours that are otherwise difficult to track.
“There is a human science piece here too about what consumers are comfortable sharing in the open domain and what they are not, and this applies very much when you look at the category breakdown of advertisers,” he says.
“There is a precursor in the thought process before I process something to a social network which is ‘how is it going to look’. And what that does is determine what people are going to post. Whereas when you are authentically sharing what you are interested in without those filters, then it is a lot more intimate.”
But McCabe estimates only 10 per cent of the brands he talks to are currently investigating dark social sharing.
Even were a marketer to fully get on top of dark social sharing, it represents just another trend in the rapidly-evolving social media landscape.
Juna-Ross says people’s desire for privacy is seeing new phenomena emerge, such as Cloak and Secret, which will also alter social sharing.
“If you are trying to understand social you have to look at the whole universe, but look at the whole universe and be able to parse it,” Juma-Ross says. “Now we are seeing this much broader distribution of applications and social uses across the suite that range from broadcast to one to one, and from permanent things to ephemeral things.
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