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Dark social and the abyss

Every Wednesday evening (SAST), @AdWeek host a Twitter chat on various topics. The topics are insightful, relevant and it's always great as a marketer in the southern hemisphere to engage with like-minded counterparts in the northern hemisphere. Not that we should abide by what the north does, but we need to ensure we keep updated with what global brands are doing. And where do clients often look to for best practice examples? Mostly global. (Isn't that the thrill of using a global agency, you get to 'leverage' the knowledge base of the international offices in New York).
© Sergey Nivens via 123RF.com.

Recently #AdWeekChat hosted a Twitter chat on viral video content, and where it stems from. The question was as follows:

Viral video used to be synonymous with YouTube hits. Then came Vine, Twitter videos, Instagram, and of course Facebook is a juggernaut. Where would you say you first see most viral videos now? Has it changed the kind of clips that blow up? #AdWeekChat

Viral content stems from dark social


My immediate response was that viral content stems from dark social, the place where you send to your tight network. It’s content that’s controversial, inspiring, entertaining and not necessarily what you want to be sharing in the broad daylight of your traditional social media channels. Dark social is an interesting space because it’s through messenger apps, places where nobody can track the metrics involved through shareability, engagement, reach and sentiment.

BBM Messenger's Adam Pattison on chat, dark social and the new mobile economy

On his visit to South Africa for the MMA (Mobile Marketing Association) Forum in Johannesburg on 2 November and Mobile Monday in Cape Town on 6 November, Adam Pattison, vice president, Americas & EMEA at BBM Messenger, shared insights into chat or dark social and how this is shaping the mobile economy...

By Jessica Tennant 20 Nov 2017


The place I see video content first is through WhatsApp. It’s the first social media app I open and it’s where groups are created to ensure everyone is kept updated with everything, all the time. The viral type of content shared, will eventually find its way to Facebook timelines, YouTube and Twitter, but the space it’s initially shared is most often through this black hole, the untraceable abyss of dark social media.

[TrendTalk] Illuminating dark social

In this online 'sharing economy', the currency is in measuring consumer activity. But with 'dark social' becoming the primary habitat of consumer-sharing globally, almost 60% of online user activity can't be tracked easily...

By Louise Marsland 26 Jan 2015


AdWeek’s response to this, was that WhatsApp isn’t much of a player in the US, and neither are other messaging apps when it comes to sharing content. Why in countries like South Africa and China do instant messaging apps prevail? Perhaps because of past social unrest and sensitivities. According to Statista, in South Africa, 49% of the population use WhatsApp, which has over 1.5 billion users globally.

The term “dark social” was first coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, in a 2012 article, in response to stats that revealed that 56.5% of The Atlantic’s website traffic came from dark sources, traffic that doesn’t seem to have a specific source.

Dark social growing twice as fast as Facebook


Dark social is more prevalent than ever, with WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger growing about twice as fast as Facebook. And with that, a marketer and agency nightmare, the usual referrals and KPIs cannot be measured. It’s not just about branded content, but also content that users create and share, which is often the content that becomes viral. Think Adam Catzavelos and his display of the beaches in Greece – that content initiated in WhatsApp, his ‘private space’ which ultimately bubbled to the surface and became viral, but also continued to get shared through dark social.

K-word user is a social media pariah, but he may escape prosecution

Social media exploded when a video of Johannesburg businessman, Adam Catzavelos, using the 'K-word' on a beach in Greece went viral...

24 Aug 2018


When it comes to brands, Nike’s latest campaign for its 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ has also gone dark social. Featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback, who sparked controversy by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, the campaign was launched by seeding images on Twitter, which people screenshot and sent through dark social, which Nike can’t track.

Nike's courageous new ad campaign mixing racial politics with sport will be vindicated

Nike stirred up controversy on Monday when it unveiled its 'Just Do It: 30th anniversary' advertising campaign. It featured a variety of superstar American athletes including the polarising quarterback Colin Kaepernick...

By Keith Rathbone 6 Sep 2018


#FairnessFirst: How Nike inspires others to 'just do it' with commodity activism

What do Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams and Caster Semenya have in common? Despite each facing controversy in their sporting careers, they're all stars in Nike's inspirational 30th-anniversary campaign, filled with fiery new words to live by...

By Leigh Andrews 17 Sep 2018


Brands may have tracking codes in place, or shareability buttons to see which channel a user has gone to, but once the content launches into the abyss of dark social, there’s no pixel, tag or sentiment that can be tracked. That’s the nature of private messaging, it enables users to have a closed conversation. The challenge is for brands to harness dark social in a clever way.
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About Elena Protulis

Previously head of social media and content at Aqua (now Wunderman), consulting to numerous agencies and brands on social media, content and digital marketing.
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