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If you watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech after the election, there was a point in the first few minutes of the speech where she thanked all of her supporters, including those using “secret, private Facebook sites” to spread her campaign messages. What in the world was she talking about?
Inside the world of dark social
It turns out that Hillary Clinton had stumbled upon the burgeoning online world of “dark social” – all the content that’s shared within the world of social media that brands (and politicians) typically can’t see. In Clinton’s case, she was talking about an ad hoc, private Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation that was started by a Maine mother of two weeks before the election.
The goal of the Facebook group was for a small group of women to show up to vote for Clinton wearing Clinton-inspired pantsuits as a way of showing their solidarity for women attempting to break through the glass ceiling. By the time voters went to the polls, though, that Facebook group had over 3 million members. But since it was private, it meant that it was largely invisible to the billion users of Facebook – you had to be “in-the-know” to become a member.
And there are plenty more examples of this “dark social” that abounds on the Internet. The term itself originated in 2012, when Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic posted a long article about all kinds of “hidden” content that brands and marketers can’t see.
Think of all the Facebook posts that you share with only a core group of friends instead of your entire network. For the 99 percent of people not in your immediate circle, that type of content would be “dark social” – they might know it exists, but wouldn’t be able to see it, read it, or track it.
And it’s not just Facebook where “dark social” exists. Snapchat is perhaps the poster child of “dark social” – people are creating and sharing content for very limited audiences instead of broadcasting it to the millions. They don’t necessarily want that content to be found. If you’re sending a sexy snap to your significant other, you probably don’t want the general public seeing it also!
Brands and dark social
That poses a problem for brands, obviously. They want to see everything that people are saying about them online, and they want to track and measure it. That’s not possible when people use Snapchat or Whatsapp or email to share links. Brands can’t see the referral link – all they see is that it’s “direct traffic.” But people aren’t typing in direct links to find content on their mobile phones – they are clicking on links. How many times have you asked someone to message you a link? Well, that link would be part of the “dark social” world.
According to some estimates, 77 percent of all content being shared today is “dark social.” In other words, brands only see about one-quarter of all content that’s being shared about them! They are making decisions based only on what’s available on “public” Facebook and “public” Twitter. And they may be missing an entire groundswell of support that exists elsewhere.
Just think of the example of Hillary Clinton – there were probably plenty more of private Facebook sites like “Pantsuit Nation” for women to share their ideas. And, just as likely, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders probably also had their own share of “dark social” support also – places where people were free to say what they thought without the stigma of public approval. Which might be why the pollsters and campaign managers (think of them as political marketers!) might have completely missed what was happening – it was all happening in the dark!