Dark Social – The Myth Uncovered

Nick Jackson Uncategorised Tagged


Savvy social marketers have long lauded the powerful triumvirate that is owned, earned and paid media – social or otherwise. The creme de la creme of marketers are now taking advantage of a fourth and highly powerful (for those who know how to exploit it) form of social media marketing, known as dark social.

Combined, these four modern digital marketing pillars provide a weighty toolbox of techniques for any marketer to utilise across all their marketing channels. They also create a smart marketing ecosystem designed to grow the customer base of either B2C or B2B businesses by guiding their target market down the content marketing sales funnel.

Let’s consider the ultimate goal of the Content Marketing Strategy. It is important to remember when developing your content marketing strategy that you are not just seeking likes & shares – you want your investment in your content to pay off by hooking your traffic into your Content Marketing Sales Funnel. The most widely used Content Marketing Sales Funnel is simplistic in that it has four main goals:

  1. Generate Traffic
  2. Generate Leads
  3. Generate Prospects
  4. Generate Customers.

Now we will consider owned, earned, paid and dark media in the order in which they all contribute to the four stages of the content marketing sales funnel.

Paid Media

Traditionally, Paid Media is where the majority of the marketing budget gets spent. These are your paid efforts to market to your customers and include activities such as:

  • Social Media Advertising
  • Pay per click advertising campaigns
  • Banner advertising
  • AdSense and Adwords
  • Search Engine Optimisation
  • Paid content promotion

The purpose of Paid Media is to generate traffic into the sales funnel by drawing the customer to the Owned Media, which in turn will nurture them to become leads, prospects and customers.

There are a number of things to consider when deciding what to promote and what to advertise. Content that is promoted should be content that is already high performing organically in terms of both engagement and/or conversion. There’s no point promoting your whitepaper if it has failed to be downloaded, but it might be worth paying a key influencer to retweet your most engaging tweet last week if your goal is to increase earned media.

Has that product sold well organically? If it has converted, then why not advertise more of that, rather than a product ignored by your organic traffic. Don’t waste your budget on lame ducks.

While advertising will always have a place in marketing, online consumers have gone beyond being susceptible to clever commercials and attractive banner ads. Consumers these days buy experiences, from brands that create relationships. Earned media is, in our opinion, where the true value and opportunity lies, so Paid Media would do well to target Earned Media.

Owned Media

All companies control some version of owned media. They are the digital assets that are unique to a brand that market their company alone. Owned media includes digital real estate such as your:

  • Website
  • Content blog
  • Social media profiles
  • YouTube channel
  • Downloadable material such as Whitepapers, eBooks, Infographics etc.

The purpose of your owned media is to create leads and nurture them to prospects and customers by infiltrating as many avenues to the lead as possible while offering valuable resources to convert traffic to leads. The emphasis here is on providing solid value that customers cannot turn away from. Getting leads is about getting customers to volunteer their own information. It is not about pushing the hard-sell. This is about making your customers come to you organically, and giving them a reason to stay. Owned Media also nurtures the leads you’ve attracted via earned or paid media – converting those leads to prospects.

Earned Media

Earned media is arguably the raison d’etre for your content marketing strategy. While good old fashioned cash in the form of sales is usually considered the goal of any marketing strategy, there is the huge value for a company to be had in an increase of the brand’s awareness, the brand reputation, the brand as a synonym for quality and reliability. The rewards of these can earn a business a long-term stream of income rather than a few single sales.

These intangible business assets offer immeasurable benefit – but that benefit must be earned. Earned media is marketing for the business provided by consumers and other businesses through:

  • Word of mouth referrals
  • Positive reviews
  • Likes, comments & shares
  • Reposts
  • Recommendations
  • Journalistic reviews and articles

Some marketers consider earned media as fueling the top of the sales funnel, and therefore place less emphasis on it than they should. However, earned media in actuality contributes to each section of the content marketing sales funnel. Just ask yourself, how many times have you considered buying something because of a Facebook ad or a website product description versus a friend recommending it? Most often, earned media generates customers.

The question most marketers will naturally ask about earned media is how to earn it. That requires a blog post of its own, but using a social media management company like Warbble is a great way to start – by boosting your public profile and offering valuable content that will keep your customers sharing your content.

Enter: Dark Social

Dark social refers to the social sharing of information – specifically links and content – outside of social media platforms. This is Earned Media on another level. Have you ever sent a link in a Whatsapp message, email or text message? Let’s say you have sent a URL of a hotel to your partner for consideration in your upcoming trip away. Congrats – you’ve shared via dark social. For marketers, a seemingly unresolvable feature of dark social is that it cannot be tracked – there are no algorithms and no UTM code tracking tags on the link to indicate the referral source. That said, it is possible to infer the sources of Dark Social sharing. It will never be totally accurate though.

Your ‘direct’ traffic results in Google analytics are likely to be, in the majority at least, dark social sharing. It’s highly unlikely users typed in that specific URL to that hotel. Most likely one found it via a Google search and shared it with someone who accessed the link. With regards to content, it is known now that social media apps like Facebook and Twitter can be inconsistent in regards to including tracking data in the URLs – meaning some of that direct traffic may be from these apps.

The main thing to understand about dark social is that research has proven that globally 32% of people will only share via Dark Social and 69% of all sharing is via Dark Social. In that context, Dark Social represents a massive undercurrent of sharing that marketers typically have failed to harness.

The purpose of dark social marketing is to generate customers into the sales funnel. It can also generate leads and prospects. Ultimately, dark social spans the entire sales funnel but human behaviour means that people trust recommendations from family and friends over any other type of advertising (see here).

How to harness the power of dark social?

  • Share certain types of content more: research shows that sharing via dark social is more likely on certain topics. The top 5 are:
    • Arts and Entertainment
    • Careers
    • Travel
    • Science
    • Education
  • Use shortened links. When used intelligently, with link description in themselves provide reference data without the need for web analytics. In addition, branded shortened URLs outperform standard shortened URLs, in some cases by up to 1000% (see here).
  • Implement a sharing widget providing a copy-and-paste URL function allowing for easier sharing directly from your Owned Media.

Today’s marketers understand that while each stream of media needs to be organised and treated differently, the overall content strategy that drives each stream should be holistic; each stream should be developed with the integration to the whole as a guiding influence.

In this way a strong content strategy ensures engagement on multiple levels across multiple channels, giving every opportunity to users to hook in and fall into the content marketing sales funnel.

Liked this article? Then please share and look out for the next in our series of blogs.

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