Organic Sharing on “Dark Social Media” Appears to Be More Effective than Social Ads

If you see something online that you want to share with a friend, what do you do? Personally, I copy the link and paste it into an email or BBM chat.

As it turns out, that’s how most of us share content, most of the time, according to recent research. Marketers are now calling this kind of sharing “dark social.”

What is “dark social media?”

In this case the “dark” just means private, not sinister. It refers to the fact that when we copy and paste links from our browser windows to share, they generally haven’t been trackable. So, when our friends follow those links to websites, marketers haven’t been able to tell how they got there.

Sharing: 77% dark social vs 23% social

A June 2016 report from RadiumOne shows that of the total content from publishers or marketers that people share, 77% happens via dark social, compared to just 23% on social media. That’s more than three-quarters of all shared content—happening on email and messaging apps.

That’s quite a revelation at a time when the headlines have been telling us that people are increasingly getting their news and information via social media. Those rates are going up to be sure. But as it turns out, email and messaging apps are actually where the majority of sharing is taking place—probably has been taking place for years.

It makes sense. We all know that we share our most personal information via email or messaging, so it’s no wonder that one-to-one sharing is more powerful than one-to-many sharing for marketers.

What’s more, the same report says that globally, 32% of people will only share online content via dark social—more so in older generations.

Messaging has overtaken social media

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, saw the writing on the wall back in 2014 when he said, “Messaging is one of the few things that people do more than social networking.” Shortly afterward, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, and split Messenger from Facebook.

Social network usage is down globally—surpassed by messaging apps, where usage is still going up. Messaging apps are now the go-to place in the digital world. They are the new social media. The killer app is chat, and additional services make them a very attractive ecosystem. New data is confirming it the trend.


In January 2016, We Are Social’s Digital 2016 report revealed that globally, there are:

  • 3.42 billion internet users, equaling 46% of the world’s population, an increase of 10% over 2015;
  • 2.31 billion social media users, or 31% of the world’s population, also up 10% over 2015;
  • 3.79 billion unique mobile users, or 51% of the world, up just 4%; and
  • 1.97 billion mobile social media users, or 27% of global penetration, up a whopping 17%.

Note that the difference between social media users and mobile social media users (messaging apps) was just 340 million users. Also note that mobile social users grew at a much faster rate: 17% vs 10%. That was in January 2016.

In April, The Economist reported that “Over 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app installed…” and went on to predict that “Within a couple of years, that will reach 3.6 billion, about half of humanity.”

In September 2016, Business Insider asserted that the top four messaging apps now have more monthly active users than the top 4 social networks. So, it’s likely that the total number of messaging users is now also larger than total social media users, and the crossover happened sometime during 2016.

Brands can activate dark social sharing

So now we know that mobile messaging is not only where the traffic is, and where the growth is, but it’s also one of the “dark social” channels where people are doing three-quarters of their content sharing.

Marketers haven’t been able to effectively track or get in on dark social sharing behavior, so 90% of current investment in social and sharing marketing is going to public social networks. That’s 90% of the investment for 23% of the returns.

The same RadiumOne report I mentioned above also contains several interesting case studies about companies activating dark social and achieving impressive results. For example, Universal Music Group improved its programmatic media campaign results by 300%.

Impressive results aren’t surprising, because when we share content privately, we’re doing it for very specific reasons. We’re sharing information we know our friends will find useful or interesting. We’re sharing products we think others want or need because of their particular circumstances. That makes one-to-one sharing so much more effective than one-to-many sharing. That’s why it can be so effective for brands.

BBM is ready

Marketers: this means if you want to connect with your customers (and potential customers) online and on mobile, look to messaging apps like BBM. When your content reaches the right people inside a messaging app, it’s so much easier for them to share, to do the hard work for you, ushering your content along that crucial “last mile” to the hands of the people you most want to reach.

At BBM, we recognized the dark social sharing phenomenon, as well as the trending shift in usage from one-to-many social networks to one-to-one messaging apps. Those two things have fueled our work to bring more content to BBM, expand our video capabilities, and open up application programming interfaces (APIs) to offer more sharing options for consumers and marketers—and better ways to connect.

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