Dark social. Don’t worry that you’re unfamiliar with the term. You are not alone. However, research shows that most PR content is shared and talked about within dark social channels. We just can’t see it. On the other hand, dark social's lack of visibility should not deter PR pros' interest in it.
Platforms like Meta, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit share data relating to how people are engaging with content. They're ‘open’ social platforms.
In contrast, dark social channels withhold such information. Activity occurs behind closed doors, often amongst carefully curated groups of friends, family and colleagues.
For example, if you’ve shared or received content via WhatsApp, Slack, WeChat, Linkedin Messages or Meta Messenger you have used a dark social platform. And don’t forget email and text messaging. You’ve probably used a dark social platform in the last 30 minutes.
eMarketer says there were 3.09 billion monthly messaging app users worldwide last year, up 6.1 percent year over year. In 2024, it's predicted that more than three-quarters of internet users worldwide will use a messaging app monthly.
There are two primary drivers responsible for the rise in dark social.
As we know, social media usage can cause stress and anxiety, particularly amongst younger users. GWI research shows that 45 percent of Gen Z respondents feel that there is "too much pressure [on social media] to be perfect."
In this context, it’s easy to understand why many prefer the intimacy of dark social channels, away from the broader public's prying eyes and often harsh judgment. There’s less pressure and often more reward as we strengthen relationships with those we care about the most.
The second driver is privacy. Over the past few years, the public has grown anxious about how social media companies use personal information for commercial gain.
Traditionally, dark social channels have offered greater controls in these areas. Messages are encrypted. Advertisers lack data access. Here, trust is vital and mistakes are punished.
Dark social devours PR content
The scale of activity that is taking place behind closed doors is staggering. RadiumOne says a whopping 84 percent of content shares occur on dark social platforms. Implications for the PR and social media industries become clear when examining the type of content that's shared.
Links from news stories, websites, blogs and products feature heavily in sharing. Much of this content represents PR's bread and butter. In many cases, users are discovering news stories on open social platforms, then pulling them into private networks, where truer feelings are discussed.
The opportunity for PR
Communicators have long accepted that the appearance of media coverage is the beginning of a story, not the end. PR is adept at tracking reaction across social media, under the impression that we're seeing the full picture.
This is far from the case.
Arguably a majority of action is happening out of view. In fact, some stories that seemingly failed to get traction may have gone viral amongst niche groups of highly engaged peers. We’ve also seen that there’s likely to be a significant discrepancy between the sentiment of public vs private conversations.
But the opportunity this presents is potentially huge.
One of PR's building blocks is the belief that editorial content is more influential and consequential than advertising. We can assume that, when friends share curated stories with one another in a safe environment, the impact is greater still. Understanding the anxieties of audiences, particularly younger members, should increase the usage of dark social for years to come.
The Barcelona Principles 3.0 encourage communicators to focus on business outcomes and impacts of their work. Given its unparalleled potential to spark engagement and drive action, the role of dark social clearly cannot be underestimated.
Richard Benson is co-founder of Releasd