The recent events in Paris demonstrated how powerful so-called "dark social media" can be, when it comes to organizing propaganda below the radar.
The growing interest from political bodies for this notion of underground social conversations could legitimize privacy threats to better monitor digital users.
Nonetheless, even if the notion seems to have been only recently coined, "dark social" started ages ago, with instant messengers, and later, newsgroups. It did not seem to be a problem until now.
Beyond the Fuss for "Dark Social Media": Back to Basics
According to Radium One, sharing activity would seem to happen mostly through "dark social" space.
"Sharing activity through email, instant messaging and forum posts, aka Dark Social, is three times larger than the sharing activity on Facebook, globally. 69% of all sharing activity takes place via Dark Social globally versus 23% via Facebook".
A stat which can be traced with Chartbeat insights, mentioning that 30% of traffic referral is due to "dark social".
But the phenomenon was already massive before Facebook domination. Windows MSN messenger or AIM were already massive for traffic referral... and conversations; for instance in 2009, approximately 25% of traffic was coming from MSN or AIM according to Social Twist.
Some brands are probably awakening a bit too late: social interactions have always happened first through personal devices (SMS, phone calls...) hidden from the public sphere, before entering a more pervasive, extimate world with social networks as we know them now. To sum up: it's not completely natural to share ready-to-use ideas in forums and comments, especially when they are directly related to brands' interests.
The Challenge for Social Listening
Stanislas Magniant wrote a brilliant, standout post on that issue: "we remain dependent on the conversations users choose to have, and guess what, there are many blind spots (...)the "unknown unknowns" part of the iceberg is growing".
And it's true that some industries are luckier than other ones: there are billions of opinions when it comes to celebrities, politics, but also reviews of cars or baby formulas. However, when it comes to health or more technical topics, resources are either private (locked on platforms which require to pay a subscription to get access to the relevant data) or non-existing because they require a level of expertise that few people can handle.
The purpose of social listening is then not only to capture all accessible data and sort them in the most relevant way (and no, sentiment analysis is still the biggest conceptual mistake of providers), but to start thinking on how to make people generate conversations they would not organically have.
Brands Need to Lead Conversations with Communities of Consumers
Brands have focused on acquiring communities of fans or followers that are to some extent very different from communities of real consumers. Kit Kat's effort to get millions of Facebook fans recently stopped, as the bet is that it does not translate into sales with shoppers in a real journey.
There's a subtle balance to find between traditional qualitative or quantitative research methodologies and new ways of getting insights, in a more "social" way. YouGov is now entering the European market in a very aggressive and relevant manner - matching the best of research studies with the best of social scoring and "gamification." Taking part in YouGov surveys is interesting per se because YouGov relies on three pillars:
- Editorial enjoyment: users can enjoy new learnings and discover what others like them think
- Gaming enjoyment: the more users play, the more they unlock new surveys and "access"
- A ritual: YouGov becomes part of the digital journey for participants, like checking an inbox or their favorite blogs
It brings back the value of human analysts and strategic planners; technical providers, that historically developed social listening tools, then tried to bring analysts to control the whole value chain of insights. But a technical provider wants to sell a license to use the tool, not deliver the best possible insights. Researchers were lagging a bit until now in terms of digital skills to use these tools (or challenge them). It's changing now. And we can imagine that the next generation of social listening methodologies will be closer to what consumers want to say. The dark side of social media could at the end, become an enlightening resource for brands, so to speak.