How brands can create more marketing moments as dark social proliferates

May 31, 2021 | Share this article

Under-the-radar sharing over chat apps, social messaging and email have clouded sources of traffic and consumer sentiments for brands and publishers. While WhatsApp is in No 1 position boasting an average of 28.7 hours spent per month just on its platform, the messaging landscape is divided within SEA among others such as Zalo, LINE and Kakao Talk, subject to local preferences and the breadth of in-app functions available.

Not only have trust issues about WhatsApp privacy policies introduced new users to Telegram and Signal with end-to-end default encryption, but COVID-19 itself has also redefined entertainment. As more than 30% of consumers spend more time watching news coverage, messaging, listening to audiobooks, meeting friends on gaming and video conferencing, this has opened many more moments for marketing. From Zoom calls and virtual gatherings on games, to Patreon member perks and Clubhouse sessions, people are interacting across a wide variety of apps depending on the content and sensitivity.

Although 84% of all sharing is on dark social, sharing on these platforms is generally done through copy and pasting links or pictures. What has been shared, what was said about it, to whom it was shared are all not accurately trackable. Being unable to quantify ROI has stopped many brands from putting a concerted effort into building their presence, but those who start investing would gain a first-mover advantage.

What can we learn from brands that have ventured into dark social? What are the watch-outs when designing dark social experiences? How can marketers get a handle on effectiveness? To simplify this, we have identified five principles that could help inform planning.

Live in (the platform’s) culture

Creating share-worthy content such as short-form videos, memes and stickers has been a common way brands earned their presence within private conversations. It starts with understanding what consumers are sharing and why they are motivated to share in the first place.

LEGO Singapore’s Year of the Ox WhatsApp stickers is one example. It has never been a tradition to give away LEGO sets during Chinese New Year but it has always been a tradition to exchange heartfelt blessings and good wishes. To get into gift-givers’ minds during Chinese New Year, a collection of Year of the Ox stickers with greetings such as “Happy Niu (Ox) Year!” and “Have a Bountiful Year!” featuring its seasonal set was made available on and promoted on social. Harnessing its vast and passionate fan base, the stickers injected fun into pre-existing messaging behaviour while promoting awareness of the seasonal set.

Riding on uplifted communal spirits and a fundraising spirit, Locally Philippines reinforced its 100% local and 100% made responsibly image by turning stickers into a “virtual gift”. Partnering with up-and-coming livestreaming app Kumu, every virtual gift dropped to streamers was turned into proceeds to those affected by COVID-19 in the country.

In Vietnam, homegrown messaging app Zalo successfully outpaced Facebook Messenger in monthly active users largely due to its topic-specific group chats that react to the local forum culture.

Disrupt without intruding

Within private contexts, most people would only be comfortable if they have absolute control over the interaction. Over the past year, brands that have been successful invited participation bygetting consumers to opt-in into an intimate setting. This is particularly obvious in the gaming space, as gamers are notoriously quick to criticise and often the first to troll.

To associate the DBS Live Fresh card with new and exciting experiences, DBS Singapore revived Zouk, an iconic local club on Fortnite. Meticulously rebuilding the entire club in Fortnite’s “creative mode” as a user, the virtual Live Fresh Club allowed people to relive their best nights out. What is important to note is that instead of emerging as a sponsor, a “creative code” allowing entry was shared on social and among Zouk’s former legends to invite gamers to opt-in themselves.

Sentosa Singapore applied a similar approach. Creating a virtual island on Animal Crossing that allowed gamers to virtually visit Capella, the Luge or explore the nature trails, each intimate “visit” was deliberately limited to only four people to “avoid overcrowding”, rather than the eight allowed by the game. Requiring pre-registration, the “dodo code” allowing entry was only sent by email.

Disrupting private contexts by plastering branded messaging everywhere risks being perceived as a despicable self-invitation. Conversely, inviting for opt-ins positions consumers who engage as those in the know.

Design beyond the shares

Second to entertaining videos and pictures, and links to websites, half of consumers are most likely to share good deals, discounts and links or pictures of products within private messaging. As messaging apps evolve into superapps with payment functions, chat-and-shop has become the norm.

Outside of China’s extravagant livestream fashion shows and in-app clubbing experiences, luxury brands have also started transforming their SEA message app official accounts into virtual stores.

In Thailand, brands like Issey Miyake, Chanel and Louis Vuitton have been building relationships with prospective buyers and pushing sales through the LINE app. The communications that sit within these official accounts include inspiring short clips of the brand’s history, fashion videos, skincare and cosmetic tutorial livestreams, and chat services that either direct shoppers to the website or enable them to purchase within the app, addressing the entire funnel from discovery to purchase.

While the heart of social strategies often focus on driving engagement and shares on mass platforms, dark social is a potential conversion driver that marketers should not miss.

Grooming loyals into nano-influencers

Besides free delivery and discounts, reviews from other customers most increase shoppers’ likelihood of buying a product. The sheer volume of dark social sharing has turned every consumer into a potential nano-influencer in their own circle.

Although managing lots of smaller relationships could be an enormous hassle, brands could explore incentivising advocacy as part of their pre-existing CRM program, activating those who are less comfortable with sharing openly. This could manifest in the same way influencers are currently engaged, through exclusive news, first-to-have product drops or even friends and family promotion codes, which enable attribution to sales. By nurturing brand-to-influencer relationships with repeat or high-value consumers, it could prove to be a powerful retention and recruitment program.

Assess correlation when causation is absent

Up to 30% of website traffic often comes from referral traffic. Meanwhile, secure encryption technology has made referral traffic much harder to pin down because site analytics do not determine whether the traffic was referred from a native mobile app, email, secure browsing or messaging app.

Enabling share-to-social buttons and using URL shorteners to create trackable links are good best practices to embed UTM parameters such as source, medium, campaign and content which can be singled out in on-site analytics. The findings could then be used to optimise the presence of four to five platforms that consumers are most likely to share the content on.

Yet, what we should be looking at for meaningful insights is to assess dark traffic against brand KPIs with the help of advanced analytics. For instance, we could start with identifying the relationship between a brand’s advertising (paid) and social (owned) activities with the volume of dark traffic generated. Then, we can seek to understand whether it is the upper, mid or lower funnel dark traffic impacts the most. If it were purchase intent that dark traffic impacted the most, we could compare its impact during festive occasions versus the average day, providing actionable insights that inform brand investment.

Finally, while Dark Social as a term itself sounds complicated, it is not. Some categories and content types are naturally more share-worthy than others. It is still about understanding category behaviour and empathising with consumers along their journey. Framed in the right way, Dark Social is a blue ocean for marketers that awaits experimentation and discovery.

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