How To: Exploit 'Dark Social'

Instant messaging is the next great opportunity for brands


'Dark social' accounts for one of the biggest areas of opportunity for brands in the digital space going forward: the 438 billion instant messages sent every single day. The rise of the mobile internet has slowly eroded the importance of social media in how we contact each other, with dedicated messaging apps tapping into the desire for streamlined communication and exploding in popularity. When Facebook bought WhatsApp for a reported $19 billion in 2014, many scoffed at what they saw as a ludicrous sum, but it now outstrips their own Messenger by about 100 million monthly active users.

With end-to-end encryption in place and a lack of banner or pop up advertising, though, exactly how Facebook plans to recoup its investment in WhatsApp has been a popular question. Brands, too, will be looking at the messaging app boom wondering how best to engage customers on what is a quite incredible market. According to VentureBeat, some 2.1 billion people use messaging apps around the world, ‘with an almost Pavlovian response to that notification chime.’ This number could rise to 3.6 billion by next year, and if brands can find a way to exploit it without being invasive, the return could be immense.

The Atlantic termed it ‘dark social’, a space not as measurable as the likes of Facebook or Twitter. It is the part of the web that can't be picked up by web analytics platforms, so it's difficult for a lot of brands to know if their efforts are getting the reach they need. This is why, for many brands, the best course of action is to create an interactive bot that customers can engage with to win prizes, learn more about the company, etc.

Brands are free to set up accounts on both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and some have been experimenting with ways to build engagement with the accounts further than straightforward customer service. British shoe manufacturer Clarks, for example, has used WhatsApp to allow its fans to talk to three characters representing subcultures from British history, all of which have adopted its famous desert boot as part of their style. The campaign was an attempt to align the brand with subculture more widely, so it’s no surprise the company took it into ‘dark social’ and added a personal touch. Fans would have to add the three characters individually on WhatsApp, a voluntary step that will terrify some digital marketers.

French-owned Absolut Vodka took a slightly different approach. When it launched a unique collection in Argentina, Absolut knew that, at the time, 84% of the country's mobile phone users were on the WhatsApp. So, it set up an exclusive party with only two tickets available to the public. For a chance to get those tickets, customers would have to message Absolut's imaginary bouncer 'Sven.' It received all manner of inventive attempts to charm Sven, with over 1,000 unique, user-generated multimedia messages sent in during the campaign. On top of the general buzz around the event, Absolut gathered 600 contacts and spent three days talking directly with its customers.

Essentially, mobile messaging requires a different approach. It’s difficult to incorporate mobile messaging into a wider campaign, and Clarks’ standalone campaign is an example of how brands need to think differently. Bombarding your audience won’t work, mobile messaging isn’t email. As cell phones are so personal, a customer’s threshold for bombardment will be far lower than that of email, and the real winners will be those who find a way to have the customer initiate the conversation.

It’s an exciting platform, though. Facebook’s transparent attempt to turn Messenger into a one-stop shop of functionality - users will be able to book taxis, order food, secure tickets to shows, etc, all from within the app - means that opportunities for brands will be great, albeit within the limited framework of Messenger. Facebook is working for transactions to be carried out on Messenger seamlessly, offering brands the opportunity to effortlessly turn a conversation with a customer into a sale. Apple is following a similar path with iMessage, in an attempt to draw users back from external messaging apps. iMessage now actively encourages users to combine apps, with buttons for apps you already have downloaded displayed every time you open Messages.

Facebook doesn’t plan on taking a cut, either: ‘The margins on payments aren't that high,’ said David Marcus, Facebook’s head of messaging products. ‘We want the broadest reach. Businesses will want to pay to be featured or promoted — which is a bigger opportunity for us.’ The opportunities for the brands will be in marketing and e-commerce rather than ads, though, as the distinction between the two becomes increasingly blurred on platforms like Messenger. According to the Guardian, Facebook is also trialing a major change that would see non-promoted posts out of its news feed, cutting off 60-80% engagement for some pages. As Facebook steps away from aggregating content and becoming a space for advertising, it's time that brands look to alternative ways of getting to their customers.

No one is entirely sure what messaging app marketing will look like once the nascent field takes hold, but brands should consider putting together a strategy for it. As messaging apps grow against social media - mobile usage of the top four messaging apps overtook that of the top four social media apps in 2015 - the opportunity to extract value grows with them. 483 billion instant messages are sent every single day, and your voice should be included in that conversation.


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