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The rise of ‘dark social’ is changing brand marketing

Gen Z is one of the biggest drivers of dark social traffic, often blurring the line between private and public social media activity – it’s only set to increase.

Dark social is commonly used to describe any online interaction or click that can’t be traced by third parties or marketers. This applies to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger chats, private emails, or Snapchat photo sending, for example.

It means that web analytics can’t trace your activity and thus can’t gauge who is visiting specific sites. If you send a Twitter link to friends via private message, the original creator of that tweet will not be able to see that it’s gained traction, potentially skewing their engagement numbers and demographic information.

Though this ambiguity might seem like a negative, it can be tapped into by brands if they optimise their content specifically for private sharing. We’re now seeing more companies such as PlayStation, Adidas, and Starbucks facilitate this space, creating branded GIFS and small community pages intended to reach younger consumers who predominantly use social media in untraceable ways. If you’ve ever sent a friend a PlayStation branded GIF, you’re helping Sony to market itself across dark socials – basically serving as free advertising.

Dark socials are not to be confused with the dark web, which is the untraceable alternative online browser that lets you do anything you want without being detected. All those dodgy YouTube videos that talk about creepy criminals selling human body parts online? I’m not talking about that. Just so we’re clear.

How is Gen Z using dark socials?

Given that most teens and young adults have used social media since childhood, they know their away around the internet seamlessly and are typically reluctant to broadcast all of their online activity to the wider public.

Scandals like Cambridge Analytica and the improper treatment of our private information have driven many more of us to encrypt our data, use VPNs, and keep marketers from seeing our detailed browsing history. We’re now more likely to share content and links via private messages than we are through statuses and tweets, for example. When was the last time you saw somebody under the age of 40 post a Facebook status about their day? We now tend to keep our day to day activity strictly within dark social channels.

Gen Z also use social media for entertainment reasons rather than practical ones too, with a focus on video content from platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. By 2022 video is estimated to take up 82% of all online traffic, with creator sponsorships and interactive clickable ads being the best way to reach Gen Z moving forward. While much of this traffic will be trackable, video sharing via messenger and TikTok will remain encrypted.

How is this affecting marketing for brands?

This is a dilemma for businesses who want to get Gen Z on board with their content and products. How do you create specific and effective marketing when you don’t even know how people are hearing about you?

Sponsorships through video creators has become a popular option. Emma Chamberlain, the YouTube superstar who’s close to 10 million subscribers, produced collaboration videos with Louis Vuitton last year that saw an 11x return on ad spending. Her audience is primarily Gen Z and this move allowed the luxury clothing company to penetrate a market that can be somewhat allusive with its online behaviours.

As previously mentioned, big companies are finding that creating short-form, easy to share content is encouraging younger consumers to engage. Twitter accounts for big corporations are now hubs for memes and interactive posts that are designed to be shared. KFC and its bizarre gaming console joke from a few months ago is a good example.

Adidas meanwhile has produced a YouTube documentary series called ‘Tango Squad FC’ with hand-picked micro-influencers. Each person featured in the series is encouraged to advertise the company through their own social channels and exclusive events are created to generate underground buzz. All of this was designed with dark social in mind, with the intent to get Gen Z sharing videos with friends and following footballers associated with Adidas on Instagram.

There is clearly a market and appetite for branded content with young consumers- the trick is to make it authentic and comedically relevant. Brands that show understanding of the zeitgeist and tap into the right niches will find a receptive audience, it’s just a lot more complicated than simply running a generic ad on television.

Also, I hope that KFC games console actually ends up being real. As long as it can adequately cook vegan chicken I’m here for it.