Almost two thirds of internet users in the UK and US are sharing content and recommendations using private messaging apps, new research suggests – a greater proportion than use public social media or word of mouth.

A study from GlobalWebIndex and creative agency We Are Social looked at more than 3,000 internet users aged 16 to 64 in the UK and US, and discovered that private messaging apps – or ‘dark social’ – were used by 63% of people to share content.

This was followed by open social media platforms (54%), word of mouth (51%), with other ‘dark’ channels, including SMS (48%) and email (47%).

“Brands can have a big above the line push, but when it comes to consumers actually talking about the brands they like, the things they want to do or buy, and following others’ recommendations, more and more of that now happens in private apps and by sharing links,” said André van Loon, research and insight director, We Are Social.

“Increasingly, marketers will need to be sure to target and optimise their content so that heavy-lifting ATL awareness campaigns run at the same time as easy-to-share digital content, which consumers will then be free to use and discuss in their own time.”

The sort of content being commonly shared in this way includes music and film (by 51%), games (48%), clothing (47%), electronics (46%), food and drink items (42%) and travel (41%).

A crucial consideration for marketers is that consumers are more likely to be comfortable “being themselves” when sharing on private channels (48%), compared to sharing publicly to a news feed of followers (13%) – a finding that was consistent across all age groups.

In terms of the specific private messaging platforms being used to share content, Facebook Messenger was out in front (82%), followed by WhatsApp (56%), direct message on Instagram (34%) and Snapchat (32%).

The pubic platform can act as the source of content, but “meaningful conversations and recommendations are taking place between peers actively engaging with each other” using the platform’s messaging options, said Chase Buckle, trends manager at GlobalWebIndex.

“Brands looking to integrate their services across social media must focus on giving users the opportunity to follow up on recommendations that come through private messages in a streamlined way within the single platform,” he advised.

Sourced from We Are Social; additional content by WARC staff