In this edition of Spotlight Southeast Asia, WARC Asia Editor Gabey Goh looks at how can brands work better with the dark side of social.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in Southeast Asia can work better with the dark side of social media. Read more

Since the term was first coined by American journalist Alexis C Madrigal of The Atlantic in 2012, dark social has remained a challenge that many marketers have yet to fully address.

Research by RadiumOne in 2016 found that dark social media sharing amounted to 84% of content, shared through emails and messaging tools, with the majority via mobile devices. In addition, Southeast Asia shares on dark social (87%) more than the global average, second only to Australia (89%).

In Southeast Asia, the preference for private chat groups over public feeds takes on added importance as new regulations and socio-political tensions translate to a higher risk of fines or even jail time for content shared.

Being closed, dark social makes it hard for marketers to monitor, advertise, engage or buy their way into conversations with consumers. The void that dark social activity represents is not a new problem but it is one that brands must tackle sooner rather than later.

As more consumers move away from open platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to share content, and retreat further into smaller, more curated online spaces such as chat groups on Telegram, WhatsApp and emails – it begs the question: How can brands work better with the dark side of social?

Private spaces are here to stay

Data from research firm GWI, covering consumers in Southeast Asia, suggests that the majority (56%) of consumers use three or more messaging platforms, while 18% of consumers use five or more messaging services.

Notably, almost half (49%) of respondents use social media to read news stories, 43% find content such as articles and memes, and 35% share/discuss opinions with others. This is how dark social traffic occurs, as content is found, shared in private communities and discussed within that space, invisible to the brand’s metrics.

But dark social is here to stay and marketers must learn how best to gain entry into these closed groups.

How can brands enter without intruding

Contributors from the Southeast Asia Spotlight all agreed that dark social should not be something brands avoid out of fear of the unknown but instead, they should view it as an opportunity to connect with communities of consumers in a more intimate and meaningful way.

  • True preferences live within dark social: The dark social space offers a more natural communication channel to target consumers. Most netizens feel more comfortable “being themselves” when sharing privately, compared to sharing publicly to a feed of followers. “Dark social data assists in providing a comprehensive picture of customers' true preferences on what information, products and subjects they really wish to share with and suggest to their peers,” writes Elki Hendria, Co-founder & Executive Planning Director, M&C Saatchi Indonesia.
  • Learn to let go: Brands should begin by respecting the consumer’s desire for privacy when sharing or consuming a particular piece of content on a private channel. “It is worth reemphasising that dark social isn’t necessarily a bad thing for your brand. If anything, it shows you that more often than not, you have more advocates for your brand than you thought,” writes Kiron Kesav, General Manager, Strategy & Platforms, PHD Media, Malaysia.
  • Design beyond the shares: Apart from entertaining videos and pictures, and links to websites, consumers are most likely to share good deals, discounts and links or pictures of products via messaging apps. As these apps evolve into superapps with payment functions, chat-and-shop has become the norm. “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,” writes Jasmine Wong, Regional Strategic Planning Director, Initiative APAC.
  • Create private communities and work with micro- and nano-influencers: As consumers retreat into more private spaces, there is an opportunity for brands to create private spaces of their own, where brand trust and engagement become more of a two-way street. “Consumers will be more likely to form real connections with brands when the focus isn’t just on achieving sales,” writes TBWA’s RJ Paculan and Jean Arboleda. Additionally, micro- and nano-influencers continue to be a valuable bridge between brands and audiences. Their audiences may be smaller than others but they are highly engaged and trust brand recommendations from these personalities. “Having a dialogue with them on how your brand can create value to the community may endear the brand to them,” they add.
  • It boils down to respect: There are a myriad of ways brands can seek to gain visibility and recognition which complement dark social culture – both by finding ways for meaningful interactions with consumers in these spaces and by creating valuable and relevant content which is likely to generate organic shares across dark social channels. “More than anything, brands need to approach every interaction with respect – acknowledging that they are part of a wider community that belongs to their audience – something that may fall outside of many brands’ comfort zones,” writes Nick Pan, Managing Director, Strategy & Commerce, VMLY&R Asia.

Ultimately, it is not impossible for brands to shed some light on dark social and the communities that thrive within it. There’s no doubt that robust social listening tools, data and analytics will help assess correlation when causation is absent. But what will be key is the patience to invest the necessary time to cultivate these connections, along with the willingness to embrace the fact that engagement will have to be on the consumer’s terms – not the brand’s.