With a world of information and entertainment at our fingertips, expectations of immediacy are higher than ever – but so too is the desire to connect with others. Social media is a powerful force for brand building, and one which is destined to become even more important in future.

While many marketers are fixated on trackable platforms like Facebook and Twitter, most social conversations happen through dark social platforms like WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat and good old fashioned text. The world of social sharing is far bigger than that considered in most digital media plans. The dark social space within this world is still considered to be largely off the radar – but it's a space that can help brands to offset ‘digital deficit disorder', amplifying their content to reach a much wider audience.

To seize the opportunity brands will need to enlist the help of the very people they are trying to influence: their consumers.

Digital overload

Everyone is suffering from attention overload, particularly when it comes to digital advertising. The average digital display ad is glanced at for just over two seconds, and the average online video is viewed for 12 seconds. And we cannot assume that digital marketing will have a positive effect on a brand. While Millward Brown's Brand Lift Insight studies find that the best digital campaigns have a measurable and significant positive effect on brand equity, many have the opposite effect – undermining brand equity rather than building it. Poorly executed content, excess frequency, stalker-like retargeting and poor placement all threaten online effectiveness.

Ad blocking is further undermining reach. Digital came to us ready fragmented and it continues to splinter. Brands have responded by using ad networks, addressability and retargeting to pursue their consumer across the web. Content owners chasing revenue growth have added more ad space and offered more intrusive ad formats. As a result, people are increasingly turning to ad blockers to clean up their digital experience. The ability to reach people with a pre-determined message is being undermined.

Harnessing the elusive dark social space offers brands a way to break through the digital clutter. However, to be talked about and shared in this space they need ideas that are more remarkable, more emotional and more useful than ever before...otherwise people will pass them by and share the latest post from Grumpy Cat instead.

New school social marketing campaigns

Increasingly, brands are seeking to leverage the power of social media platforms using a new school media model. Unlike the traditional digital model that buys impressions the new media model creates original content – a cause, event or happening – that is so noteworthy people want to talk about it and engage with it. Once social coverage starts to trend, traditional news media, addicted to Twitter, jump on the bandwagon and amplify the campaign.

Even if this works, however, it is unlikely that a socially-led campaign will achieve its full effect without paid media.

Brands will still need to invest in above-the-line media spend to ensure reach – but they can do so knowing that the campaign idea resonates. Consumer-generated content can also be used to help fuel broadcast advertising: in the UK Three mobile used customer selfies entered into a competition to provide the content for an effective TV campaign titled Stop Holiday Spam.

Big ideas are even more important

The bar for social success is set very high. Brands like Volvo Trucks with its Epic Stunts series and Always with #LikeaGirl have been very successful in creating content that people want to talk about and share. One is a remarkable demonstration of Volvo's confidence in its product; the other is an emotional call to empower young women.

Other brands have chosen to create events to spark consumer engagement. Carling Black Label in South Africa chose to let fans Be the Coach in support of its positioning as a champion beer for champion men. Walker's crisps in the UK chose to make the sleepy town of Sandwich more exciting with surprise celebrity events to demonstrate how its crisps make any sandwich better. Other brands aimed to be useful: Australian optician OPSM, for instance, developed a book and an app to test kids' eyes as they read with their parents.

These are today's big idea campaigns; the ones people want to talk about and share with others.

Unlock the power of consumer creativity

At a time when brands need to up their game they are scrambling to write the playbook and organize their team. Many things need to happen if brands are to find their own big idea, but perhaps the easiest step is to bring the consumer into the development process earlier.

Far from being a passive, blank slate, ordinary people – when properly briefed – can help craft extraordinary ideas. And yet, if the consumer is consulted at all, it is often too late in the development process to do anything useful with what is discovered. Pre-testing with the target audience has become an exercise in pass/fail, not creative empowerment. The best way to identify and craft big ideas is to use research to gather consumer inspiration – not just their feedback.

There are many new research techniques that can help can unleash the power of consumer creativity quickly and effectively. Crowdsourcing can generate new ideas, improvisation techniques can explore and extend those ideas and interactive platforms allow creative and consumer craft a more effective execution, one that goes way beyond the 30 second TV slot.

Great creative campaigns of all types originate from compelling ideas; the ones that resonate with the target audience, the ones they want to share. This is even more true when striving to connect with the consumer and build the brand in the dark social world. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the very people we want to influence are the ones best able to tell us whether an idea is worth their time.

Nigel Hollis is a judge on the Warc Media Awards' Best Use of Data stream.