Using private messaging apps is the most popular method of sharing content, according to new research from GlobalWebIndex and We Are Social.

Three in five internet users in the UK and US now share content and recommendations via private messaging apps, ahead of open social media platforms and word of mouth. This type of content sharing is known as dark social.

What is dark social?

Dark social may sound sinister, but it simply refers to website referrals that are not tracked. Normally, on an open social media platform, clicking on a link can be tracked by the company hosting the platform. However, if a link is shared on a private messaging platform, companies cannot track referrals.

According to research by GlobalWebIndex, private messaging apps – often branded ‘dark social’ – were used by 63% of people to share content. Since 2018, dark social has been the largest source of referrals, surpassing Facebook.

The study found that Facebook Messenger was the most popular way to share content at 82%, followed by WhatsApp (56%), direct message on Instagram (34%) and Snapchat (32%).

Users favour this kind of sharing

This is a frustrating issue for companies looking for the best ways to reach consumers as analytics tools cannot pick up on where this traffic is coming from.

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Therefore, this represents an untapped opportunity for advertising and marketing, and one that many companies are keen to capitalise on – especially as users are generally sharing less via social media platforms (with Facebook seeing a 21% decrease in ‘original sharing’ in 2016).

Dark social traffic is also very valuable, as Chase Buckle, Trends Manager at GlobalWebIndex, explains that users are more likely to trust a recommendation shared in this way:

“Private messaging platforms are now where meaningful conversations and recommendations are taking place between peers actively engaging with each other. Sharing content with a large friend network accrued over many years may have impressive reach, but it doesn’t compare to the private messaging environment which is a lot more conducive of trust in recommendations”

Brands are looking to use it

Therefore, brands are now looking at ways to make it possible for users to follow up on recommendations that come through private messages within the single platform.

Many brands are now incorporating dark social into their marketing strategies. According to Marketing Weekly, Starbucks is exploring whether it can use private groups on social media to “have a much deeper conversation with certain customers”.

Although the greater infiltration of users’ private lives via private messages may be unwelcome for many, if done correctly it can be a positive way of engaging with customers with a genuine interest in a particular product or service.

According to Criteo, two brands that have done this effectively are adidas and Greggs. In 2017, Adidas launched “Tango Squads”, groups of football fans living in different cities, and shared exclusive content and new products with them. Greggs employed a similar strategy when it created Festive Bake Lowers, a WhatsApp group for customers who wanted previews of new products before they became available to the general public.

André van Loon, research and insight director, We Are Social, believes that these types of advertising strategies can be very effective:

“This shift in consumer behaviour underlines how much marketing now comes through social media, and specifically dark social. 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.

“Increasingly, marketers will need to be sure to target and optimise their content so that heavy-lifting above-the-line 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.”

Read more: 95% of internet users don’t trust social media — and that could eventually hit revenues