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Is dark social changing group influence?

Jane Priest, Teaching Fellow

Faculty Blog

A friend of mine recently passed a group of teenagers sitting on a park bench, busily tapping away on their phones. Intrigued, she stopped and asked, 'Who are you texting?' They looked up at her, bemused, and eventually one replied: 'Each other!'

Is this what the world has come to? Is the smartphone killing conversation? Certainly in the world of marketing there is no escaping the importance of online communication. While marketers are still keen to encourage positive word-of-mouth through trackable mediums such as Facebook and Twitter, they are also now rushing to use 'dark social' as a means of super-subtle promotion.

Research shows that globally almost 70% of online referrals come from dark social - private messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, email and SMS. Referred to as dark social because it's difficult to track, this form of communication is very valuable because it is arguably online word-of-mouth between people who know each other, and of course we are more likely to buy something if it is endorsed by a friend rather than a commercial source.

In recognition of this, organisations like O2 and Adidas are incorporating dark social into their digital marketing strategies. O2 has put in place measures to track dark social referrals so it can learn who is engaging with the brand, what commercial value customer segments offer and how marketing messages can be made more relevant to them.

Adidas is more concerned with fostering online tribes of brand advocates by targeting young, influential football fanatics, offering them exclusive content, exciting opportunities and prizes - including new Adidas products - and encouraging them to share their experiences across their private social networks.

Private messaging through smartphones is undoubtedly changing the way consumers communicate (for example, use of emojis instead of words) but it could be argued that the fundamental principles of group dynamics still apply.

We still want to tell each other our consumption experiences. We still want to turn to trusted sources. We still refer to opinion leaders, follow role models and conform to the norms of behaviour of valued reference groups.

Today, Adidas is fostering role models online. But this only got me thinking of Naomi Klein's influential book, 'No Logo', where she refers to brands such as Adidas and Nike as 'cool hunters'. When 'No Logo' was published in 2001, Nike were busy handing out free products to American inner-city kids sporting the desired 'image' in the hope that they would spread the word and spread the 'look' by acting as brand advocates and role models.

So in some ways, dark social is changing everything ... and in other ways, I would argue nothing has changed at all.