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The Rise of Dark Social and adoption of Ephemeral Content

Dark social is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Dark social refers to people sharing content in private platforms rather than on public profiles or with all of their followers.

We know what you’re thinking. Dark social? Ephemeral content? What sorcery is this. Which fantastic beasts are you cooking up back there in the strange offices of Iconic Media’s studio.

Calm down. Dark social is not the prequel to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to fame, and ephemeral content is not the oddly-titled sidekick in a Terry Pratchett novel.

But what exactly is dark social, and how or where does ephemeral content fit in?

First, let us begin with a description of what social media is, and what makes it social.

The dictionary definition of social media is, “A community of users who can communicate with one another, sharing written, static, audio and video content in a social network.”

What makes it social is that it gives users the ability to communicate either in real-time, or with delayed communication, either directly or indirectly with another user or users. We can share content we have created ourselves, such as photos, videos or simple text updates, and we can find content from around the web and share this with our followers (this is called curation).

An Example.

I am on Instagram, and I find a particular hilarious meme of Teresa May dancing. I laugh uproariously. I then choose to share this on Instagram Direct Message with my friend who is on Instagram, but who I do not want to tag in the meme, as I am an intensely private person on social media and like to sit and passively consume media alone in the dark (i.e: creepily watch others’ lives and never say anything).

So I send this meme to my friend. She too laughs uproariously and responds by sending me back the sideways crying laughing emoji face. She then screenshots this meme, and sends it on to her mother via Whatsapp, as her mom is not on Instagram.

Does anyone else see these messages? No. This is the lifecyle of a dark social post.

In other words

Dark social happens behind-the-scenes. It is all of the closed off communications on social media networks and private conversations which take place outside of the public eye, between people. And most of these conversations are encrypted now. It’s been estimated that over 80% of all conversations happening online are happening via dark social posts.

Twitter Direct messages, SnapChat; Instagram Private Messages; Facebook Messenger; LinkedIn Inmail; Slack direct messages; Whatsapp, even those old dinosaurs email and SMS are considered dark social.

These are all platforms that provide the user with the ability to share content within these channels without them being tracked, and this content and these conversations are what constitute dark social posts.

Sharing content privately, with no way of the publisher or others, knowing that you are sharing this article or image or video

Marketers – So how do marketers track their posts that get shared this way?

Well, If you are tracking your content, it will show up as “direct” traffic, which doesn’t really make sense, as the person is not going there directly. More often than not these days, people are seeing something on social, clicking on it, appreciating its value and then sharing this in a private message on a platform of their choosing.

In order to track this content, marketers need to get more adept at understanding who their audience is.


You can use the following tools to track your dark social posts:


UTMs are tracking parameters that you can add to all links shared on social to frame them, allowing Google to track these pieces of content, allowing you to know exactly where they came from. So if you have a piece of campaign content, and you are going to share this on social, you can add the tag on to the end of this using a campaign name, campaign source, campaign medium and a campaign name. Use this link to build your UTM code, and then you can segment this in Google Analytics when reporting.

Find the campaign URL builder here: https://ga-dev-tools.appspot.com/campaign-url-builder/

Segment your analytics dashboard

You can go into your Google Analytics account, and segment traffic under the audience tab, in Overview, and then clicking “add segment” to see where the traffic came from. It is a little time-consuming, tricky and frustrating, but worth it in the end.

Here is a handy reference on how to do this: https://adespresso.com/blog/dark-social/

Add share buttons and “copy links” on your website

By adding share buttons underneath or to the side of content, you give users the option to get a short share link, or share through Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook etc, making a users’ life easier, whilst simultaneously allowing you to track that content more effectively. Hubspot are particularly good at doing this, and have the share button function visible at any point as a user scrolls down their page, as well as at the bottom of any article.

Use Dark Social tracking tools

There are a bunch of dark social tracking tools out there that you can use. These tools allow you to track all of your content, seeing who shared it, where and when.

Here are a few to try: GetSocial.IO AddThis ShareThis

What the hell is ephemeral content?

Ephemeral means something that lives or lasts for a very short time. So, using this definition, we can see that ephemeral content is content that disappears after being seen after a period of time, or after being seen once. SnapChat, Instagram Stories, Facebook stories all constitute ephemeral content because they only live for a certain period of time – Instagram stories are only live for 24 hours before they disappear, even though Instagram has since realised the value of this content for the user, and archived it all. Users can also now highlight particular stories onto cetegorised boards, showing users who land on their profile the stories that they want to keep.

Ephemeral content really come to the fore with platforms such as SnapChat, where you could send a snap to a friend and it would only live for a few seconds, and then later, it would live for the lifetime of the sender’s choosing.

Why is it popular?

To give a snapshot into people’s lives in a way that tells a broader, more detailed story “I am travelling. I am in a new city. Look I am walking to the shops in a new city! look at this weird type of cookie I found on my travels – the don’t have these back home! Wow wildlife in the city” etc

A snapshot that does not alter the carefully curated aesthetic of a user’s Instagram or Facebook profile, whilst still allowing the user to showcase their life, their beliefs, the things they are doing, what they support, music the like and all the things that make up that users life. It’s another form of curation, but less formal.

It also allows users to post more than once or twice a day without annoying their followers. It is a way of acting as more informal communications.

According to researchers from Cornell Social Media lab and ReImagination Lab: “Because of this feature of ephemerality, it allows people to be more informal, losing inhibition with content sent to close friends,” said Pamara Chang, a fifth-year PhD candidate and co-author to the study. “Whereas there’s this notion of impression management and self-presentation concerns with other applications like Facebook or Twitter where you do have a larger audience.”1

Why (and how) does ephemeral content works for brands?

Ephemeral content can work wonders for brands. Prior to having stories, brands had to pick and choose what they shared, and when, on Instagram or Facebook or YouTube.

It is always a toss-up between sharing behind-the-scenes content, company or brand culture, user-generated content, sales content, product or services content, partner and stakeholder content, beautifully crafted and curated content, or on the fly event content.

Brands have a lot to say, and oftentimes they have the most curated social channels, sharing less than a normal person would share. Because marketing people are highly aware of not over-spamming audiences with unwanted branded messages, they try and show restraint.

Cue stories.

Brands can now share all the dirty, fun, messy, interesting, funny, charming and weird things happening in their world without worrying about spamming users.

Shoppable stories:

Using media, brands can create cool content in a shoppable story format, driving traffic directly to their ecommerce platforms and encouraging people to buy featured items

Link out to websites

If you have over 10,000 followers, you can create a link directly on your story. This is a particularly innovative feature for Instagram, as the platform has been notoriously hesitant about driving traffic outside of Instagram.

@mention partners and influencers

You can @mention someone directly in a story. You can do this in a more informal way, highlighting their name and allowing them to shine with you.

Gifs/ Emoji/ Polls:

Instagram has so many fun features to use, and stories allow brands to use them all. Create a poll to find out what people thing; get people to submit questions; use fun emojis; animated gifs or add the weather or location to your image or video in a fun, playful way. There are endless possibilities with what you can add to stories to make them more enticing to users.

One piece of content can be told in a thousand different ways thanks to this feature. You can even host question and answer sessions.

Share user-generated content easily

When a user tags you, it’s often a great shout out and way of amplifying your message. Often that content might not necessarily be something you want to live on your platform on that day specifically, and you have to wait a few weeks for it to form part of your content plan. Well, stories now allow you to add a post to your story (by clicking the arrow on the bottom of the post) and selecting “add to your story”. Voila. It is now part of your archive, and that day’s story.

Create a story using multiple images or media

Sometimes you need to tell a story using multiple formats, images or posts – and stories are the perfect way of doing this. Instead of listing product benefits, show people how to use your product through a bunch of different pieces of content, and take them on a journey. You can also use this tactic to share teaser content, and then direct people to see the full piece of content or blog on your website, Facebook page etc. The possibilities are endless!










Animation, Code, Drip, Media

Carla Gontier

Carla Gontier

Carla Gontier is Director of Strategy at Iconic Media. Carla has developed significant digital and content strategic experience over the past 8 years, with the bulk of her experience within digital and social primarily spent across the FMCG; Automotive; Tourism; Insurance; Education and Tech industries.