Uncovering the hidden side of social media: from dark social to pay-to-play

Phil Szomszor

03 Aug 2017

Be honest: have your social media efforts gone off the boil recently?

Maybe you are seeing less engagement, or your follower growth has slowed. Or perhaps you’re not getting cut through in terms of supporting sale-oriented content.

Or you could be feeling rather pleased with yourself that everything is going brilliantly on your channels.

Still, you don’t want to get complacent.

We all know how important social media is and the power it has to engage and influence people, but there are a number of forces at play right now that make it more challenging.

There’s no need to panic – social media is far from dead – but if you don’t wrap your head around these changes, you could end up slipping behind.

There are two big forces at play:

  1. Changing social media habits
  2. Evolving platforms changing the rules

Let’s take a look at each of those in more detail…

1. Changing social media habits

Social media marketers traditionally focus engagement across the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

But we’re actually missing a big chunk of action that is hidden from view. This is called ‘dark social’ (a name which actually dates back to 2012).

WhatsApp is an example of a dark social service where content is shared within private, restricted groups. According to Globalwebindex, it’s used more frequently than Facebook and is increasing its share of “thumb time”.

It’s also invading the social media space in other ways. In a familiar-looking update, WhatsApp now enables users to post status updates through photos and videos, which disappear after 24 hours.

Then there’s the likes of Slack, fast becoming the business social network and collaboration tool of choice.

If you want to get eyeballs on something at Harvard, your best bet is to share it on Slack, where we have a few dozen channels dedicated to clients, company updates and niche interests.

Again, all this is effectively off the marketing grid.

We’re also seeing the rise of passive social networking.

According to Globalwebindex, the top three reasons cited for using social networks are to stay in touch with friends, keep up to date with news and fill spare time – not sharing opinions, photos or videos.

That makes it harder than before to link the number of views something gets to the ultimate action you’re trying to encourage.

There’s also evidence to suggest that users are more passive in their appreciation of content. Anecdotally, I’ve seen social media increase its contribution to goals, despite likes or other forms of engagement staying flat or falling.

Similarly, we need to question how branded channels are viewed. Brands need to be realistic about audience growth rates and how engaged customers are.

According to research from Brandwatch, 96% of people who discuss brands online do not follow their profiles. A brand’s follower count is not their complete digital footprint, so social listening tools are important to get a fuller picture.

I believe we’re seeing a rise in the importance of the people behind brands. This is especially the case in B2B, where the small number of CEOs who are active on social media have a dramatic impact, often even more than the brand profiles themselves.

Why should leaders tweet? Check out the video below to find out:

2. Evolving platforms changing the rules

The big change here is how the major social networks have moved towards a ‘pay-to-play’ model.

On Facebook it’s unlikely you’ll be reaching more than 5% of your audience if you rely solely on organic reach. And it’s a similar story across the other major platforms.

That doesn’t mean they’ve simply become ad networks. Engagement matters too, and algorithm changes across all the networks are impacting how content is being served up.

If you simply push out sales messages that don’t resonate with users, your message is less likely to be surfaced in people’s feeds – whether it’s supported by paid or not.

Furthermore, will your audience bother to engage, click, or even follow you if your content is overly pushing a sales message? Those vanity metrics we’ve been traditionally wedded to start to seem out of step nowadays.

Perhaps the most important algorithmic trend is the social media bubble: we’re more likely to be served content that fits with our world view.

We have to be wary of a self-fulfilling prophecy around reaching audiences that already agree with you. This is especially an issue for PRs, who want to either reach new audiences or change people’s opinions about a brand.


What does this mean for comms leaders and decision-makers? Here are my five top tips to help you make the most of your social media investment:

  1. Accept that social media is here to stay, but don’t take what social media experts tell you as gospel. There are no shortcuts to success.
  2. Social media investment needs to include paid. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket – experiment between channels.
  3. Keep on top of platform changes and be fleet of foot to switch direction if changes affect your campaign.
  4. Consider how you can reach the audience you can’t see or track. Even simple things like enabling users to share content via WhatsApp and Slack can be beneficial.
  5. Whatever channel you use and however much money you put behind campaigns, never underestimate the importance of telling a good story with authentic, high-quality content.