What does social media engagement ACTUALLY look like?

Is it a click, a scroll, a glance?

Does a user have to comment, or share with their followers for it to count?

I think we should be using a new yardstick – one which might be harder to measure, but that could bring long-term rewards.

Different channels breed different behaviour

The thought process started when I read that everyone’s behaviour is merging on social media. This made a lot of sense, and it probably explains why we gravitate towards the platforms that best suit our personality.

Life’s natural sharers and optimists tend to hang out on Facebook. If a dry, sarcastic tone is more your thing, you’re probably spending your days on Twitter.

The issue for marketers is that this could devalue regular engagement metrics. If people are liking or sharing things to keep up appearances, these measures are probably losing value.

As behaviour on public platforms becomes more predictable, people are retreating into private spaces online. Brands need to find a way to follow.

Is ‘dark social’ the new social?

It’s estimated that as much as 84% of content sharing happens over ‘dark social’ channels like Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and email.

Any time you copy a link and send it to a friend, colleague or relative, you’re wading into that murky world of untrackable behaviour. Measuring success is harder in this world (though not impossible). That’s the bad news.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for marketers. I’ll explain why.

Why dark social is important

Firstly, dark social is a hit across all age groups – just under half of people over 55 are more likely to use it exclusively, but the same goes for nearly 1 in 5 of consumers aged 16-34. None of this counts the people who share content privately as well as publicly.

Second, dark social sharing is the passport to peoples’ pockets. In 2014, 53% of the clicks this channel generated were on mobile. Last year, the figure was up to 62%.

Clearly, if you want your content to get views on the device people have handy at all times, you need to pay attention to this sharing behaviour.

To put it really, really simply: a share on Facebook? That’s fine. A private share over direct message? That’s absolute gold.

This brings me to the group chat. There are two, in particular, you should be thinking about.

Dark social portal 1: the friend group chat

The place you go to plan meeting up for dinner, get advice on what to text back to that cute guy from the coffee shop and share the most relatable or eye-catching content in your life.

A share on Facebook? That's fine. A private share over direct message? That's absolute gold.

We already know that peer advice is crucial to modern consumers, so getting your content into a space like this can have a huge impact.

Dark social portal 2: the family group chat

For better or for worse, the family chat is the next closest thing to ‘having a busy front room in your back pocket’.

The tone might be a bit less outrageous than with friends – your dad might not find a meme about millennial life as funny as your mates – but you’d still use this channel to share content (remember, nearly half of over 55s do ALL their sharing this way).

So, what should marketers do about this?

My answer is pretty simple: be interesting, useful, funny or eye-catching enough that someone would want to share it in a group chat.

Obviously, the idea of trying to get peoples’ attention isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the point is that the desire to share the content you produce in a private forum should be the marker of success.

Some brands have clearly taken this advice to heart – Buzzfeed lists like this one attest to the willingness of some to unleash their social media teams in pursuit of funny, outrageous and NSFW interactions with the public.

This would be an example of the first kind of group chat-worthy content, stuff you’d send to mates during the post 4 o’clock lull on a Tuesday afternoon. But you don’t have to go picking a fight with @Football_Fan_1975 on Twitter to get this sort of content.

Be interesting, useful, funny or eye-catching enough that someone would want to share it in a group chat.

Dark social on mobile represents a big chunk of the content sharing across sectors like fashion, automotive, health & fitness, travel, pets and real estate.

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From RadiumOne's 'The Dark Side of Mobile Sharing' report.

The content that will get people to share for each will be as varied as the sectors themselves, but brands would be wise to remember the ‘realness’ that gives the viral tweets above their potency. We know that 69% of people trust images from other consumers more than official photos from a brand.

If you want to create genuine ‘I want to’ moments that people find worth sharing, you need the power and believability of content from your customers.

Trying to figure out where to go on your group holiday this summer? Check out the photos BA Holidays has collected from customers across hundreds of destinations.

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Made a hasty pact on New Years’ Eve that this is the year you’re finally going to get in shape? You might find yourself with a list of advice for new runners from people who’ve taken up jogging recently.

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Sending the family some photos of your new flat as you move in? No doubt, dad will want to remind you to sort the insurance ASAP.

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So, next time you’re planning content strategy, remember where the impact will be most meaningful.

A like or a share could be someone trying to swim with the crowd, or maintain their public-facing persona. But taking content into the group chat shows they mean it, because they’re putting it front and centre in a forum based on trust. That’s what brands should be aiming for – trying to pass the group chat test.

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Why you should be thinking more about 'dark social'