What the Rise of Dark Social Programmatic Means for Facebook

In part one of this two-part series, we looked at why marketers are so excited about “dark social” – traffic from previously untrackable sources, such as links shared via emails, messaging apps, and some mobile applications. We also noted that Facebook, via its $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, has already made a massive bet on the value of dark social. Now let’s take a closer look at why dark social could become a bigger part of Facebook’s business plans in the years ahead.

There’s a lot to admire about Facebook. Zuckerberg not only built the biggest social network but also figured out how to monetize it. And yet if Facebook has learned anything from its brief history, it’s perhaps that trends in digital advertising change rapidly. At the moment, Facebook is raking in enormous sums from mobile ads for app downloads. But Snapchat chief executive (CEO) Evan Spiegel isn’t the first to express doubts about how Facebook will generate revenue once the latest bubble pops and the venture money that’s funding all the app download ads dries up. To secure its future, Facebook needs to anticipate major revenue streams even before the next big trend arrives.

Enter dark social, a form of social sharing that is more common and perhaps also more valuable than even the open sharing that takes place via Facebook’s News Feed. After all, dark social sharing is as intimate as online sharing gets. The vendors and messaging services that figure out how to target dark social content and links will almost certainly see massive revenue gains in the years ahead. “Programmatic via dark social offers marketers new efficiencies, compared to serving ads on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where costs are rising,” says William Bancroft, a digital strategist at Frost Inc. “Social tech giants will have to react and respond to this trend.”

So Facebook has every reason to be interested in the promise of dark social. But how did Facebook know that so much valuable sharing takes place via WhatsApp? Perhaps because Facebook’s own FB Messenger is driving far more dark social traffic than most of us previously thought.

When testing new methods of tracking traffic from Facebook’s messaging app, ChartBeat found that “the amount of ‘dark social’ traffic to The Atlantic fell by more than 40 percent and the amount of traffic from Facebook rose by almost the same amount.”

“The takeaway is this: if you’re a media company, you are almost certainly underestimating your Facebook traffic,” Alexis Madrigal, the man who coined the term “dark social,” explained on Fusion. “The only question is how much Facebook traffic you’re not counting.”

No wonder, as William Bancroft notes, that “analysts, engineers, and marketers are increasingly holding the opinion that dark social traffic is more valuable than open social.”

Facebook, to be sure, doesn’t yet have a hand in all the dark social sharing that takes place via email. But when it comes to sharing via mobile messenger services, Facebook has now, more or less, cornered the market between its own offering and WhatsApp — which now also has a popular share button on sites across the Web. And if you don’t think that Facebook will figure out a way to target users according to what they share via messaging services, you probably missed the recent announcement that Facebook is now indexing all of our posts.

Facebook, in other words, knew exactly what it was doing when it purchased WhatsApp. The programmatic targeting of the links and content we share via dark social is about to become a very big business, and Facebook, once again, will be leading the way.

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