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Don’t be afraid of the dark (social)

44’s Head of Digital, Alan Coates, explores the world of shadow social media, and explains why your biggest competitor for internal comms may be your own organisation.

I remember when I signed up for Myspace back in 2004. It was either that or following in the footsteps of my friends with an Angelfire account, where you could build your own homepage with moving images and background music. Probably Basket Case by Green Day or an obscure Linkin Park B-side.

This was Generation Y’s first foray into having an online presence, where your profile picture was king and you wanted to make sure all the coolest books and films were listed under your interests. The Vampire Lestat and True Romance, naturally.

In the past 14 years, we’ve all been a part of a truly remarkable social revolution. Once upon a time, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame was just an exciting possibility. If you got on TV during a local news broadcast, for example, one imagined you could dine out on the story for weeks.

Now, unless you’ve been retweeted by Stephen King or Barack Obama for a particularly insightful thrust at Trump’s latest misdoings, are you really even trying? Between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and the rest, there are 2.56 billion of us using social media, and one million new users every day[1].

Dark social

The flipside of all this public visibility is ‘dark social’, something I first read about a few years ago when I was writing a blog about start-up social media company Ello (which has since failed to take off outside of the niche art scene).

‘Dark social’ is a term coined by Alexis C. Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic. He used the phrase to describe social media activity that wasn’t being measured by analytics, arguing that if a message or link was sent by email, rather than Twitter, it had the same validity to both sender and recipient, but couldn’t be measured and wasn’t publicly available.

Text messages, one-to-one emails, online chat, video chat – all channels that are widely used but exist outside the regular social media marketing focus.

As consumers become more sceptical of social media industry practices (you can watch Mark Zuckerberg giving testimony here), we are more aware than ever that social media platforms aren’t free. The cost is that we’re being constantly marketed to[2]. Maybe that’s why we’re turning to dark social channels like WhatsApp, so Big Brother can’t interfere.

Shadow social

The sister of dark social is something called ‘shadow social’. Depending on what article you read, the terms are relatively interchangeable, but for this argument I define shadow social as the hidden social media activity in the work environment.

Say you want to create or refine a channel to engage colleagues, like your field force or bar staff, as part of an operational comms challenge. The IT team investigate, the finance team engage senior stakeholders and things take time. Meanwhile, your field force and bar staff have all signed up to a WhatsApp group on day two and have already started tackling the operational challenge in their own way.

This is the dichotomy of shadow social. It’s self-powering, which is great, and not controlled centrally, which may not be so great. That said, if people are communicating on their own steam, and you are lucky enough to hear about it, you’re already succeeding on two fronts.

How to take control of shadow social media:

1) Appreciate it
Don’t forget that this is a good problem to have. If people are self-starting, it means they are engaged, and probably want a little guidance. So ride the wave and don’t just shut things down, which may be the first reaction.

2) Create local champions
Every site, every store, every factory – get in touch with somebody there, and recruit them as your conduit to the wider team. This isn’t Big Brother calling, it’s Gareth Southgate, and you’re all part of the same team, so you need to work together.

3) Give them the tools
Create a one-page how-to guide for your champions. Don’t send them the company tone of voice guidelines – give them the highlights. Reinforce the values throughout and the rest will take care of itself. Importantly, do let them know what to escalate upwards if bullying, or other sensitive issues, start to arise.

As internal communicators, we are all very protective of the messages that go around the business, and the channels people can use. It can be very frustrating to spend time and energy working on a new intranet or magazine only to find colleagues sneaking Facebook Workplace through the company firewall and using that instead.

The bottom-line has got to be what they’re using the channel for. If they are sharing the latest four-panel ‘Gru’s Plan’ meme, that’s one thing. More likely than not though, they will be trying to get through the technical red tape to make sure they don’t miss a shift or meeting task.

The fact that shadow social exists doesn’t mean we should be afraid of the dark. Once our eyes adjust, we’ll be able to see that there are no monsters under the bed.


[1] https://wearesocial.com/special-reports/digital-in-2017-global-overview

[2] https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-facebook-results/facebook-forecasts-rising-ad-sales-despite-dip-in-usage-idUKKBN1FK34Q

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