Why understanding ‘dark social’ is the key to creating the most effective online advertising mix

Comment threads, forums, texts and emails account for a growing percentage of social messaging but few marketers incorporate this reality into their online marketing mix. Ben Straley (left) and Thomas Kim from Rio SEO’s software division explain the secrets of ‘dark social.’ The full white paper is here.

Marketers today are faced with the challenge of capturing consumers’ attention in an “ad blind” world where most advertising is largely ignored. Instead, consumers now rely mostly on search engines and social networks to get information about brands, products, and services – making it critical to “show up” in organic search results.

In this increasingly social environment , the most strategic way to improve organic search rankings is to create “shareworthy” social content, and then encourage, track, and measure sharing. By decoding content strategy to enable “social signals” and engagement, marketers can dramatically improve their organic search rankings and reach more relevant consumers than ever before.

Traditional digital advertising – such as banner, search, and video ads – has become less effective at capturing the attention of audiences. Advertisers now consider a banner ad successful if it garners the average click- through rate of about 0.1%, while a well-executed video ad might achieve a 1% click-through rate. Well targeted advertising is still a scalable way to get a message in front of the target audience but it does not produce consumer engagement by itself.

Today consumers are engaging through email, social networks and forums, friends, family, and search queries to get information and recommendations on brands, products, and services. They are also increasingly leaving their laptops in their school or work bags and logging in to social sites via their smartphones or tablets, and are doing more mobile searches than ever before.

What are social signals?

Social signals are measurable social sharing metrics such as likes, tweets, pins, +1s, and posts, as well as “dark social” metrics. “Dark social” makes up more than 90% of all sharing and are traditionally difficult to measure, such as shares via emails, text messages, comment threads, and on obscure forums.

A social signal occurs when a consumer takes an action to share a brand’s content, and that share results in a click to a campaign landing page or website. The more social signals a brand can encourage, promote, and measure, the more likely their brand will appear in organic search results.

For brands, this new social world poses unique marketing challenges. If ads alone don’t work well to capture consumers’ attention, get your brand and product discovered, and increase sales, what does? Many advertisers feel getting discovered online today is one part alchemy, one part luck – like “winning the lottery”. Consumers simply find their brand through a random search, via a link shared by a friend on a social network, or through word of mouth.

However, even with these challenges, capturing consumer attention and purchase intent in the social age can be done – measurably, effectively, and systematically. Instead of creating a bunch of social content and “hoping to get found”, brands can take a much more tactical approach to combining social marketing and SEO. When brands succeed at pairing their SEO and social efforts, it results in measurable dividends in the form of more “shares” (likes, shares, and linkbacks) of their content – and ultimately, higher organic search rankings.

SEO + Social = Discovery

Search engine optimization is becoming more complex – and critical – in a social world. SEO outcomes are increasingly influenced by “social signals”. Every time a consumer shares a brand link via a large social network (like, tweet, pin, +1, etc.), or via a more hidden social channel such as a comment thread, forum, text message, or email, it creates a link back to the original content source that can be leveraged for SEO purposes.

Social signals are one of the most essential components of an SEO program today, yet few brand marketers understand how to encourage, track, measure, and leverage these sharing links. SEO and social content are synergetic.

The more social signals a brand generates, the higher its organic search rankings; and the higher a brand’s organic search rankings, therefore the more people searching will discover this content, the more sharing will occur, causing an increase in social signals. That’s why it’s so critical to effectively combine SEO and social today.

Most marketers lack the technical tools to make social signals a predictable, reliable, repeatable, and scalable part of their SEO programs. The biggest challenge lies in finding, measuring, and encouraging the critical “dark social” signals. Many brands have become adept at identifying and enabling standard social signals on large social networks (likes, tweets, pins, and +1s). Unfortunately, standard social signals represent less than 10% of the overall sharing happening at any given moment.

Dark Social Signals

Our own Rio SEO Social analytics show that dark social signals account for more than 90% of all sharing – and most marketers don’t even know this type of sharing is occurring, let alone have processes in place to measure and amplify it. Consumers share brand links frequently via “dark” channels such as email or text message, or in comment threads, forums, blogs, or instant messages.

Marketers that aren’t tapping into dark social signals to improve SEO are ignoring over 90% of the traffic that could positively influence their brands’ natural search rankings.

Though it may seem opaque, it is in fact possible to identify, measure, and amplify dark social signals. Huge returns in SEO effectiveness await brands that solve this problem. If done right, leveraging dark social signals can lead not only to dramatically improved organic search rankings, but also to higher sales and long-term customer loyalty.

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