July 23, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Dark social, walled gardens: how private channels challenge PR

Dark social, walled gardens: how private channels challenge PR

Facebook’s “walled garden” has presented an issue to marketers and PR people ever since the social platform opened up to the public nearly a decade ago. With its limited sharing of user data and privacy settings available for users to deploy at various levels, a great deal of the sharing and conversations between its users remain hidden from public view. This is a feature for users, but presents an interesting question to PR people: how do we know what’s effective messaging if we can’t monitor for it?

The same holds true for other “dark social” channels—places and platforms where ideas and information are shared one-to-one, rather than visibly. If you’ve sent a link about a product in an email suggesting someone check it out or purchase the item, you’ve made a recommendation via “dark social.” Same holds true if you make a restaurant recommendation to a group of friends via text message—you’re making a suggestion that is not visible or trackable to a place of business.

This isn’t something that most people even think about, but the inability to determine what audiences are discussing and what fuels their decision-making presents a challenge to PR and communications, from a couple of vantage points.

The inability to reach a specific audience

When and where matters for message delivery, and that poses a significant challenge on dark social. If people are having exchanges through private channels (such as email or instant messaging), you won’t be able to pop in with relevant messaging—but would you want to in that situation anyway? No. The way to view this problem with lack of access through dark social is to not view it as a problem at all. Cutting in on private conversations with messaging is creepy. Make sure your target audiences are being reached through other relevant channels. Work with relevant influencers, and try and figure out the best way for a brand’s customers and fans to share their positive stories.

The inability to monitor for problems

If you can’t see the conversations, you don’t know if there are problems you can—or should—be addressing. This is probably the issue that is most vexing to PR and communications pros, because we know that the earlier we are aware of an issue, the quicker we can address it. If a PR person is trying to gauge public response to a topic concerning a client in the news, it’s probably safe enough to work under the assumption that private conversations occurring in dark social channels will probably roughly mirror the public discussion happening on an open platform, like Twitter. However, determining what a more highly targeted sub-group is saying might pose more of a challenge.

Procter & Gamble experienced a crisis in the late ‘90s when an email began circulating that one of its products was dangerous to pets. The email had been shared fairly extensively by the time the brand became fully aware of the scope of the problem—this brand reputation crisis happened beneath the radar of what could be effectively monitored. They addressed it in exactly the right way, by reaching out to trusted influencers (in this situation, veterinarians), and worked with them to calm frightened pet owners. These scenarios are not new, but the popularity of Facebook and its walled garden and privacy settings that block out brand monitoring efforts makes PR people queasy.

It’s both tough to reach audiences and react to problems in dark social channels and in walled gardens, like Facebook’s. That simply means you have to plan with that in mind. As the P&G example shows, there are ways to address problems that bubble up to the mainstream from dark social channels—and one of the best things you can do is to have a crisis plan in place for dealing with them as soon as they come to light.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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