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Shedding Light on the Age of 'Dark' Messaging Apps

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The age of apps is in full swing. Driven by generational changes, marketing teams are crossing over to the "dark" side. Younger demographics are flocking to messaging apps, such as Snapchat, Kik, and WhatsApp and creating a spike in "dark social" (i.e., users sharing content one on one or in smaller, private groups).

As a result, we're witnessing a huge change in how marketers use the tools that can elevate brands.

Currently, 91% of Americans communicate via dark social apps in some capacity, and 59% of all social sharing happens within them. At least half of the top 10 most downloaded apps within any given month are messaging apps.

The leaders, at least in the US, of this generational change are Facebook and Snapchat, which have successfully integrated other services within their messaging functions. For example, you can now hail an Uber via Facebook's Messenger or make mobile payments with Snapchat's Snapcash.

Moreover, Facebook has emerged as the dominant force in mobile advertising. About 80% of its ad revenue comes from mobile. The company has an extremely high saturation of users, and its Messenger is seamlessly woven into how people communicate.


In the Asian market, the platform of note is Weibo. It allows users to do such things as hail a cab and pay bills; it's even interlinked with government systems. Facebook is starting to go down a similar path, eventually enabling Messenger to become the single platform for everyday tasks.

Innovations in Dark Social Apps

The type of marketing that exists within dark social media is still new, and brands don't necessarily have a lot of opportunities. Every app maker, though, understands it needs to monetize these products.

Viber, for example, features sponsored chats, sticker boards, and more customized native content creation that will be applicable to only the top 1% with large budgets.

Kik, on the other hand, focuses more on ad opt-ins. Although it started as a messenger, the app now enables users to play games and explore content on the site. But instead of seeing the traditional pop-up banners used with mobile devices, users can opt in to watch a 10-second video to earn more points in a game.

One existing concept that many apps are starting to develop and build upon is the chatbot. Potential opportunities lie in the perspective that chatbots supplement communication and offer different experiences. Brands haven't encountered many opportunities to get involved, but they have started to dabble with the new capabilities.

Facebook has toyed around with the possibilities. One example of that is the DailyCute. A user can message "@dailycute" over Messenger to a friend, and a publisher associated with Facebook then delivers to the recipient something cute, such as a picture of a wide-eyed puppy. Perhaps most importantly, Facebook has opened Messenger to outside brands whose developers will now be able to build chatbots for the platform.

Points of Consideration for Marketers

It wasn't long ago that upstarts like Facebook and Twitter transitioned from being new consumer toys to affecting business in major ways. Now, messaging apps are positioning to make the same impact in the next couple of years.

For marketers still finding their footing in a social arena, another transition may seem daunting. But those who take the small steps now will be equipped as the space continues to evolve.

Here are some important measures to take...

  • Experiment as a user. A major part of understanding how a space will change and accommodate brands is to play in it as a user. Picture how the simple tools could be translated to your business. What are ways you'd want to interact with a brand as a consumer in this space?
  • Prepare for the rise of one-on-one communication. As consumers, we continue to demand more personalization. Apps are following suit. Begin to evaluate how a consumer may want to engage with your brand in a direct-message environment from an organic perspective. Is it to get information? Tips? Customer service?
  • Understand the consumer behavior. Consumers already prefer to spend the bulk of their time online in apps as opposed to on the Internet. The market has responded with more than 1.5 million apps available for download. However, users spend the majority of their time in only a handful of apps. (Most of them are owned by Facebook.) So instead of rushing to create your own in-app experiences, look for the apps that have already become a utility for your consumers and find ways to integrate. This is where Facebook's decision to open Messenger to brands holds a lot of potential power.
  • Harness the value. Consumers are given more opportunity to opt in (and out) of their interactions with ads. Apps are not a passing trend. Brands and advertisers must zero in on what they can offer to consumers in exchange for their time and attention.

Younger demographics and technological advances are inspiring more innovative social media tactics. Apps can no longer make a good run solely from messaging purposes; they now need to incorporate new features to stay relevant and elevate their brands.

By knowing why apps are so important and how you can market on them effectively, you can create app experiences that positively affect your users—and your brand.


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Aubry Parks-Fried is a senior manager of digital innovations, social, and native at Centro, which helps advertisers streamline and scale digital campaigns.

LinkedIn: Aubry Parks-Fried

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