Unlocking dark social: An underexplored tool for demand generation in the life sciences

18 October 2023| by Clare Russell

Dark social in life sciences marketing

In the dynamic world of digital marketing, "dark social" is a term that is drawing more and more discussion. It describes social sharing activities that evade traditional tracking methods, taking place not on public platforms like Facebook or Twitter, but through private channels such as email, text messages, and apps like Slack and WhatsApp.

This hidden realm of social interaction is crucial for life science marketing. In a sector that is sometimes characterised by tight budgets, small teams, and fierce competition, dark social offers a powerful avenue for generating leads and driving demand, as it enables targeted and personalised engagement. This can make it an effective tool for connecting with potential customers and stakeholders.

Yet, the significance of dark social is frequently underestimated, largely due to the difficulties in tracking and measuring its impact. Conventional analytics tools are ill-equipped to monitor these private interactions, resulting in missed opportunities and inefficient resource allocation.

The aim of this blog is to illuminate the untapped potential of dark social in life science marketing. By delving into its complexities, life science marketers can discover new strategies for demand generation and engagement, even when resources are limited.

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The rise of dark social

The term "dark social" was coined by Alexis C. Madrigal in 2012 to describe a growing trend of untraceable content sharing. Unlike public social media platforms, these interactions occur in private, direct communication channels like instant messaging platforms and email.

Understanding dark social goes beyond merely identifying missed opportunities; it involves acknowledging a seismic shift in online communication and sharing behaviours. Recent data indicates that dark social may account for up to 95% of all web traffic—a staggering statistic that underscores not only the volume but also the influence of these private interactions on consumer behaviour and engagement.

Why is dark social gaining prominence?

Increased privacy concerns

In today's digital landscape, where data breaches and privacy violations are increasingly common, people are becoming more cautious about what they share and where they share it. This heightened awareness around data privacy has led many to opt for more secure, private channels for sharing information. Dark social offers a level of discretion that public platforms can't, making it an attractive option for those concerned about privacy and unintended recipients being aware of the content they are accessing, finding interesting/useful, and then sharing.

The rise of private messaging apps

Over the past few years, private messaging apps like WhatsApp, Slack, and Discord have seen exponential growth. These platforms offer end-to-end encryption and other privacy features, making them the preferred choice for confidential and personal conversations. Their rise in popularity correlates with the increasing prominence of dark social as they become the primary channels for private content sharing.

Changing consumer behaviours

The digital consumer is evolving. There's a noticeable shift towards more personalised, meaningful interactions between friends and groups, as opposed to mass sharing on public platforms (for example, when users share relevant content with a specific WhatsApp group). People are now more selective about what they share and with whom, often choosing to share valuable content with specific individuals or groups, further fuelling the growth of dark social.

The impact on analytics

Dark social presents a unique set of challenges for analytics. Traditional tracking tools are designed to monitor public interactions and are ill-equipped to capture the nuances of private sharing. This often results in dark social traffic being misclassified as direct traffic, which can significantly skew data and lead to incorrect insights. For example, a 2023 study found that most clicks originating from private messaging apps like Slack, Discord, and WhatsApp are categorised as “direct traffic”. This highlights the need for more sophisticated analytics tools capable of dissecting this complex landscape.

Reaching new audiences

One of the most compelling aspects of dark social is its universal appeal. It transcends age groups, demographics, and even technological proficiency. For instance, Gen Z, known for their extensive social media usage, are just as likely to share content through dark social channels as older adults who may not be as active on public platforms (instead, choosing to use more established digital channels like email and text message). This broad reach offers life science companies a unique opportunity to engage with a diverse audience, from researchers and healthcare professionals to patients and caregivers.

Strategies to leverage dark social for demand generation

Navigating the realm of dark social for demand generation in the life sciences sector is a complex task that demands a specialised approach. Given that the target audience often comprises highly specialised professionals such as researchers, clinicians, and healthcare providers, the strategies employed must be finely tuned to meet their specific needs and preferences. Below are 7 actionable strategies to tap into the benefits of dark social:

1. Create shareable content

The cornerstone of any successful dark social strategy is the creation of high-quality, shareable content. In the context of life sciences, this could encompass a wide array of materials, from in-depth research papers and comprehensive case studies to informative webinars and practical how-to guides. The ultimate goal is to offer actionable insights or provide effective solutions to the challenges that your target audience regularly encounters.

Tips for creating shareable content:

  • Use Clear and Concise Language: While the life sciences sector is rife with scientific terminology, it's crucial to make your content as accessible as possible. Avoiding jargon and using straightforward language can broaden your content's appeal and make it more shareable.
  • Include Visuals: Complex scientific data can be hard to digest. Incorporating infographics, charts, and other visual aids can simplify complicated concepts, making your content more engaging and more likely to be shared.
  • Add Share Buttons: To facilitate the sharing process, include share buttons for popular email and messaging apps directly on your content pages. This small but effective feature can significantly increase the likelihood of your content being shared in dark social channels.

Examples of effective dark social content in life sciences

In the life sciences realm, dark social content can take many forms to cater to the specialised needs of the target audience. For example, medical research preprints allow professionals to access cutting-edge findings before formal publication. Whitepapers detailing the methodology and results of cutting-edge research techniques provide valuable academic and industrial scientists. How-to guides on implementing the latest research technologies enable smoother adoption among end-users. Infographics simplifying complex genomic data make bioinformatics research more accessible and shareable. And expert perspectives on emerging healthcare policies help stakeholders across the industry stay informed and prepared.

In each of these cases, ensuring the content is compelling and easy to share via private, dark social channels can help lead to increased reach.

2. Building private communities for targeted engagement

Within the life sciences sector, the creation of private communities takes targeted engagement to a new level. Platforms like Slack, Facebook Groups, and Discord offer controlled environments for information sharing and deep discussions. These aren't mere chat rooms; they serve as digital hubs where life science professionals can exchange valuable insights, seek expert guidance, and offer real-time product feedback.

The benefits of building private communities are twofold. Firstly, it allows you to engage with your audience in a more intimate setting, fostering deeper connections. Secondly, it provides an opportunity to gain a profound understanding of their needs, preferences, and pain points. Such insights can be invaluable for shaping future marketing strategies.

3. Leveraging influencers for maximum reach and impact

In the life sciences industry, influencers hold a unique position as respected thought leaders or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) with expertise in specialised fields. Their credibility and the trust they've built among their followers make them potent allies in your dark social strategy.

Collaborating with these influencers can amplify your reach and impact significantly. Their endorsement carries weight and credibility, ensuring that your content is more likely to be seen by your target audiences.

By harnessing the influence of experts in the life sciences sector, you can ensure that your dark social campaigns reach the right audience through trusted sources, resulting in highly targeted and impactful marketing efforts.

4. Crafting personalised messages for target audiences

The life sciences industry is remarkably diverse, spanning various professionals, from researchers and biomedical scientists, to clinicians and pharma execs. Each group possesses distinct needs, interests, and perspectives. Crafting personalised messages tailored to these specific audiences can significantly enhance engagement rates.

Personalised messaging ensures that your content remains relevant and resonates with the interests and requirements of your audience. Clinicians, for example, may seek practical applications, while researchers might be interested in delving into the methodology. When professionals perceive that your content directly addresses their concerns or interests, they are more likely to engage, share, and take action.

Personalised messaging fosters a sense of being understood and catered to, contributing to stronger relationships with your audience. By segmenting your audience and crafting content that caters to their unique needs and preferences, you can optimise your dark social campaigns for maximum impact in the diverse landscape of the life sciences industry.

5. Exclusive offers and time-sensitive campaigns

In the fast-paced world of life sciences, there are constant advancements, discoveries, and innovations that demand immediate attention from professionals in the field. Whether it's the release of groundbreaking research findings, the introduction of a new medical device, or updates to existing products, there's often a sense of urgency and high interest among the target audience.

Dark social channels provide a unique opportunity to leverage this urgency and exclusivity for demand generation. Sharing exclusive offers or time-sensitive information through private groups that are easy to access and share via messaging apps or email can create a buzz within your specialised audience. For instance, offering early access to a new product demo or providing limited-time discounts can drive immediate interest and action.

6. Legal and ethical considerations

In the highly regulated life sciences industry, adhering to legal and ethical standards is paramount. When using dark social for marketing purposes, it's crucial to navigate within these boundaries to maintain trust and compliance.

Life sciences companies often deal with sensitive or confidential information, patient data, and healthcare regulations. Therefore, it's essential to ensure that the content you share through dark social channels complies with industry regulations and ethical standards. Here are some key considerations:

  • Data Privacy: Protect patient data and sensitive information at all costs. Ensure that any content shared through dark social channels respects data privacy laws, such as HIPAA in the United States or GDPR in Europe.
  • Transparency: Clearly disclose your identity and affiliation when sharing information. Avoid misleading or deceptive practices that could erode trust among your audience.
  • Scientific integrity: Maintain the highest standards of scientific integrity when disseminating research findings or medical information. Avoid sensationalism or overstatements that could mislead researchers, healthcare professionals or patients.
  • Adverse event reporting: If your content relates to pharmaceuticals or medical devices, be aware of the legal obligations regarding adverse event reporting. Ensure that your dark social activities align with these requirements.

7. Utilise employee advocacy

Employees in the life sciences industry often possess specialised expertise and have their own professional networks. Harnessing their knowledge and networks can be a powerful way to extend your reach through dark social channels.

Implementing an employee advocacy program can streamline this process. By encouraging and empowering your employees to share relevant and compliant content through their private channels, you tap into a valuable resource. Here's how to make the most of employee advocacy:

  • Training: Provide training to employees on how to share content effectively and within legal and ethical boundaries.
  • Content Repository: Offer a repository of approved content that employees can easily access and share, ensuring that all shared content is compliant.
  • Recognition and Incentives: Recognise and reward employees who actively participate in advocacy programs. This can motivate them to continue sharing valuable content.
  • Monitoring and Compliance: Regularly monitor employee advocacy activities to ensure compliance with regulations and ethical standards.

Tools and techniques for tracking dark social

While leveraging dark social for demand generation offers a plethora of opportunities, it also presents unique challenges, particularly when it comes to tracking and analytics. The inherent nature of dark social makes it difficult to monitor using traditional methods, but that doesn't mean it's impossible or any less crucial. Accurate tracking is essential for measuring the ROI of your dark social efforts and for refining future strategies.

Advanced tools and techniques

In the life sciences industry, where data-driven decision-making is crucial, tracking the impact of your dark social activities is essential. Here are some specialised tools and techniques that can help you measure and analyse your dark social traffic more effectively:

Google Analytics

While Google Analytics may not capture all dark social activities, it can still offer valuable insights. By setting up specific filters and segments, you can identify traffic likely originating from dark social sources. This is particularly useful for life sciences companies that already use Google Analytics for their broader digital marketing efforts and want to integrate dark social tracking into their existing analytics setup.

UTM parameters for precise tracking

UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) parameters can be a game-changer for life sciences marketers looking to track the effectiveness of their dark social campaigns. By appending UTM parameters to the URLs you share, you can collect data on how your content is being shared and engaged with, even in private channels. This is especially useful for tracking the ROI of specific campaigns, such as the launch of a new research instrument or the dissemination of a research paper.

Dedicated landing pages for accurate metrics

Creating landing pages exclusively for content shared through dark social channels can offer more precise tracking. By monitoring the traffic and engagement metrics on these landing pages, you can gauge the impact of your dark social activities. This strategy is particularly effective for time-sensitive campaigns or exclusive offers that you want to share with a select audience.

Advanced analytics platforms for in-depth insights

Several analytics platforms like GetSocial or Simply Measured offer specialised tracking options designed explicitly for dark social. These platforms provide in-depth analytics, including metrics like user engagement, conversion rates, and even customer lifetime value. For life sciences companies that require a more granular understanding of their audience's behaviour, these advanced tools can be a useful area to explore.

Tracking isn’t everything

While tracking performance is a powerful gateway to improvement, it is also important to recognise that tracking dark social effectively is extremely difficult… don’t let that stop you from engaging in the practice of engaging with your audiences and expanding your reach using the approach.

Unlocking the potential of dark social in life sciences marketing

Dark social represents a largely untapped frontier in the realm of life sciences marketing. As we've explored in this blog, it offers a unique avenue for highly targeted, personal interactions that can drive demand generation in an industry where every lead counts. From creating shareable content tailored to the needs of specialised professionals like researchers and clinicians, to leveraging influencers and building private communities, dark social provides a wealth of opportunities for engagement and growth.

However, the challenges associated with tracking dark social activities should not be underestimated. While it may be difficult to capture all the nuances of these private interactions, tracking is crucial for measuring ROI and refining future strategies. Fortunately, there are various tools and techniques available to help you navigate this complex landscape, from Google Analytics and UTM parameters to more advanced analytics platforms.

As we move further into the digital age, the importance of understanding and leveraging dark social will only continue to grow. Therefore, we encourage marketers in the life sciences sector to experiment with dark social campaigns. And remember, even though tracking can be challenging, the data you can collect will be invaluable, while the barriers posed by tracking and measurement should not stop you from running dark social experiments.

Interested in diving deeper into the world of life sciences marketing?

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