Dark Social – The Future of Fan Engagement?

By in Featured, Insights, Thought Pieces

Dark Social: The Future of Fan Engagement?

Most digital conversations now take place within the walls of dark social – the phenomenon of social sharing that can’t be tracked, or in other words, the activity that takes place in private messaging channels such as WhatsApp.

Much has been made of its role in sport recently. From Rory McIlroy and Team Europe’s WhatsApp ‘love in’ leading up to the Ryder Cup, to Phil Neville revealing he uses the platform for daily communication with his Lionesses so he “knows every part of their lives”.

Sport has entered the WhatsApp era but what is the opportunity for sponsors and rights holders and can it be used as a platform for fan engagement?

The stats make for compelling reading. WhatsApp has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users – that’s 20% of the world’s population – sending more than 60 billion messages every day.

1:1 messaging apps also have incredible engagement rates – 98% of messages are opened and read, with 90% opened within three seconds of being received.

From a commercial perspective, a recent Nielsen survey found 67% of mobile messaging app users expect to use chat more for communicating with businesses over the next two years and 53% of respondents said they are more likely to shop with a business they can message directly.

Forward-looking brands are responding to this trend with great success. adidas’s Tango Squad is a team of football influencers who operate purely on dark social platforms while Nike on Demand helps athletes stay committed to their goals via 1:1 messaging. However, a 2018 survey of over 1,200 brand marketers found only 4% are taking dark social seriously.

So how can rights holders innovate in this space? Research undertaken by Infrared’s strategy team with 18-34 year old football fans* revealed a desire for more authentic, personal experiences with clubs. Young fans see WhatsApp as more personal than other communication platforms because it’s tied to a phone, not a computer and confirmed they are now ready and receptive to engage with clubs through this medium.

This insight should not be confined to football clubs, however. With many rights holders struggling to engage new generation fans through traditional channels, WhatsApp and other dark social channels have the potential to play a defining role in the future of fan engagement.

There are words of warning from fans, though. WhatsApp is where they interact with their friends, so trust and authenticity is key. There is an expectation for near instant replies, so this must also be taken into consideration before integrating WhatsApp into a fan engagement strategy.

Diego Gigliani, Manchester City’s ex senior vice president of media and innovation said in 2016, “messaging apps are on the path to becoming one of the most important ways of delivering content directly into fans’ hands”.

Manchester City FC and AFC Bournemouth have since experimented with Facebook Messenger Bots – a​​ ‘personality’​ ​that​ ​interacts​ ​with​ ​fans​ ​through​ ​emotion​ ​recognition and​ ​intelligent​ ​conversation​, effectively​ ​becoming​ ​an​ ​additional​ ​member​ ​of​ ​the​ ​squad.

However, a Facebook Messenger Bot is not a human and our research indicates that with new generation fans increasingly demanding authenticity, the time is right to push the boundaries of fan engagement once more.

The future is Dark (social). The future is WhatsApp.

*Research carried out using semi-structured interviews in September 2018. A distinction was made between ‘casual’ and ‘passionate’ football fans. We found passionate fans more likely to support their club irrespective of its approach to fan engagement so casual fans, who have more interests outside of sport than ever before and thus represent a difficult and important audience for clubs to engage with, were the focus of this research.


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