These days it’s messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. These spaces are known as ‘dark social’ because web traffic can't be tracked.
WhatsApp made headlines this month by announcing end-to-end encryption, meaning even law enforcement can’t intercept messages.
And while these platforms are used by millions of people, brands are being left out of the conversation.
But that could be about to change.
A growing number of businesses are finding reasons to communicate with consumers in private.
For example, people can now arrange an exchange with ASOS via Facebook Messenger and pay a utility bill on WeChat.
And in January 2016, WhatsApp announced it would allow certain brands, like airlines and banks to communicate with customers on the platform. It’s not an excuse to spam, the platform says, but a platform for useful customer communication.
However, the big news this month is that Facebook is not only allowing brands to message customers, but it’s also allowing branded ‘chatbots’ to communicate with them.
Currently the development is gaining the most attention for its unintendedly amusing exchanges as chatbots struggle to answer simple questions.
But the idea is that brands will, once the glitches have been fixed, be able to provide personal communication – almost like talking to a human rep.
But are brands, or branded chatbots, welcome alongside contact lists compiled of friends and family? Probably not.
Brands will have to earn that right. They are moving from broadcasting in public, to interacting in private – and it’s a big shift.
It’s also part of a progression in the way people interact with brands in general – a shift from calling organisations out on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, to productive, two-way conversations in private.
As expectations increase, conversations with brands will need to be fast, funny and flexible like their other interactions in these spaces.
This will go beyond convenience and become about true ‘human’ interaction.
For brands, it’s about figuring out which spaces are best for them to conduct those conversations – where it’s going to feel most comfortable and natural.
And when it comes to chatting to bots, effort will have to be made to make the interaction feel as human as possible; just like how robots are being programmed to emulate emotions.
It’s certainly going to take a bit of getting used to. Part of the problem is that people aren’t used to seeing the likes of Topshop or Nike in these spaces.
It feels intrusive and brands will have to tread carefully.
Early signs show dark social can work; Clarks conducted an entire comms campaign via WhatsApp in late 2015, while the Fall 2015 show for menswear label JW Anderson was streamed more than 100,000 times on Grindr.
However, what remains to be seen is which brands will work their way into the dark social circles of their stakeholders.
Jo Allison is a behavioural expert at Canvas8
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