Dark social - sharing via private messages - is a huge new frontier for digital marketers.
Smart brands are moving to exploit the opportunities in this intimate sharing environment, where people share in a much more focused - and potentially valuable - way.
In digital marketing debates we have heard from pioneering news sites, who are increasingly expoiting dark social, but there are some key constituents in the social media ecosystem we haven't heard insights from yet.
Providers of sharing buttons for websites, such as AddThis, ShareThis and others, see billions of clicks and data points across millions of sites.
Some commentators even call these button providers the gatekeepers to social media and with businesses like AddThis serving over 14 million websites, you can see why.
So, what do these gatekeepers see in terms of dark social sharing trends?
AddThis: the big daddy of sharing button providers
As mentioned before, AddThis is the largest provider of sharing buttons in the, so to get the view into the dark from this high seat in social media I checked in with Rich LaBarca, VP Of Product and Justin Thorp, Product Evangelist, who were hugely helpful and generous with their time.
In an email chain, packed full of data and insight, AddThis revealed that: "sharing to WhatsApp has increased about ~15% month over month since September 2014."
That's a pretty impressive growth rate!
Across most continents, WhatsApp sharing was up, with the most significant news coming from Europe where shares increased 20%. In terms of regional activity, 41% of sharing occurred in Europe, with 27% in Asia.
Then drilling down to a country level, Germany and India are the biggest WhatsApp fans with the highest percentages of shares, making up 12.2% and 11.7% of this general sharing activity, respectively.
A final, interesting data point that the AddThis team have been seeing, is that 15% of the time the page before someone shared to WhatsApp was Facebook.
Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg's move to buy the instant messaging platform was smarter than many previously thought? Vertical integration anyone...
ShareThis: the next big beast in social sharing buttons
Whilst the folks at ShareThis were also extremely helpful, they weren't able to share data answering some of my questions quite yet. I look forward to staying in touch and hearing more.
However, Nanda Kishore, CTO, seems pretty convinced of his view of the growing power of WhatsApp, across their sharing buttons.
In email replies, Nanda informed me that: "WhatsApp was first implemented in our network in Fall 2014, but has become one of the top four channels (out of nearly 80 social channels) chosen by publishers to include in our customized sharing buttons."
That is a rapid rise to prominence! Publishers are really moving to tap dark social via WhatsApp.
"This early adoption leads us to believe that sharing via WhatsApp and its incorporation into publisher tools will increase this year".
If you ask me, that's Nanda also saying WhatsApp is a big deal in dark social right now.
So, the largest two social sharing button tech providers are both reporting massive interest in WhatsApp, a growing channel in dark social generally.
The rising power of WhatsApp and more tools for marketers
All in all, it seems there's yet more evidence in the social media ecosystem that WhatsApp sharing is growing rapidly.
It is also true that it is growing more in certain regions than others, with Europe appearing to be a huge success story for the instant messaging app. This blog by Josh Benton shows some incredible sharing via WhatsApp in Spain, at Valencia Football Club.
These trends continue to reinforce the opportunity for brands in WhatsApp, especially in regions where the app is becoming the premier instant messenger.
Noting all this, sharing technology providers may indeed become gatekeepers to dark social, with business such as AddThis holding vitally important roles. Will these businesses move to own the analytics data flows through their clicks? We will see, but Po.st is a good example of a company seeking to do exactly this.
During my outreach I found numbers of smaller sharing button providers, yet to support WhatsApp. However, almost all these players said they would be offering the little green button very soon.
It seems entrepreneurs are rapidly offering marketers a growing range of tools, to exploit this frontier social media environment. More effective analytics and tracking tools are coming to enhance our view into this apparent darkness.
Overall, WhatsApp continues to grow as an industrial-scale marketing channel, with more notable constituents reporting huge growth in sharing from their view of the social media landscape.
Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp is looking smarter by the day.