3 marketing lessons from joke emails and dark social

3 marketing lessons from joke emails and dark social

Joke emails. We’ve all seen them, right? I have a next door neighbour who regularly shares joke emails with me and a group of other people who I have never met. Let’s call him Bruce (not his real name). I usually open Bruce’s emails with caution. But I always open them. And the result? It’s like the ShitMyDadSends website but for real.

Some of Bruce’s joke emails can stretch on for pages, covered in comic sans and a variety of vibrant colours. Some have images or cartoons. Some are Frankenstein-like creations wildly thrown together in a Paint program with blocks of colour and lurid text splayed across the image. And still others are typed out in measured text – courier font all the way – as if the sender had hand typed it out on an old Olivetti, carefully deciphering the blurred original that had been faxed only hours before.

And while it’s easy to think that Bruce’s emails are a remnant of a distant (early Internet) past, there is much that we can learn from joke emails – and they are wildly current and continue to do the rounds long after the first sending. For despite their clumsiness, joke emails have a way of spreading.

They were media that went viral before we knew what “going viral” meant. But joke emails have some important characteristics that shed some light on the concept of “going viral” and what it means to be “always connected”:

  1. Authorship is obscure: The original author of the joke email is obscured by repeated forwarding. When a joke email arrives in your inbox, it can be difficult to determine where it may have originated – or who created it. Often the joke email combines a variety of sources (shown by the haphazard combination of type or image thrown together). This obscuring of authorship seems to promote sharing as there is a sense that the content is itself free.
  2. Design is indifferent, content is killer: Disseminated entirely through email systems, the joke email had to be optimised for this format. This meant that anything likely to trigger a SPAM response from an email system was avoided. It is rare for there to be embedded links. The focus of the email is not on the design but on the content. And the content – lists of jokes or sequential images – ensure that there is something that appeals to every reader – and just enough for each to remain engaged.
  3. Last send authority: While authorship is obscure, the person who sent it to you is known. Trusted. There is a solid line of integrity between the forwarder and the reader – which makes it more likely to be opened, read, and forwarded.
Marketing lessons from joke emails and dark social

We all know that understanding our audiences is a key to marketing success – and in digital marketing, this means knowing what triggers a reaction from your audiences: what causes them to click, read, buy, and share. In the world of social media, some of these actions are no longer “discretionary” but “prompted”. As we surf the web, read our emails and so on, we are encouraged to click, share and like as we go. Moment by moment.

And as we do so, analytics programs on websites, on social networks and on third party platforms, track our movements, interactions and intentions. This information – when pieced together – reveals our digital footprints: where we’ve been, how we got there, and what triggered our interest.

But RadiumOne, a programmatic ad tech provider, indicates that 80% of content shared by people around the world is not through social channels, but through the same mechanisms that joke emails use. Links in instant messaging (especially in the corporate world where it is secured by firewalls) and emails that have been cut and pasted are common forms. This is now called “dark social”.

Ever wondered why your website is experiencing a surge in traffic – only to check the analytics to find that it’s all “direct”? What about the times where there is a raft of unexpected new subscribers to your email list? This is the end result of dark social in action.

Keeping this in mind, there are some things that we can do to shed some light into the darkness:
  1. Share the message, own the destination: The new generation of media properties like BuzzFeed, Junkee, and The Onion understand this approach perfectly – set your content free but keep your readers coming back for more. The best infographics do this – provide immediate value but make it easy to embed, copy, paste, and share the information. Increasingly this works with video and images. And some websites have been leading the way for years.
  2. Create content that converts: What is going to trigger the reader behaviour that you want? The challenge for marketers is to move their audience from unknown to known. If content is killer, provide opportunities for readers to get more of the same – through landing pages, email sign-ups, and offers integrated into your media. As the joke emails prove, it doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective.
  3. Track what you can: Dark social is difficult to track. But using tools like the Google URL Builder will help garner as much insight as you can from the anonymous web.

And finally, understand that it’s not about content at all. In their heyday, joke emails transcended their role as media, becoming a form of social currency. They provided something for friends and colleagues to talk about – and that really is a dark art.

More reading:

The ticking time bomb that sits at the heart of today’s ‘disconnected’ companies
3 reasons why a social media strategy is essential for your business
Be prepared: eventually the ‘social’ will be dropped from ‘social media’
Big data knows things you’d never tell a market researcher


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