12 min. read
By now, you’ve probably heard the term “dark post” bouncing around the social media world for years. But what are dark posts, exactly?
Instagram pics with bad lighting? Edgy content from death metal fan pages? Status updates from Darth Vader?
Or should we say…darth posts?
Sadly, no. The reality is much more straightforward.
Dark posts are targeted ads on social media. Unlike boosted and organic posts, though, they don’t appear on your timeline. They also don’t show up in the feeds of your followers.
Instead, they show up as sponsored content in the feeds of users you’re specifically targeting.
Because they’re not “published” the same way as organic posts, dark posts are more formally known on Facebook as unpublished posts. They’re not formally on your page. Effectively, they only exist for the targeted users that see them.
To avoid confusion, we’re not talking about dark social here—it’s actually totally unrelated.
Dark social refers to traffic to your website from social media that isn’t detected by analytics tools. Dark posts, on the other hand, are simply social media ads that don’t show up on your timeline.
Although Facebook invented the concept, dark posts exist on all major social media platforms.
When advertising on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter, you can select whether to boost organic content or create a dark post. When it comes to Snapchat and Instagram, all of your ads are technically “dark posts” by default.
But why bother coming to the dark side? Well, there are a lot of benefits to creating dark posts on social media.
This article is part of our new “Back to Basics” series where we break down the essentials of social media strategy. For part one on posting great content to social media, give this article a read. For part two on the best way to reply to social media comments, check this one out.
Why use dark posts on social media in 2018?
With more and more digital advertising solutions available, you might wonder if creating dark posts is worth your while in 2018.
Stop wondering—dark posts offer a number of advantages over traditional ads on social media.
Here are 5 reasons dark posts are still relevant in 2018:
1. They’re great at precise targeting
With traditional or “published” social media ads, you can reach your target audience in a general sense. For example, targeted posts on Facebook can reach users based on several variables, such as age, gender, or areas of interest.
Meanwhile, dark posts offer a whole new level of precision. You can target users based on the same variables as regular targeted ads, but you can also target them with specific keywords like their exact job title.
When it comes to targeting with dark posts vs. organic posts, the real difference comes down to who sees what.
With dark posts, not only can you focus different ads on different audiences, but you can also make custom ads for each targeted audience segment.
For example, imagine you’re a sneaker brand. With traditional targeting, you could focus on 45-year-old suburban moms from the greater Seattle area, or 20-year-old student-athletes from New York.
With dark posts, you could target both groups with customized ads at the same time. And even better, the moms and the students each only see the ad designed for them.
With this kind of exact targeting, you reach precisely whom you intend to reach. And that’s great for social media ROI.
Plus, organic reach on Facebook will be limited for brand pages going forward due to the latest News Feed algorithm change—so targeted ads are looking more important than ever.
2. They open up major options for A/B testing
If you want to really optimize your content, paid and organic, dark posts offer a wealth of testing options.
Because you can have your ad appear differently to different users, you can use dark posts to test which version of the ad gets the most engagement, clicks, or conversions.
If you’re not familiar with A/B testing, it’s a great way to improve your ads. Also known as split testing, it lets you present consumers with two different versions of your ad to see which performs better.
With dark posts / unpublished posts on Facebook, for example, you can experiment with the image, headline, call-to-action button, or body copy of your ad.
So, if you want to see which headline performs better, you’d target headline A and B at the same group. A randomly-selected half of the users would see headline A, and the other half would see headline B.
If one headline gets more engagement or conversions (depending on what your KPIs are), you’ve got a winner.
3. They help you perfect your other content
Not only does A/B testing help you optimize your future dark posts based on valuable feedback, it can also make your organic and boosted posts better.
By seeing which headlines, images, or body copy are performing well for your dark posts, you can improve the posts that actually show up on your timeline.
Say you want to publish a post and boost it. How would you select the perfect headline to maximize clicks to your website?
Well, you could first set up two dark posts that are identical except for the headline and A/B test them against each other.
Two headlines enter, one headline leaves. You can then use the headline with the higher click-through rate for the published version of the post. That way, you can know for sure that you’re using the best possible version of your ad.
4. They keep your content flow from looking spammy
Another great thing about dark posts is that they don’t hog the spotlight from your organic content.
Imagine you’re posting tons of boosted ads to your Facebook timeline, each targeted at a different demographic.
Well, they all show up on your page. Before you know it, you have 20 nearly-identical boosted posts clogging up your timeline and any organic posts you have are buried somewhere deep in there.
If you want your fans to see your best organic and boosted content, dark posts keep your timeline ad-free and avoid making your page look spammy.
Maintaining a consistent, likable social media voice is critical for any brand. Keeping a clean timeline without tons of ads helps you highlight your unique tone and brand presence—and creating dark posts is one of the easiest ways to do that.
5. They keep your followers’ feeds from looking spammy
A recent Forrester survey found that 26% of American youth felt there were too many ads in their Facebook feeds. Source: Forrester.
You present your brand in two main places on any social media channel – your page and your followers’ feeds. You don’t want your own page to look spammy, nor do you want your followers to only see you as a source of obnoxious ads.
Empathize with your followers for a moment. Would you rather see a dozen variations on the same boosted post clogging up your feed or a single targeted dark post that’s tailored to your interests?
By using dark posts, you avoid annoying your loyal fans. The only people who see your dark posts are the people you’ve carefully selected, and they’re getting ads tailored to their interests.
That means more space for you to build your brand presence and spread your message through organic content and boosted posts. It also means less spam and happier followers.
What are dark posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn?
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about what dark posts are and why you should use them, it’s important to understand the different forms they take on each of the major social media channels.
How to use dark posts on Facebook is different from how to use dark posts on Twitter, for instance, and that’s something all SMMs need to be aware of. So let’s dive in and look at each channel’s version of dark posts.
What are dark posts on Facebook?
Facebook used to simply call dark posts…well, dark posts. They invented them, after all.
In recent years, though, they’ve opted for the less scary-sounding “unpublished page posts”.
Because they’re dark posts, unpublished page posts do not show up on your brand’s page, and they don’t automatically show up in your followers’ News Feeds. They will only appear for people you’ve specifically targeted.
To create dark posts within Power Editor, you first need to create a new ad post.
To create a new dark post in Power Editor, just select the blue “Create Post” button in the top-right corner. Source: Facebook.
You can then select whether the dark post will be a link post, carousel post, photo post, video post, or status update.
To make sure it’s a dark post / unpublished post, select the option at the bottom that says “only use this post for an ad”:
Facebook dark posts offer several ad formats. Just be sure to click “Only use this post for an ad” to make it a dark post. Source: Facebook.
You can either publish your post immediately or schedule it for later. If you want to make your life a little bit easier, Falcon lets you create campaigns and add new dark posts by simply clicking one box:
Falcon’s Content Calendar allows users to add dark posts to ad campaigns by checking the “Dark post” option in the Promote panel.
Either way, you can choose exactly who to target with your dark post. For example, you can reach out to users who have purchased similar products to yours, who live in a specific city, or who have a certain job title. Alternatively, you can upload your existing customer contact info and create lookalike audiences based on information about people who already love your brand.
What are dark posts on Instagram?
Dark posts on Instagram are unique. Why? Well, on Instagram, all ads are dark posts. When you advertise on Instagram, your ads will not show up on your brand’s timeline. Instead, they will only appear for the specific users you’re targeting with them.
Instagram ads appear in users’ feeds much like standard posts from their friends or family, but they include the label “Sponsored” in the top right corner and have a call-to-action button at the bottom:
Instagram dark posts look just like regular posts aside from the small “Sponsored” label in the top-right corner. Source: Instagram.
Instagram dark posts come in many flavors. You have the option to post photo ads, video ads, carousel ads, or Stories ads on Instagram.
Advertising on Instagram also comes with a variety of targeting options including location, demographics, interests, and behaviors. Like Facebook dark posts, you can target ‘lookalike audiences’, or groups of users who seem similar to your existing customers.
To create dark posts on Instagram, you have four alternatives. You can post within the app, through Facebook Power Editor, through Facebook Ads Manager, or through an Instagram Partner like Falcon. All of them offer unique advantages and disadvantages, so it’s worth experimenting to see which advertising flow works best for you.
What are dark posts on Twitter?
Well, the better question is probably ‘what are promoted-only tweets?’, since Twitter has never called their invisible ads ‘dark posts’. Much like unpublished Page posts on Facebook, promoted-only tweets do not show up on your brand’s timeline.
Instead, they only show up in the feeds of the users you’re targeting. This distinguishes them from regular promoted tweets, which will show up on your timeline, all of your followers’ feeds, and the feeds of targeted users.
When targeted users see your promoted-only tweet, it will appear like any other tweet except for a label beneath it reading “Promoted by (insert your brand here)”. Other than that, users can retweet, share, like, or reply to it as if it were a standard tweet.
You can compose Twitter dark posts like normal ads—all you need to do is select “Promoted only” under delivery options. Source: Twitter.
If you want to create a promoted-only tweet, you’ll need to do so through Twitter Ads. Within Twitter Ads, you can make promoted-only tweets in either compose mode or in the campaign creator.
In compose mode, the only difference between creating a promoted-only tweet and a standard promoted tweet is that you select “Promoted only” under delivery options.
For campaign creator, all your tweets are set to promoted-only by default.
What are dark posts on LinkedIn?
On LinkedIn, dark posts are known as “Direct Sponsored Content”. Like dark posts everywhere else, direct sponsored content does not appear on your Company page and does not require you to post a Company update first.
This sets it apart from sponsored content on LinkedIn, which appears both on your Company page and in the feeds of your followers.
Direct sponsored content offers a number of targeting options. Because LinkedIn has so much data on their users’ jobs, you can focus your ads based on their industry, field of study, age, job title, years of experience and more.
As with Facebook and Instagram, you can also target audiences that look like your current customers—on LinkedIn, it’s called audience matching.
Dark posts on LinkedIn offer a wide variety of targeting options, especially when it comes to users’ education and employment details. Source: LinkedIn.
To create dark posts / direct sponsored content on LinkedIn, you need to be a company page admin or have permission from one. You can then create a LinkedIn dark post through a new or existing ad campaign.
To create your dark post on LinkedIn, start by selecting “Create new sponsored content” within your selected ad campaign. If desired, you can also add large media images and links to articles or landing pages within the dark post.
To create LinkedIn dark posts, select “Create new sponsored content” in the top-right corner of your campaign page. Source: LinkedIn.
Will dark posts keep existing in 2018?
You may have heard some dark omens for dark posts this year. Major publications such as AdAge and Adweek have claimed that the era of dark posts is over, as Facebook (along with its Instagram and Messenger platforms) has pledged to end the anonymity of its unpublished ads.
Twitter quickly followed suit, opening a new transparency center where all users can trace the origins of dark posts published on the platform.
All of these changes are likely due to fears of Russian intervention in the 2016 election. In recent testimony before the U.S. Senate, Facebook stated that Russian-backed Facebook posts (including dark posts) reached up to 126 million Americans during the election cycle.
Adding to the social media giant’s concerns, several senators recently introduced a bill that would require digital platforms to make all ads related to U.S. elections publicly visible.
Facebook, however, has grabbed the bull by the horns and regulated themselves preemptively. They are currently increasing advertising transparency for brands by adding a “View Ads” button on their pages.
This button will show all ads (published and unpublished, including dark posts) that the page has posted to Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. On top of this, political ads will be subject to even more scrutiny, with political advertisers being required to verify their identities and disclose which ads they’ve paid for.
Facebook users can now click “View Ads” to see all ads a Page is posting to Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. Source: Facebook.
Twitter made a similar move soon after. Their new Advertising Transparency Center will display all ads currently running on Twitter, including promoted-only ads (their version of dark posts).
Political ads will also be clearly identified, and political advertisers will need to publicly release their identities, targeting, and ad spend.
Political dark posts on Twitter are now subject to additional transparency requirements. Source: Twitter.
So, does this mean that Facebook and Twitter are shutting off the lights on dark posts? Well, not really.
At their core, dark posts are ads that don’t show up on your timeline and only show up in the feeds of users you target. Nothing about these new transparency initiatives from Facebook and Twitter changes that core function.
Unpublished page posts on Facebook and promoted-only tweets on Twitter are here to stay, as are Instagram ads and direct sponsored content on LinkedIn.
That being said, there will be one important change to dark posts in this new era of transparency.
Before, your followers and competitors on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter couldn’t see your dark posts. They wouldn’t know what all of them looked like, how many of them there were, or what you were spending on them.
Now, there’s a lot less privacy when it comes to dark posts since your competitors and fans basically have a window into your ad campaigns (if they feel like taking a look).
So, dark posts look like they’ll be alive and well in 2018. Just don’t expect them to stay hidden from your rivals.
For more awesome content on targeted ads and Facebook marketing, be sure to check out these 5 common Facebook advertising mistakes. And if you’re still hungry for sweet, sweet content, try some of these social media advertising hacks on for size.