What is ‘dark social’?

The term might conjure up malicious images in your mind, but the truth is far from that. Simply put, it’s when people share content with each other through private channels and this web traffic cannot be attributed to a known source. This can be done by cutting and pasting links into instant messaging programs (Facebook Messenger), email and messaging apps (WhatsApp). Referral traffic is usually identified by certain tags attached to the URL whenever it’s shared. Dark social links, however, don’t contain any referral data.

Why should I be worried?

Only about 2-3 years ago, the main way internet users engaged with social media was by posting on public newsfeeds. Now, people have drifted into the more private channels. This is because online social media spheres tend to mimic offline friendships and groups. The smaller the circle gets, the more people reveal and are their truer selves. Facebook and Twitter are for public curation, whereas Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp are narrower sharing mediums, intended for private communication. Users are gravitating to these private platforms to avoid the feeling of social pressure and judgement that comes with online sharing.

Some of the hottest platforms today are also extremely sticky because they provide instant gratification, one-to-one messaging and rich visuals. It’s no wonder that they’re so popular, they drive communication that is really instant.

Private sharing though, is more difficult to track than content shared on public platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Many social media marketers don’t realise how much of an impact dark social has in the social media sharing world. But with 84% of all online referrals coming from dark social, it can have a huge impact on brands’ ability to gain insight into how their content, products or channels are performing. Without the all-important referral tag, the data gets lost, which means marketers have a harder time figuring out where their audiences are, which content is encouraging engagement and how users are interacting with the brand.

How can I take control of my data?

Traditional analytics tools were built for one-to-many marketing. However, it isn’t able to capture activity on these newer platforms, so you have to adapt.

Firstly, ensure you display social sharing buttons, with tracking links, prominently throughout your site and across all communications. This aims to encourages users to share content easily and thus reducing the amount of traffic that falls into the dark social bucket in the first place.

You should also take a look at your ‘direct’ traffic in your analytics programme. Filtering the landing page of this traffic will give you a good indication of users who landed on your homepage or top content pages are actual direct traffic. But if we take a look at the URL https://www.cookieshq.co.uk/posts/awesome-tips-and-info-shared-at-our-last-dbm-event-on-virtual-reality, it’s highly unlikely that somebody actually typed that into the address bar. So there’s a good chance that we can categorise that as dark social.

Neither method is 100% foolproof though and it still doesn’t help you in terms of where and how that content was originally shared.

But dark social can prove valuable

There is one thing to keep in mind – dark social social shares can actually be good for your brand. As the links are regarded as coming from trusted sources, the clickback rate on these kind of shares are typically high. If a family member or friend emails you with a link with a nice personalised message, such as “I think you’d love this!” chances are that you’re going to click on it – even if you don’t engage fully with the site. It effectively acts as word-of-mouth.

Dark social reflects the complex nature of the modern customer journey. The reality is that we’re all switching channels and devices throughout the day. Nothing is linear. This is why it’s just so difficult to accurately track dark social traffic. You can narrow things down and get a rough ideal, but it all just comes down to some educated guessing.